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Tough love at safety


Shawn Williams

If you're a safety looking for bouquets, you're in the wrong position group.

If you're a rookie looking for a few "attakids," you've got the wrong position coaches.

If you're Shawn Williams, you're locked in an intriguing mosh pit for the starting job opposite Reggie Nelson with veteran Taylor Mays and sophomore George Iloka and you can't start hanging skins on the wall just yet.

"It could be anyone and they're getting the same amount of reps. Zim is doing a great job rotating them in and out of there," said secondary coach Mark Carrier, nodding at his new assistant, Adam Zimmer, after Monday's practice. "It's a great competition."

Williams, the passionate pounder out of Georgia, looked to have a pretty good first week. On Sunday he turned in some of the biggest oohs and aahs in the Oklahoma Drill and on Monday he picked off backup quarterback John Skelton by executing the most basic code of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's dictatorial laws.

Right place. Right time.

But forgive Carrier and Adam Zimmer if they're not ready to crown Williams NFL Rookie of the Year. That's because Carrier was one back in 1990 as a Bears safety nicknamed "Hammer." And for Zimmer, well, tough love is in his DNA.

"Yeah, he had a nice Oklahoma Drill. He did a good job in the drill," Adam Zimmer said. "But how many Oklahoma Drills are you going to see in a real game?"

Carrier observed of the 6-0, 213-pound Williams's matchup with Michigan free-agent rookie Roy Roundtree, "He's going against a receiver that's 25 pounds lighter."

Don't get them wrong. The Bengals think Williams is a good player with a big upside. The coaching staff is one of the reasons the Bengals took him in the third round at a position they've been trying to fill for more than a year.

"I'm just naturally tough on safeties," said Carrier, the sixth pick in the draft named to three Pro Bowls. "And when I was a rookie I was treated like crap. So I'm going to be after him pretty good."

Carrier broke in with the remnants of the '85 Da Bears, one of the league's most storied teams. He can't remember having more than three conversations with his Hall of Fame head coach, Mike Ditka. Hammer was the leading tackler on that '90 defense that had two Hall of Famers in Richard Dent and Mike Singletary, but what he remembers are the veterans one day tossing him into the snow in his jockstrap after yanking down his shorts in front of the media.

Talk about a tough crowd.

"Oh yeah," Carrier said. "They were tough on rookies."

Let's see. Williams was born after Carrier was named Rookie of the Year and Iloka was born a month before Carrier left for his first training camp, when Mays was two years old. So the only Hammer they know is Coach Hammer.

He meets with Zimmer before every practice and they hammer out a rotation that doesn't give Mays, Iloka or Williams the upper hand, and Zimmer monitors it through the practice.

"Each guy starts out in a different period," Zimmer said.

None of the three are nifty enough to play cornerback, but they all bring a physical presence and good football sense to the position. Enough, it seems, that Mike Zimmer said before camp that he thinks the starter can come out of the trio.

With a year under his belt, the 6-4, 225-pound Iloka has taken huge steps to be a big factor in the mix and the 6-3, 230-pound Mays is looking to prove he can be more than a force on special teams.

And then there is Williams.

"He's actually doing some things better than I thought he could do," Carrier said. "He's got a lot of mobility. He can move back there. I knew he was going to do well in the Oklahoma. I knew that. When you watched him play in college, you knew he was going to hit people. He'll hit you, now."

But what Carrier is looking from Williams is to keep getting better at recognizing formations and plays. His Monday interception seemed to be a good step.

"It was a fire zone," said Williams, who stayed back while Mays blitzed. "I had the post in middle part of the field. I read it. We were blitzing, so I knew the quarterback had to get it out fast. I guessed to the side they opened up to."

Williams may not display the "swag" of a Dre Kirkpatrick, but he carries himself with a fiery confidence as a former team leader for the Bulldogs who once famously called out his teammates before an SEC showdown.

"I think I had a pretty good week," Williams said. "I started out knowing the system and knowing the plays pretty well. I just want to get better at something every day. I guess (Monday) it was getting out of my breaks on the ball and reading the quarterback."

Carrier liked it.

"He did OK. OK. It's a play he should have made. Good read. Good break and he caught it," Carrier said. "It's a play he should make."

The coaches thought he should have made the play on the goal line when 6-6 tight end Tyler Eifert launched over Williams to catch a touchdown pass. They didn't want to hear about a six-inch disadvantage.

"It's not like he dunked on him," Carrier said.

"He's got to get his hands through the arms and knock it out of there," Zimmer said.

It's truly a jump ball at safety. Usually the Bengals keep only four with six corners. But with Nelson, the three trying to join him, and special teams ace Jeromy Miles, it's a scrum. Miles has played some cornerback as well as possibly being the heir apparent to Dan Skuta as special teams captain, so the battle for the last spot is no doubt going down to the Aug. 31 final cut.

Williams would seem to be OK as a third-rounder, but Carrier doesn't want to hear about stuff like that.

"I expect you to make the play," Carrier said. "If I don't, then I have fewer expectations on you than you have."

Williams seems safe.

There's no snow.


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