Motivation, accountability and attitude all play a crucial role in defensive football. It goes deeper than schemes or game plans or matchups.
Take the Tennessee Titans this season. They are a 3-1 football team that has completely changed the way they play on the defensive side of the ball, creating turnovers, sacks and pressure.
This is a nasty defense. A physical defense. Turn on the film and watch it for yourself.
And Gregg Williams has played a major role in this turnaround in his first year back in the NFL after serving a one-year suspension for the bounty program in New Orleans.
The senior assistant/defense for Tennessee has this unit playing with a style that reminds me of the two years I spent with Williams in Washington as a defensive back.
But how can one coach cause such a dramatic change?
Here’s my inside look at Williams, his scheme and the attitude he can bring to a football team.
Accountability Is the Key
Williams had three rules written up on the chalkboard in his defensive team meeting room:
- Be on time
- Touch all lines
- Buckle your chinstrap
That’s it. Be accountable for your actions.
Within five minutes during that first meeting, I knew this was the guy I wanted to play for. He commanded that meeting room, spoke with supreme confidence and let us know right away that things were going to change at Redskins Park in Ashburn, Va.
Hey, Williams can coach. He can motivate. And he absolutely demands accountability from his players. Forget contracts, where you were drafted, etc.
Miss tackles? Bust coverages? Give up plays over the top? Well, then you are probably going to sit. And I’ve been there after giving up the deep one.
That isn’t fun.
But we needed that type of change as a defense after a 5-11 record in 2003 under Steve Spurrier. That season, we lacked structure and discipline. There was a lot of talent on that roster, but there was a disconnect that existed every day in practice settings that could have been mistaken for junior high recess.
Not with Williams. Nope. We were challenged every practice and expected to produce. He ran the defense like a head coach under Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs.
I bought into his style of coaching immediately, and I believe the majority of my defensive teammates did as well.
We were hooked—and it showed with our play on the field.
That defense was smarter, faster, more physical and welcomed the challenges of playing in Williams' scheme.
Williams’ Motivational Skills
It would be irresponsible of me as a writer to sweep the bounty program under the rug. The player-run program existed in Washington, and it was a part of our defensive culture.
I wrote about it back in 2012 at the Chicago Tribune and took some major heat in doing so. But I don’t regret writing it, because inside the text (once you looked past the headline), I hoped to convey the message that Williams is an excellent motivator outside of the bounty talk.
Williams knows how I feel about this based on our conversations since I retired in 2007, and that includes the discussion we had the night I filed my bounty column to the Tribune.
I would have run through a wall for this guy. And I probably still would today if he showed up at my front door.
His ability to get the most out of his players is second to none, and I believe we are seeing that right now in Tennessee. This isn’t a unit stacked with Pro Bowl talent, but they are playing together at a Pro Bowl level.
That’s buying into a certain style of football. It’s an attitude than comes from the top. And it’s a beautiful thing when everyone is on board.
The “production chart” was the first thing you saw on the wall when you walked into our defensive team meeting room.
It listed the name of every defensive player and their stats. How many tackles did they have? Ball disruptions? Forced fumbles? Pressures? Sacks? Interceptions?
It was all there for everyone to see.
Produce and you play. It was that simple under Williams. He didn’t cater to favorites, and he had no problem sitting you down if the production wasn’t there.
Have an issue with the number of minutes you are seeing on Sundays? Then go look at the chart. That will tell you the story.
Because of Mr. Snyder's ability to bring in free agents and the draft, our roster had a tremendous amount of turnover that first offseason under Williams.
We brought in cornerback Shawn Springs, linebacker Marcus Washington, defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin and drafted safety Sean Taylor in the top 10 after trading away Pro Bowler Champ Bailey for Clinton Portis.
We cleaned out the locker room and, well, started over, to an extent. And we needed a defensive coach, a defensive leader to bring it all together.
That was Williams.
You'd Better Have a Notebook
Williams’ scheme is complex. Multiple fronts, coverages, pressures, personnel packages, etc. There was a lot going on there. A defense that went deeper than anything I had experienced as a player.
Because of that, your notebook was a vital piece of property that went everywhere with you.
His meetings reminded me of college-level courses that combined chalkboard sessions with film work. I still have the notebooks from my time in Washington, and they are filled with concepts, blitzes, coverages and so on.
We covered everything in our game plans. From gadget plays to what to expect on 3rd-and-2 through 3rd-and-6 based on field position, alignment, personnel, wide receiver splits and the depth of the running back. We went into games ready to play versus anything the offense could throw at us.
And that film work was so detailed.
I thought I knew how to study tape, but that wasn’t the case. Under Williams, I really learned the NFL game. Instead of “watching the tape,” I let the film tell me a story.
The meetings were no joke, and we were tested every day when the film started rolling. Williams had no problem putting you on the spot to answer questions, identify concepts or offensive schemes.
Monday Film Review
Williams wouldn’t allow us to relax or think we had arrived as a defense. Even on Mondays after a great defensive performance, he would start our film review sessions by showing cut-ups of the plays we busted on. And he had no problem calling players out.
I liked that. I did. Even when I was the guy being shown up on the screen for taking a poor angle or missing a tackle, I felt this was pro football. We got paid to play a game. And when the play on the field wasn’t up to Coach’s standards, well, then it was time to get corrected.
I remember a game in 2005 when we beat up on the San Francisco 49ers in Frank Gore’s rookie season. Late in the second half, Gore cut back versus Cover 2. My job on that play? Run the alley and make the tackle.
Instead, I took a brutal angle to the ball and created a clear running lane for Gore to get up the field. I looked slow and hesitant on the film trying to recover down the sideline. And it cost us six points.
Williams must have rewound that play at least five times to show how poorly I looked. That was a rough meeting for me, but I didn’t take it personally, nor did I leave the room upset. Heck, I deserved it after what I saw on the film.
And every meeting carried the same tone. We weren’t in there to throw high-fives or hand out trophies.
You were expected to do your job.
“Every Day Is an Interview”
That was Williams’ favorite line.
In Washington, that meant we were evaluated every day in the meeting room, training room, weight room and on the practice field.
With Williams, we would condition before practice. Up-downs, sprints, ladders, etc. Think of a conditioning drill that might make you puke, and I bet we did it.
And they were all filmed.
During training camp, we would watch tape of our entire defense doing up-downs in full gear in the humidity of Virginia. Skip a rep or cheat the drill, and everyone would see it.
Our practices were fast, they were detailed and you were expected to play within the scheme of the defense.
It didn’t matter if it was a Wednesday afternoon practice or Saturday morning walk-through. When the film was rolling, you were being graded on stance, alignment and responsibility.
No free passes with Williams.
Pressure, Pressure, Pressure...
In our first game with Williams, we went after Jon Gruden’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers at FedEx Field.
That game plan was absolutely loaded with pressure schemes, and I blitzed all day against quarterback Brad Johnson.
Williams dialed up pressure in every situation. Attack the edge, the inside A gap, use overload pressure, etc. Whatever it took, we sent the house that day. We even had a blitz named “Chucky” for Coach Gruden where both cornerbacks came off the edge.
Crazy, complex stuff.
Yes, this can be Williams’ downfall when he gets too aggressive in the game plan. That has shown up before when he was coaching in New Orleans. Blitz too much and you can hang your defensive backs out to dry with no help anywhere on the field.
We were a Cover 4 team with Williams in our base looks back in Washington, and the Titans are showing more Cover 2 on the tape.
But at the core of any Williams game plan is pressure. It can be exotic with the disguise, or he will have his guys line up in a blitz look and dare the offense to stop it. If he could, Williams would blitz fans out of the stands.
A great scheme. And one that is fun as hell to play.
What’s Next for Williams and the Titans?
I know Williams isn’t the defensive coordinator in Tennessee. That’s Jerry Gray’s job. But watching the tape and seeing how this defense has come together to play at high level the first four weeks of the season, Williams’ fingerprints are all over this unit.
With quarterback Jake Locker out for an extended period of time after suffering a hip injury, the Titans defense will have to carry this club, continue to force turnovers and create scoring opportunities for backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
That’s adversity in the NFL. It happens all over the league. Along with Gray, Williams will have this defense ready to embrace that adversity, because defensive football isn’t played in a box. There are so many factors that go beyond talent and scheme when running a productive unit.
And coaching it at the top of the list.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.