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Ravens nose tackle Brandon Williams finally has game that matches frame

Says one NFL analyst: "Brandon Williams is one of the best run-stuffing defensive tackles in the NFL."

Across his upper back, Ravens nose tackle Brandon Williams has a tattoo of his last name that stretches wide enough to resemble the nameplate on his No. 98 jersey.

But because of his large biceps, barrel chest and stocky lower body, and because of how he has manhandled opposing centers this season, the 6-foot-1, 335-pound Williams would be easy to identify, even without the ink.

Midway through his second NFL season, Williams has become one of the highest-graded pure nose tackles in the league.

"Brandon Williams is one of the best run-stuffing defensive tackles in the NFL," said NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a former scout with the Ravens, Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles. "Strong, powerful at the point of attack."

The strongman from Missouri Southern has emerged as an anchor who controls the line of scrimmage. With Williams occupying blockers in the middle of the defense, inside linebackers C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith have remained free to run to the ball and become the team's leading tacklers this season, with a combined 143.

"Pretty much, he's a bully on the defensive line," Mosley said of Williams. "He sets the tone and he knows how to keep guys off me."

Behind Williams' power and bulk inside, the Ravens have been stingy against the run. They rank seventh in the NFL in run defense, allowing 90.4 rushing yards per game entering Sunday night's pivotal AFC North showdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"The emergence of Brandon Williams has a lot to do with our success and how we stop the run," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "Because of Brandon, offenses have gone to alternative means of running the ball: reverses, stuff like that and screens.

"They want to keep him off the field as much as possible. Nobody really lines up in base personnel and runs the ball anymore. With Brandon Williams, it starts right there in the center with him."

Williams also has shown the instinct and skill to regularly penetrate the backfield. He's tied for sixth in tackles (25) with strong safety Matt Elam and has a half-sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

"I'm just getting started," Williams said. "I feel good about what I've done so far, but there's a lot left to accomplish."

Williams had a career-high six tackles, including four solo stops, during a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, but arguably his best performance came during a blowout win earlier this month against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

In the first quarter, lowering his left shoulder to gain leverage, Williams discarded Buccaneers Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins before getting to quarterback Mike Glennon and splitting a sack with outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil. He finished with five tackles, one for a loss.

"I like Brandon Williams a lot," NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell said. "Light feet for a big man."

Immortalized in a YouTube video from college in which he is shown walking on his hands, Williams provides a unique blend of strength and mobility inside. He has bench-pressed as much as 525 pounds and did 38 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press during the NFL scouting combine, but he has remained agile and quick.

With Williams' size, durability and strength, he is well equipped to play nose tackle, a position that calls for collisions on virtually every play.

"It's something where you've got to be not quite right, because you get in car crashes every seven seconds out there on the field," Williams said. "It's something you've got to love, and I love doing it. It comes from a place that's a little crazy.

"There's definitely a switch that's turned on when I come out of that tunnel. I'm a nice guy off the field. I just do my job. I'm just getting started and heated up."

Williams is establishing himself in the Ravens' long tradition of effective nose tackles. Williams has been studying old game tape of retired nose tackle Kelly Gregg, a popular former standout who played a decade in Baltimore and had 548 tackles and 20.5 sacks in his career.

"I've been watching a bunch of tape my coaches gave me of Kelly Gregg to kind of learn his technique and what he's doing to add it to my repertoire," Williams said. "From what I've seen, he's a great player."

Now an Oklahoma City radio personality, Gregg, 37, has taken notice of Williams' progress this season.

"Big, strong kid. Definitely looks good," Gregg said. "Every week, you've got to know that you're not going to feel good on Mondays. The main point is to keep the blockers off the linebackers and eat up space, and he does that. You can't let guys get to the second level. You've got to stay square, and he's got the frame to do it."

Williams grew accustomed to doing the dirty work while attending Division II school Missouri Southern. His old summer job consisted of hauling and cleaning portable toilets. For exercise, he would hoist the toilets onto the flatbed of his pickup truck.

Raised by a single mother, Shelly Washington, who worked two jobs to support him and his brother, Williams was homeless for six months of his freshman year of high school. After he was a partial academic qualifier out of high school, Williams went to prep school in Cincinnati for a year before enrolling at Missouri Southern and becoming a three-time All-American and being named the Division II National Defensive Player of the Year.

The Ravens drafted Williams after he excelled in the Senior Bowl all-star game and was given a glowing recommendation by Midwest-area scout Jack Glowik.

"Williams is a stud versus the run game," said former NFL safety Matt Bowen, who writes for Bleacher Report. "I remember him flashing every practice at the Senior Bowl. If he played at a bigger school, he would have drawn a lot more hype. The Ravens got a steal."

After a quiet rookie season in which he played in just seven games with no starts, six tackles and one sack, Williams' improvement allowed the Ravens to shift Haloti Ngata from nose tackle to defensive tackle this year. Ngata has benefited from Williams' presence inside and is having a resurgent season.

"The thing about 'Big Baby' is he doesn't get comfortable," Ngata said of Williams. "He's always trying to get better. He's his own worst critic. He's always wanted to get better. When you play nose tackle and you're getting stats, you know you're a hard worker like Kelly was.

"Brandon's doing a lot of good things. He's real young but he's showing a lot of maturity and creating havoc and making it harder for running backs to make plays. He cuts the field in half. It's awesome to have him here."

Williams takes satisfaction in Mosley and Smith's strong play. Against the Bengals, they had 13 tackles apiece.

"That's what our defensive line does," Williams said. "When we see our guys making 13 tackles, that means they were able to run around and be free. We definitely feel good about our linebackers making those kinds of plays."

Signed to a four-year, $2.675 million contract last year that included a $515,000 signing bonus, Williams has been one of the Ravens' most improved players this season. That development hasn't come as a surprise to defensive coordinator Dean Pees.

"I think Brandon is playing really well," Pees said. "He's so improved from a year ago. We saw that stuff in training camp and were hoping that it would keep building through the season. And he's really playing very consistent inside.

"That's one of the things I like about him — maybe not quite as well last week as some of the weeks before, but still very good. And he's just been very, very consistent. That's what you need out of a nose guard."

awilson@baltsun.com

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Meet Brandon Williams

Age: 25

Hometown: St. Louis

College: Missouri Southern

Acquired: Drafted in third round (94th overall) in 2013

Size: 6 feet 1, 335 pounds

Year: Second NFL season

Career stats: Has recorded 31 career tackles, 1.5 sacks, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, including 25 tackles and one sack this season.

Background: Division II consensus All-American selection recorded 191 career tackles in college, with 52.5 tackles for losses, 27 sacks and six forced fumbles. Immortalized in viral YouTube video of him walking on his hands. Has bench-pressed 525 pounds.

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