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Ravens' Brandon Williams a leader of the NFL's new wave of athletic interior linemen

Ravens' defensive tackle Brandon Williams is introduced prior to the start of a preseason game against the Washington Redskins at M&T Bank Stadium on August 29, 2015.
Ravens' defensive tackle Brandon Williams is introduced prior to the start of a preseason game against the Washington Redskins at M&T Bank Stadium on August 29, 2015. (Matt Hazlett / Getty Images)

Make a list of the league's most prolific and well-known interior defensive linemen, and you'll find many play on a four-man front that allows them to focus on creating havoc in the backfield.

Visiting St. Louis Rams star Aaron Donald, the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year and a sure-fire perennial Pro Bowler, is among them for his gaudy sack numbers and game-wrecking highlights.

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Just as impactful, though, is Brandon Williams, who in his second year as the Ravens' starting nose tackle in their three-man front makes his presence felt without the glossy production.

Williams is his own kind of prototype, making an impact despite living in a constant state of double teams, and is the Ravens' answer to the new generation of impactful interior defenders.

Massive Baltimore Ravens nose tackle Brandon Williams is ready to carry on the franchise's legacy of dominant interior defenders.

"It's a big part of today's game," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "You look at the talented guys that are playing defensive line in this league, and the interior guys, and there's a lot of [them]. They're better than ever between the tackles."

Sunday's game between the 2-7 Ravens and the 4-5 Rams will feature two of the best around, however different their responsibilities are. Donald is a centerpiece in the Rams' 4-3 front, which features four linemen and three linebackers. Williams plays as a nose tackle in the Raven's 3-4 defense featuring three linemen and four linebackers.

But however they're lined up, accounting for a dominant presence on the interior of the defense is something Harbaugh and Rams coach Jeff Fisher both get to enjoy on their team and fret about the other come Sunday.

"Offenses are really going to have to game-plan against players like that," Fisher said.

Differences

Williams, who went from bit player to steady starter to blossoming star in three years, is required to do more than just bomb into the backfield and get after the quarterback like Donald, who has six sacks this season.

His job requirement, on most every play, is to beat multiple blockers and clog the middle of the field so others can make tackles and record sacks.

Williams' silent contributions on the inside have helped the Ravens tie for a league-best 73 sacks since the start of 2014 and a second straight season as a top-10 rushing defense. He has plenty of respect for the 4-3 defensive tackles who have become stars, but sees his role as more versatile, and thus more difficult.

Sure, Ed Reed says, he likes being honored. But, much as he used to pop up in unexpected places to snatch interceptions, the former Ravens great comes at the subject from an oblique angle. Asked what he might reflect upon when he becomes the ninth Raven inducted into the franchise¿s Ring of Honor on Sunday, Reed does not mention his record 107-yard interception return from 2008 or the pass he picked off in Super Bowl XLVII, his last game as a Raven. Instead, he goes back to his rookie season in Baltimore and his decision to switch ¿ financial advisors? As with many of the things Reed says, there is a powerful roundabout logic to this.

"The difference between what they do and what I do, I'm taking on a lot more blocks," Williams said. "They're just taught to get up the field, rush up field no matter what down it is. Mine's more methodical. I feel like they just teach one thing. We know multiple things — we can do more than just run up the field. We can play blocks, we can do schemes, we can do stunts and stuff, all that. That, I think, is the biggest difference."

But he has shown with his increased pass-rush productivity that he has the same skills as 4-3 rush defensive tackles like Donald. Only one subset of defensive tackles is supposed to get that glory, and Williams isn't part of it.

"They're just meant to do it, but we kind of create our plays and our opportunities," Williams said. "Whether I get double-teamed, I still create a mismatch where I get skinny in the double team and blow up the backfield, beat a block or something like that.

"I'm not saying they're not athletic — they're an athletic group of guys — but if they came over here and had to do double teams and all that stuff, it would be a lot harder for them than for me to learn how to just get through [the line]."

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Development

That Williams is able to tout his versatility in comparison to the game's best interior linemen is a testament to his work and the coaching staff's stewardship since he arrived in Baltimore.

A developmental third-round draft pick out of Missouri Southern State in 2013, Williams waited his turn and played sparingly as a rookie before becoming a starter in his second season. He quickly became the highest-rated nose tackle in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.

It has been more of the same this year, with Williams being the best player on the field in several early-season games. He's seventh on the team with 32 tackles, and tied for fifth with what's already a career-high two sacks.

No game this year shows how far Williams has come in his standing within the defense more than the Week 8 win over the San Diego Chargers.

Against San Diego in 2014, the pass-happy Chargers kept the Ravens' base defense on the sideline, instead forcing them to keep an extra defensive back on the field in lieu of a lineman. Williams played just 13 of 72 snaps, was sacrificed for better pass rushers and didn't record a tackle.

When quarterback Philip Rivers' bunch visited Baltimore this season, the same game plan applied. The Ravens were rarely in their base defense with three down linemen on the field, but now the personnel groups with two linemen include Williams. He played 45 of 67 snaps and made just as big of an impact as he has all season.

That the Ravens were able to leave Williams out for so much of that game, still control the run and pressure the pocket with one less big body is the progression defensive coordinator Dean Pees wanted to see from the tackle.

"You really kind of want to get everybody to that level," Pees said. "I think he has done a good job of coming along and doing more and more for us."

Tavon Austin (Dunbar) returns to Baltimore with the St. Louis Rams to play the Ravens.

"He's definitely taken the next step," veteran defensive end Chris Canty said. "He's cleaned up some things as far as technique-wise and the run game. He's developed some things in the pass rush, which is a welcome surprise. The more opportunities he gets, the more opportunities that he's out there on that football field, he's going to continue to figure it out and continue to improve."

For Williams, that means developing the kinds of skills that the high-profile defensive tackles are known for. Because he has to rush the passer more, he has developed those skills. On his sack in Week 5 against the Cleveland Browns, he stunted around rookie Carl Davis and sacked Josh McCown. Last week against Jacksonville, he tossed Jaguars guard Zane Beadles aside with a power move for another sack.

Williams refers to pass rushing as one of his weaknesses and something he really hasn't had to do before, but said the new emphasis has led to improvement. Williams will never forsake his strengths in run defense, but the route to being noticed around the league — and the free-agency dollars that come with it — is through getting to the quarterback.

In his most in-depth comments since his injury in late July, Ravens rookie Breshad Perriman vowed to move beyond this year's disappointment.

Of the last 17 Pro Bowl interior lineman, only five have played defensive tackle in a 3-4 scheme, including former Ravens star Haloti Ngata. Well-known tackles like Donald, Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy and Geno Atkins have been staples in the game, all coming out of 4-3 defenses that focus on their pass-rush abilities.

Canty acknowledges that in the Ravens' scheme, Williams "doesn't get the opportunities other players do rushing the passer." Williams, however, knows that's the next step to earning league-wide recognition with something like a Pro Bowl berth.

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"I hope the coaches would say I've come very far," Williams said. "I feel like I'm trying to put myself in the best position possible to be on the field as long as possible. That goes with practicing hard and working on those little things, pass rushing ability and moves, quick feet instead of just taking blocks, and double teams and all that stuff. Instead of being the anchor, being more mobile and moving around a lot more.

"That's what the coaches teach me, and that's what I work on."

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