COSTA MESA, Calif. — You could see it coming because Marcus Williams took you there, forcing your eyes to focus on what was happening before it unfolded.
You read Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers because he read him. And when he started to move toward the sideline, you could see where the ball was going, and it became obvious the New Orleans Saints rookie safety was about to intercept the pass.
That's what happens when instincts and ability blend perfectly.
“He’s a really rangy guy. He’s back there, he plays pretty deep and he has the speed to come off the hash, either one,” Saints backup quarterback Chase Daniel said. “We haven’t been able to get a lot of vertical throws by him. Just for a rookie, I’d say his instincts are off the charts right now as a safety.”
These are the kind of plays the Saints have been in search of at safety for a few years. It’s what led the team to invest heavily in Jairus Byrd a few years ago, with the idea that he’d bring the ball-hawking skills that made him a star in Buffalo. That didn’t work out as hoped, and now Williams is trying to make good on his status as a second-round draft pick.
It’s too soon to know whether he’ll develop into the kind of player the Saints hope he will become. He might not even start in the base defense, since Kenny Vaccaro and Vonn Bell are on the roster. But his early progress should make him a key contributor, especially in three-safety sets.
“He’s smart, so he picks things up quickly,” coach Sean Payton said. “We just have to keep getting him reps. He’s someone that, when he’s around the ball, he has really good ball skills. I’d say he’s doing well.”
One thing rookies often struggle with early on is the speed of the game. The players are bigger, faster and stronger than they were in college. Rookie defenders are given a new playbook, asked to digest everything and diagnose what the offense is doing before it happens. There aren’t many moments when they’re simply on the field, relying on their instincts.
Williams isn’t immune to the difficulties of this transition. Things were happening around him at a rapid rate during the summer and early in organized team activities. But he’s starting to get comfortable. Things are slowing down. He’s processing information. He’s making plays.
But he also never felt like his head was spinning to the extent where he couldn’t trust his instincts.
“My instincts are always going to be there, regardless of how fast the speed of the game is,” Williams said. “It’s slowing down a lot for me, though, and I’m able to make those plays when I need to make them.”
Those instincts have always served Williams well. He used them to intercept 10 passes and defend eight others during his final two seasons at Utah, where he mostly played in single-high-safety schemes.
They showed up again in the first preseason game at Cleveland when he broke down on two underneath passes to prevent big plays. One came near the goal line and, with the help of P.J. Williams, he prevented a touchdown.
They're flashing again in this week’s joint practices with the Chargers. It’s one thing when that happens against the same team you practice against every day, as you start to learn its tendencies. It’s another when you do that against an offense you’ve never seen.
“It’s kind of better to go against a new offense. See what you need to work on, things you need to improve on,” Williams said. “Sometimes an offense can show you some things you haven’t seen from your own offense. That’s pretty good, knowing that you have to be in certain places that you can’t be with your offense.”
The key for Williams is to keep it going against the Chargers this weekend and through the rest of training camp. If he does, everything else will take care of itself — and you’ll be able to see it coming.