EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – It was right at this juncture in the 2020 season when Leonard Williams became one of the most productive and destructive defensive linemen in the NFL.
Williams had a 14-yard sack of Kyle Allen among his five tackles and two quarterback hits in a Week 6 victory against the Washington Football Team. That began a seven game-stretch in which Williams had 6.5 sacks and 20 hits and earned the first of his two NFC Defensive Player of the Week awards in the final five games. Williams finished the year with a career-high 11.5 sacks and a Giants-record 30 quarterback hits.
Because Williams hasn't collected statistics in the first five weeks of this season at the same pace, coach Joe Judge and defensive coordinator Patrick Graham have fielded questions about why the versatile lineman hasn't been the player he was then. But by most measures – tackles, sacks, tackles for loss, and quarterback hits – Williams is right at or slightly ahead or behind his numbers entering the sixth game a year ago:
2020: 11 T, 8 A, 19 TT, 2.0 SK, 19 YDS, 4 TFL, 4 QBH
2021: 10 T, 16 A, 26 TT, 1.5 SK, 6.5 YDS, 2 TFL, 4 QBH
"We talk about having a fast start in football, which is what I would want ideally," Williams said today. "But it still takes me, and I think teams in general, about three or four games to really find their identity as a team, find their identity as a defense, as an offense, and even as a player. I think sometimes I just get a little bit more comfortable with reading stuff, with understanding my game, and how offenses are attacking me. Eventually, it just helps me play a little bit better in the stretch."
Despite the numbers, the public narrative is Williams isn't pulling his weight on the defensive front. Williams believes one reason is the lucrative contract extension he signed in the offseason.
"People want to find a reason to create a story that I played hard last year because it was a contract year, and now, I don't care about football anymore because I got money," Williams said. "I've heard it all. I've never cared about the money. Since my rookie contract, I've had enough money to retire if I want to. That's not the reason why I play this game. I play this game because I love to win. I love to compete. I love to be in this locker room with my boys and figure out ways to beat our opponent. I'm still working hard every day. I'm still trying to get the numbers. Obviously, the personal stats will, in the long run, help my team, but I'm not going to press. I'm not going to start playing differently. I'm not going to let some outside noise affect my game."
Graham is confident it is Williams who will soon make the noise.
"It's early in the season," Graham said. "Anytime a player like that – disruptive, the history – when you go back and evaluate especially as the coordinator, it's like, alright, I've got to find spots for this guy. I've got to figure it out, put him over the people that you perceive as the weaknesses, so it starts there schematically, doing a better job there from me. And then for him, it's definitely not a lack of effort, I know that. He's playing hard, he's working hard in practice and sometimes you just hope it comes in bunches at some point."
Judge said opposing teams pay more attention to Williams after his stellar season.
"I've definitely seen some extra attention to Leonard, and that's a respect thing," Judge said. "I think when you have a guy like that, you get more double teams. You get more slide protection to you to make you handle more things in the pass protection."
"As a competitive player and someone who's serious about my game, I never want to use something like that as an excuse," Williams said. "There's definitely a lot more double teams, a lot more attention going my way. Sometimes, I watch film and there's almost two or three guys on me at times. I don't complain about it. I just have to figure out a way to beat it."
It's not solely his responsibility. The coaches also plot how they can help Williams escape the company he attracts on the field.
"Leonard does a good job of moving to different spots and being versatile in how we use him," Judge said. "He prepares with a great attitude. He's a great teammate. We're happy to have him here. In terms of some of the number production, we're really looking at being effective in the run game and then disruptive against the pass game, so we have to keep on moving in that direction."
Williams believes he already has.
"I feel like the same player," he said. "My coaches are telling me that they love the way I approach work. I never take days off no matter what, even if I'm banged up, nicked up. I'm in year seven, and I know guys that I played with in the past that in their year seven if they had a hurt hand or something, they're going to take a practice off. I'm not like that. I'm not that type of guy. Coaches love the example that I bring to work every day.
"As far as the production, I don't feel like I'm far off at all. I compare myself to other top defensive tackles in the league that I respect in the league. It's not because I think that I have low numbers, or if I have high numbers, it's just if you were comparing yourself to the other top guys in the league, you obviously want to see where you are compared to them, no matter how good you are, or not, doing. We're all right there in the same area."
On Sunday, Williams will get an in-person look at the player universally acknowledged to be the best D-lineman in football, the Rams' Aaron Donald, a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
"He's obviously a guy that for the past few years of his career has been given that attention, and he's found a way to still be productive with the double teams and with the attention," Williams said. "That's the reason why I say I don't want to make excuses or anything like that. It also goes to show sometimes, players will go play with Aaron Donald and have better careers as well."
In addition to his all-world ability, Donald is admired for his relentlessness on the field. It's a trait that Williams tries to emulate.
"I obviously want to be around the quarterback a lot more, that's regardless of how many sacks I have," he said. "I could have 10 sacks right now, and I could say, 'I want to be around the quarterback more because that's going to help my team.' The more pressure I get on the quarterback, the better situation our defense is going to be in. Obviously, I want to keep getting back there."
Sunday afternoon should be right on schedule to do exactly that.
View rare photos of the history between the New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams.