"Our first outing against the Redskins we got a lot to improve on, but it was a good start," said Ravens assistant coach Joe Cullen when talking about his young defensive lineman. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
It wasn't nerves. Outside linebacker Tim Williams participated in two national championship games while at Alabama. He regularly played in Southeastern Conference venues that hold more than 100,000 fans, so the backdrop of a partially filled NFL stadium hardly gave him pause.
Yet, as he made his NFL debut in the Ravens' preseason-opening victory over the Washington Redskins at M&T Bank Stadium last week, Williams found himself gripped by a feeling that he hasn't experienced on a football field in a long time.
"Hesitant," Williams said after Monday's practice. "I just felt hesitant a little bit. I was just thinking too much about my assignments rather than going out there and just playing."
Williams, a third-round draft pick in April and part of the Ravens' offseason effort to resuscitate what was a dormant pass rush last year, has impressed teammates and coaches, and confounded some of the team's offensive linemen in practice with his speed and explosiveness off the edge. However, those qualities weren't evident against the Redskins after Williams was inserted into the game at rush linebacker in the third quarter.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees and defensive line coachJoe Cullen, who works with the edge rushers, agreed that the rookie looked tentative in his debut. Williams conceded as much and said he plans to play much looser and more instinctive when the Ravens face the Miami Dolphins on Thursday night at Hard Rock Stadium.
"It was my first NFL game and I was just getting my legs back under me," Williams said. "I haven't played college football in a long time, since we lost to Clemson. Just getting back out there into that environment, it felt good being out there playing, but I know what I can do.
"I always grade myself to a higher standard even when I go out there and make a lot of plays. It's just a learning curve. I'm trying to go out there and just play open and play free."
On his first play, he failed to set the edge in the running game, resulting in an 11-yard gain by Samaje Perine and a sideline tutorial from Ravens rush linebacker Terrell Suggs. He gained little traction toward the quarterback during the 23 snaps that followed, struggling to shed blockers and get around the corner.
Williams, who also played a few special teams snaps, didn't get his name on the stat sheet, prompting him to "go back to the drawing board this week" and review what went wrong.
"He didn't play as well as he wanted to play, and I think the fact that he's the first one to say that is good. That's what you want. You want guys to recognize it and get better, and he'll be working to play better the next time out," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Tuesday. "He's a young guy, he's developing and he's got work to do. He's working hard, he studies, he's into everything that we do. So I expect him to play well."
The 23-year-old was considered one of the best pure pass rushers in the draft. He had 19½ sacks over his final two seasons at Alabama. That the Ravens even had an opportunity to draft him with the 78th overall pick was a result of some off-field red flags — Williams admitted to failing multiple drug tests and he also was arrested on a gun charge in September — and on-field concern about how quickly he'd learn and adapt to an NFL defense.
Take away his tepid performance in the preseason opener and by all accounts, the transition is going well. Williams said he felt the Ravens were the right organization for him when he did a pre-draft visit with the team. He's continued to build relationships in the building since and Williams said he's appreciative of the fact that so many coaches and team officials have taken an interest in how he and his family are doing.
On the field in practices, Williams has certainly flashed an ability to get to the quarterback. In one practice, he beat projected starters Ronnie Stanley and James Hurst in a pass-rushing drill and then twice overwhelmed undrafted rookie tackle Roubbens Joseph. On one of the repetitions, Joseph didn't even get out of his stance as the 6-foot-3, 260-pound Williams flew by.
Those eye-catching moments, however, have been a little less prevalent in recent days as Williams has encountered the same problems that rookies are going through leaguewide at this stage of camp.
"As rookies go on, training camp gets long. They get tired and it's a lot more than they've ever done. But he's still going to be a really, really good player," Pees said of Williams. "The next three games are big for him and all those young guys. We need to know where they are. [Thursday is] a real big game for him."
Second-year pass rusher Matthew Judon acknowledged that Williams is a work-in-progress and still learning how to best employ his speed and physicality at the next level. He predicted that Williams will help the Ravens, who had just 31 sacks last year, the fewest in franchise history.
Williams currently sits third on the depth chart at rush linebacker behind Suggs and third-year pro Za'Darius Smith. Judon and rookie second-round pick Tyus Bowser are the top two at strong-side linebacker.
Williams obviously has to learn the myriad responsibilities of a rush linebacker, but the Ravens figure to simplify his role as much as possible during the regular season. Even at Alabama, Williams started just three games in his career and was used as a pass-rush specialist.
"Sacks bring everybody to their party. That's what I like to do. I get after the quarterback," Williams said.
Williams predicted that Ravens fans will see a better and quicker version of himself against the Dolphins.