The playbook of Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is sprinkled with elements from some of the great NFL minds, a list that includes Bud Carson, George Allen, Jack Pardee, Buddy Ryan, George Seifert, Dick LeBeau and Dom Capers.
“I’ve added stuff, a scheme or technique, from all of those guys, and it’s all kind of morphed into Gregg Williams stuff now,” said Williams, 58, in his third season with the Rams and 26th in the league. “It looks complicated. It’s not.”
The dominant theme through the formations and Xs and O’s can be summed up in one word: attack. Williams wants his players to “defend every blade of grass” with a relentless tenacity, to be aggressive at all times, to hit hard and put heavy pressure on the quarterback.
Don’t be afraid to make a mistake, Williams preaches. Think fast. Play faster. “A slow, correct decision is still wrong,” he says. Most of all, don’t just tackle an opponent, punish him. Impose your will. Leave a mark.
“This is not the PGA, this is not track,” Williams said. “We are playing in a contact profession, and we have to do it within the legal limits of what they say. But we are never going to apologize for competing and for being aggressive. You can’t.”
Unless, of course, you are essentially forced to, as Williams was in the spring of 2012, when he was implicated in the Bountygate scandal that rocked the NFL.
Williams took over a New Orleans defense that was tied for 26th in the NFL in points allowed in 2008 and helped turn it into the feisty unit that recorded 35 defensive takeaways in 2009, second-most in the league, and sparked the Saints to their first Super Bowl.
But an NFL investigation revealed that Saints players participated in a “bounty” program from 2009-2011 in which they were rewarded cash for “knockouts” or “cart-offs,” with the knowledge and participation of defensive coaches. Williams was suspended for a full year.
“I want to express my sincere regret and apology to the NFL, Mr. [Saints owner Tom] Benson and the fans for my participation in the ‘pay-for-performance’ program while I was with the Saints,” Williams said in a statement after his suspension.
“It was a terrible mistake, and we knew it was wrong while we were doing it. Instead of getting caught up in it, I should have stopped it.”
Williams was hired by the Rams in Jaunary 2012, right before his suspension. A year later, in January 2013, Williams was released by the Rams without having worked for them.
Sporting a new look — horn-rimmed glasses and a goatee — Williams was reinstated by the NFL in February 2013 and hired as a defensive assistant by Tennessee.
He spent one year with the Titans before reuniting with Rams Coach Jeff Fisher in February 2014. The two worked together in Houston and Tennessee from 1994-2000.
Williams declined to speak on the record about his role in Bountygate, how he tried to restore his reputation in its wake, or if he’s bothered by the fact that the scandal dogs him the way he wants linebackers to hound quarterbacks.
Like most NFL coaches, Williams is great at compartmentalizing, at working with blinders on, so it becomes easier to plow through another season despite the controversy attached to his name.
“I’m at the point in my career where all I care about is what I’m doing, where it’s at, who it’s with, and do we have the ability to win?” Williams said. “Those are the four Ws that control where I want to work. I don’t want to work with just anybody, because some people just don’t get it. And Jeff gets it.”
The Rams’ defense under Williams improved dramatically in the second half of 2014, ranking fourth in rushing yards (84.4) and fifth in points allowed (16.8) per game and tied for fourth in sacks (26). The Rams ranked 23rd in passing yards (254.1) and 20th in rushing yards (113.8) allowed per game in 2015, but ranked 13th in points allowed (20.6) and tied for 10th in defensive takeaways (26).
Though the secondary looked vulnerable at times in four exhibitions, the defense, led by linemen Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers and linebackers Alec Ogletree and Mark Barron, should be a strength for the Rams, who open the season Monday night at San Francisco.
“If we stay healthy, we’re going to be extremely fast,” said Williams, who had an unsuccessful three-year stint (17-31) as head coach of the Buffalo Bills from 2001-2003.
Williams’ strength as a coach is his flexibility; his ability to adapt his scheme to the skill sets of players instead of trying to shoe-horn them into a specific scheme.
When Ogletree broke his leg in the fourth game last season, Williams moved Barron from safety to a hybrid linebacker spot, even though the 6-foot-2, 213-pound Barron was undersized for a linebacker. Barron led the Rams with 116 tackles, 14 for losses.
“I’ve taken a safety and played him at linebacker, a cornerback and played him at safety, a defensive end and played him at tackle, a tackle and played him at nose,” Williams said. “Mark Barron is tough, he’s physically imposing, why can’t he play linebacker?
“We took a lot of criticism last year because we moved him to linebacker, and all he did was lead the team in tackles because he’s a find-ball, see-ball, get-ball kind of guy.”
Williams also allows players, usually the middle linebacker, the freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage. Working under Ryan — architect of the great 1985 Chicago Bears defense — as a coach at Houston in 1993, Williams learned that quarterbacks aren’t the only ones who can call audibles at the line of scrimmage.
Ryan trusted Mike Singletary, the former Bears linebacker and current Rams assistant, to change plays for the Bears. Williams gave Jonathan Vilma those powers in 2009, when New Orleans beat Indianapolis, 31-17, in Super Bowl XLIV. Ogletree will be that man for the Rams this season.
“I take great pride in that we played 64 plays in that Super Bowl, and Vilma checked 39 of them against Peyton Manning,” Williams said. “Everybody thinks Peyton is checking, but Vilma is checking against Peyton. There are a lot of coaches in our league who are afraid to give players power to check. I’m not.”
Rams General Manager Les Snead praised Williams for his “mental agility to adjust” to the talent he has and for getting the most out of players physically.
“He coaches hard,” Snead said. “He’s actively teaching, actively motivating, and actively … what’s the proper word for lighting a fire under butts? He’s aggressive and attacking in everything he does.
“The goal is that whatever happens on game day, that other team is going to be mentally and physically exhausted, and let’s see where the chips fall after that.”