BENGALS LT JONAH WILLAMS VS. BROWNS DE MYLES GARRETT
Williams, whose first six NFL games have been lost in the swirl of Bengals rookie quarterback Joe Burrow's record-breaking first six weeks, is quietly developing in splendid obscurity during a season that would land him a spot on an NFL all-rookie team if such a ballot included first-year players.
But two guys for sure are watching Williams. The two best tackles the Bengals have ever had. Anthony Muñoz, the Bengals Hall of Famer and greatest left tackle who ever lived, and Willie Anderson, the greatest right tackle of his time who should join Muñoz in Canton one day.
You can believe they're watching. And approving.
Muñoz: "I've watched the last couple of games and if the first couple were anything like that, I'd say he's having a good rookie year. I enjoyed watching him Sunday. You can see his work ethic. I liked his sets, his balance. I'm excited to see him play against Myles Garrett."
Anderson: "He's getting better every week. The Bengals do a lot of one-on-one pass blocking. Which is tough on the tackles. So when a guy like Jonah is not hearing his name called and not seeing pressure from his side, you can say pretty much he's doing a decent job. Myles will be a test for him. I would agree Jonah's better than he was when he faced him the first time. One of the key things in this game is how he does against Garrett. If Jonah can neutralize him, they'll be able to do more things offensively."
The big fellas know what's ahead Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Paul Brown Stadium. Garrett, maybe the best rusher in the league, a guy that currently has the NFL's longest streak with sacks in his last five games, is a load.
"He's something now," Anderson says.
Everything has been new for Williams, last year's first offensive lineman drafted with the 11th pick who basically lost his rookie year to a shoulder injury. He believes it's the first time in his life he's played a defender twice in the same season, never mind within 38 days. A stickler for study, the best guy to ask about Garrett this week is Williams.
"I think what he's best at is just being good at everything, you know what I mean?" Williams asks. "He has the speed as some of the faster guys in the NFL and can complement it with being one of the stronger guys in the NFL. It just comes down to being very disciplined in you technique and just going toe-to-toe with him."
Williams agrees he's a different player than the one that showed up Sept. 17.
"I think I have a lot more confidence, a lot more understanding of what it takes to be successful in an NFL game," Williams says. "I think that any quote on quote excuses of reps and that type of thing are all long gone right now. It's really just about executing my job and I think that having all this practice and live game reps has been helpful for me mentally.
"I think it helps a lot that we've already faced this team once. I kind of been able to learn his tendencies and that type of thing. That doesn't take away the fact that he's been a great player."
Williams is coming off what Pro Football Focus charted as his best game. Playing primarily against Colts defensive end Justin Houston, the savvy-10-year-strong-as-an-ox rusher whom came into last Sunday's game sixth on the active sacks list, Williams allowed no pressures on 42 pass snaps. Houston is still sixth on the list.
According to PFF, that effort moved Williams up to No. 24 among tackles for blocking and allowed pressures. That puts him a slot ahead of Browns rookie left tackle Jedrick Willis, Jr., his old Alabama teammate Cleveland took with the 10th pick this year. That's two slots ahead of Buccaneers rookie right tackle Tristan Wirfs, this year's 13th pick. The only 2020 rookie tackle ahead of him in the PFF rankings is the Niners' Colton McKivitz, a guy that has taken all of 14 snaps.
And Williams has allowed just one sack, PFF says, while Willis has allowed three and veteran left tackles such as the 49ers' Trent Williams (four) and the Eagles' Jason Peters (three, thanks in large part to the Bengals' Carl Lawson) and the Bucs' Donovan Smith (three) have allowed more.
"He's getting better every time he steps on the field," says Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan. "He's banking the experiences of every one of these pass rushers he faces. He's improving his play speed, his technique. All the things you'd expect him to improve. He's been a very solid performer."
Callahan knows something about offensive line play. Bill Callahan, his father, has been one of this century's NFL offensive line gurus and is the architect of Cleveland's No. 1 rushing attack as the Browns offensive line coach.
Brian Callahan has watched Williams pick up something new every game. A hand move here. A counter move there with a pass set. Maybe a counter-counter move with the angle.
In his debut against Chargers Pro Bowler Joey Bosa, PFF had him for three pressures on 45 passes. In that first game in Cleveland he allowed just one hit on Burrow and three hurries on 72 pass sets. And Garrett's game-changing play, a goal-line sack and strip, came inside.
Williams gave up one of the eight sacks in Philly, but came back the next week and helped shut down the speedy and athletic Jags rusher Josh Allen with just one pressure out of 41 snaps. He didn't allow one of the seven sacks in Baltimore and allowed just one hit of Burrow during the Ravens' blitz that occurred on nearly 60 percent of the 39 drop-backs.
"I think one of the reasons he's learning so quickly is because of the caliber of rushers he's facing," Brian Callahan says. "Those are things you learn the more and more you play as you start to see all these guys and the repertoires of their rush moves and he gets to cement his counter attacks. That part has been fun to watch. His growth has been good for us. We've gotten better and better at pass protection as the year has gone on."
There's no questioning the 6-5, 305-pound Williams' athleticism. You can see that on screens and when he pulls. Since he's not as massive as many tackles, such as Munoz and Anderson back in their days, you may wonder about his ability to handle the bull rush. But he showed he could effectively handle strength last Sunday against Houston.
"You can tell by the way he gets out in space how athletic he is and I've been impressed with how he takes his sets," Muñoz says. "When you have that kind of athleticism, you can make up for (lack of size). The lower you get, the more you can anchor yourself and that helps out."
Williams came out of Tuscaloosa with an impeccable rep for NFL study habits. But he's not going to get carried away by film. In the end, Callahan calls him a technician, and Williams wants to be true to that.
"I'll spend a fair amount of time watching tape," Williams says. "The other thing, too, is the ball is going to be snapped and that guy is going to be running off the ball and you just have to block him. I'm not going to stay up all night panicking about what he's going to do because at the end of the day your brain doesn't think that fast.
"He does something, your body is going to react based on your training. I'll study for a few hours leading up to this. I think the biggest thing is understanding your opponent in general and then work on technique. It doesn't matter what he ends up doing, your body is just naturally going to react to it."
Willie Anderson likes the sound of that because in his view, a tackle, or any player for that matter, needs to learn what he can do as much as his opponent.
"All your great linemen, they figure the game out, they become intelligent players," Anderson says. "A lot of people don't understand what that means for a lineman. It's understanding what technique you need for each play. We're asked to be damn near perfect 90 percent of the time. In order to do that, it takes a great focus, understanding your body. In another year or two he'll really understand his body and what his body type can do and what it can't do.
"Usually in the second or third year the really good ones figure that out and it becomes really hard to beat them because they understand their weaknesses and strong points. Yeah, Jonah's a rookie on the field, but he's been in the NFL for two years. But I think going back and forth between first and second year trying to figure out myself, I think when he does, he does a pretty damn good job of it."
As for Muñoz, he likes to see Williams go one-on-one.
"That's good. I'd probably say he would prefer not to have help if I can go from experience," Muñoz says. "That's how you get better."
No question, the big fellas are watching Williams on Sunday, the second edition of a long-running matchup.
"It's a good way to measure yourself," Muñoz says. "I'm looking forward to watching him."