For New Orleans Saints defensive back P.J. Williams, Sunday's regular-season finale against Carolina at Bank of America Stadium is an anniversary game.
One year ago on the NFL calendar – Week 17 of the 2019 regular season – Williams stepped in and started at safety on the road against the Panthers, the first time the then five-year veteran had started at that position since his senior season at Vanguard High in Ocala, Fla.
He'd at least had a practice run at it the week before, when, due to injuries and attrition, he'd taken some snaps during practice just in case he'd be needed in the game against Tennessee. Turns out, he was: Marcus Williams was injured during the game, P.J. Williams slid over from cornerback to play a significant portion of his 56 snaps, and New Orleans was no worse for the change in a 38-28 victory.
A week later, the Saints hammered the Panthers 42-10 in the regular-season finale, with P.J. Williams starting for Marcus Williams and playing all 71 snaps on defense.
This year, enough of P.J. Williams' work in the secondary has been at safety that there's no shock value at all. He started at free safety for the injured Marcus Williams (ankle) in New Orleans' 52-33 win over Minnesota on Christmas Day, and likely will start there again for the second straight game – Week 17 against the Panthers, in Charlotte, N.C.
"Last year was my first time playing (safety) for a long time," he said. "So this year, (I'm) a whole lot more comfortable as a safety, getting a lot of practice reps. And then some game reps, and then last game playing the whole game. So it's definitely a lot more comfortable.
"But you've just got to make that transition where you're going from one position to the next. As far as your discipline, and knowing the things you need to know to be able to be successful."
"Transition" is the key word for Williams. He started at cornerback this season, too, against Detroit when starters Marshon Lattimore and Jackrabbit Jenkins were out due to injuries. That's the position he has played for the overwhelming majority of his career, and still can when New Orleans goes to its sub packages (he was the nickel in the Saints' second game against Atlanta, after Patrick Robinson exited with an injury).
"I just feel like, even if I'm not in the rotation or not starting, I'll be making sure I'm preparing like a starter," Williams said. "They coach us up big on making sure we are preparing like a starter. But then also, just me, just playing in different places, I have definitely got to stay ready. So you have to be on point."
Teammate Malcolm Jenkins can relate.
Jenkins began his NFL career as a cornerback for the Saints in 2009, before moving to safety the next season and remaining there for the next 11 seasons.
"It's tough because everything changes from the things that you see, what you have to see, your eyes, the angles of the game change," Jenkins said. "So it's a bit of a transition, but when you're a guy who's in that backup role and you're versatile, that's a very, very important job, and you've got to know kind of all these different spots and makes you more valuable to the team as well. So it's a little bit tough, but we're not asking P.J. to do a lot based on our lineup and the depth that we have."
What he is being asked to do, he's handling well.
"Those instincts allow that," Saints Coach Sean Payton said. "There are a lot of players that play well, but don't have those same instincts. But they allow him, and players like him, more flexibility. He's got good football awareness."
Williams, a year after making his first NFL start at safety, knows exactly how he fits in for New Orleans.
"We always have that next man-up mentality," he said. "So I feel like, offensively and defensively, that's our mind-set. And that's always been our mind-set here, even with Covid, like, even more this year – just knowing it's an opportunity for somebody to go down and be out for a week or so. So, that's definitely our mind-set and even more this year."