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P.J. Williams sticks with it, turns it around for New Orleans Saints

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He stayed with it.

There wasn’t much more that New Orleans Saints cornerback P.J. Williams could do, after having been given the unenviable task of playing nickel against the Vikings receivers in the first half of New Orleans’ game against Minnesota last Sunday night, and receiving a first-hand look at just how daunting that task could be.

Adam Thielen led the league in receptions entering the game, and Stefon Diggs had proven time and again to be a potent offensive weapon for the Vikings. And they showed it throughout much of the first half against Williams and the Saints, in what eventually became a 30-20 Saints victory at U.S. Bank Stadium.

They got leverage and separation and too often in the half, the sight was of Williams chasing: a 14-yard pass to Thielen and then a 31-yard pass to Diggs, followed by a 1-yard touchdown throw to Diggs – all on the Vikings’ first drive.

Then, a 13-yard pass interference penalty on Williams on Minnesota’s second drive, which also resulted in a touchdown.

But what the Vikings didn’t get from Williams, was his confidence.

The bounce-back is what led to Williams being named NFC Defensive Player of the Week, and is what will help him continue to try to progress Sunday, when the Saints (6-1) play the Rams (8-0) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

A second-quarter, combo tackle with linebacker Alex Anzalone, with Williams cutting down low and Anzalone crushing up high, against Thielen on a 4-yard completion that caused a fumble and allowed a recovery by cornerback Marshon Lattimore.

And a third-quarter, pick-six – Williams working against Diggs, capitalizing on his coverage and the pressure applied by the pass rush, to snap his first interception of the season and return it 45 yards for a touchdown and 27-13 lead.

“It was just an under route,” Williams said. “(Diggs) was running across the field, I was on him, I saw the quarterback through him. I was looking at the quarterback, I was on his back, saw the quarterback throw it and then I went and got the ball.”

“He had some big plays for us last week,” Saints Coach Sean Payton said. “Some things that we have to clean up, but he’s a savvy player and a smart player.

“(On the interception) he’s covering a shallow cross, the quarterback (Kirk Cousins) comes off of his progression, the shallow (Diggs) kind of then sits at the last minute and the ball’s thrown. P.J. has real good ball skills and so, in a very short area, he makes the interception quickly and turns it into a touchdown.”

Very quickly – about equal to the amount of time Williams had before learning he likely would be the Saints’ nickel cornerback for the rest of the season.

After starting at left cornerback against Atlanta in Week 3, and being part of a unit that had little success against Falcons rookie Calvin Ridley in the first half – Ridley caught five passes for 129 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, and finished 7-146-3 in the game – Williams was replaced by Ken Crawley, whom he had replaced in the starting lineup.

But on the opening series of the third quarter, starting nickel Patrick Robinson was injured and Williams returned to the field to play that position. Robinson went on injured reserve, and Williams has been there since.

Sunday against the Vikings, he showed how wide-ranging is the existence of an NFL defensive back.

“You’ve just got to go back to your technique,” he said. “Focus, trust the gameplan and make sure you stay playing hard because it’ll turn around eventually. You’ve just got to stay focused and make sure you’re using your technique.”

Now comes another significant task for Williams and the Saints’ secondary – dealing with Rams receivers Robert Woods, Brandin Cooks and Cooper Kupp.

“It’s going to be a nice test for us and we’re looking to execute the gameplan and make sure we get the win,” he said. “They do a lot of good things, catch a lot of deep balls down the field.

“They’ve got a great quarterback (Jared Goff) that gets them the ball and also a great running back (Todd Gurley). We’ve got a big test and we’re looking to make something happen.”

Williams was able to do just that against Minnesota, fighting through the early rough spots to help produce winning plays and earn his award.

“I’m definitely happy,” he said. “That’s a great accomplishment, definitely a good thing, especially when it came when I didn’t feel like I played my best game. It’s definitely motivation for me to be able to do that again some time.”

Saints 30 - Vikings 20(W)

New Orleans Saints 2018 Season

Michael C.  Hebert

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