Poor Wesley Johnson. At a mere 297 pounds, he had no chance last Sunday at center for the New York Jets. Directly across from him crouched Raiders defensive tackle Dan Williams, a 327-pound run-stuffing specialist with most of his weight advantage located in the seat of his pants.
Johnson couldn’t move the mountain in the middle, and on the first play of the game, Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack sneaked in from the edge and laid out the Jets’ excellent running back, Chris Ivory, for a three-yard loss. Next time up was much the same for Ivory as he lost two yards on a smackdown applied by inside linebacker Malcolm Smith. Again, it was Williams who forced the implosion. Twice more in the Jets’ first series, Williams clogged the middle and the Raiders tossed Ivory for a loss.
Following the Raiders’ 34-20 win, the boxscore showed Williams with no tackles or assists, no quarterback hurries, no anything. Although it appeared he did little to help Oakland, Williams’ contribution to the Raiders’ defense this year will be long remembered by his coaches and teammates. He anchors the second-best run defense in the NFL entering Sunday’s game at Pittsburgh.
“Pushing back the center allows the other guys to make plays,” Williams said Thursday, sitting in front of his locker before practice. “It’s fine. They get a tackle, the Raiders get a tackle. That’s how I approach everything.”
Big Dan is in his sixth year out of Tennessee. The Arizona Cardinals selected him in the first round of the 2010 draft (26th overall), and he played there for five years before the Raiders signed him as a free agent during the offseason to a four-year, $25 million deal that guarantees him $15.2 million.
Pushing back the center allows the other guys to make plays. It’s fine. They get a tackle, the Raiders get a tackle. That’s how I approach everything.
Raiders defensive tackle Dan Williams
The idea was to improve a defense that last year ranked 22nd in the league against the run. It appears to be working.
Jethro Franklin, the Raiders’ defensive-line coach, attributes the team’s success against the run to its perfection of what he calls the “funnel effect.” Plug the bottom end, and everything is forced out. Williams right now does the plugging as well as anybody in football, dropping down with his massive hips and thighs to absorb the opposition’s manpower and open worlds of pursuit for his teammates.
“As long as you’ve got a great anchor, you’re going to have an opportunity to be successful,” Franklin said. “He holds down the inside run game – really controls it for us, and he gets great push on the pass rush. It’s an unbelievably important job that doesn’t get the credit or the accolades that the other jobs on the team receive. It’s not less important – it’s more important. It’s doing the dirty work that nobody pays much attention to that makes it all work.”
Williams’ importance doesn’t show up in the stat line, nor has it ever. He has only 16 tackles this year, and his career sack total stands at just two. But Franklin loves him in the funnel. He gave Williams as much credit as any Raiders defender for holding Ivory, who had been averaging 100 yards a game, to 17. The downhill runner, as the game unfolded, was forced sideways.
“He makes those backs check their feet before they can make that nice clean run through the line of scrimmage,” Franklin said.
If anybody’s body is perfect for nose tackle, it is the bottom-heavy Williams. His low center of gravity makes it almost impossible for opponents to move him one-on-one. They’d be better off blocking a redwood stump.
“Yeah, I’ve been hearing about it ever since I’ve been playing,” Williams says of his full figure and how it fits into his position. “It’s an ugly job. It’s some dirty work. Just keep your feet, keep your hands, keep pushing everything back, and you’ll have a defense that will be successful. So that’s my body type. I’ll take it.”
Linebacker Malcolm Smith probably benefits most from Williams’ ability to hold ground. Smith, also in his first year with the Raiders, is enjoying his finest NFL season. Through seven games, he leads the team with 56 combined tackles. He also has three sacks and an interception.
“He sets the tone,” Smith said of Williams. “He’s right there at the point of attack. Things kind of go off him. He does a great job taking up blockers and being disruptive in the backfield. I’m just running and making tackles without getting touched.”
Against the Steelers on Sunday, the Raiders again will face one of the league’s better running games, even without injured Le’Veon Bell. But no matter whom they play, Williams sees his defense getting better every week while he and other Raiders newcomers on defense such as Smith, Aldon Smith, Curtis Lofton and Mario Edwards Jr. get to know each other and the players who have been in Oakland awhile.
He sets the tone. He’s right there at the point of attack. Things kind of go off him. He does a great job taking up blockers and being disruptive in the backfield. I’m just running and making tackles without getting touched.
Raiders linebacker Malcolm Smith on Williams
“It takes a little time for everything to jell, especially when a whole bunch of guys haven’t really known each other or know how they play or their playing style,” Williams said. “Once we get more acclimated to each other, as we stay together and get used to one another, I think the results will be showing.”
They already are in the run defense with the 327-pound anchor.