GREEN BAY – Two days after Tramon Williams made his first start at safety for the Packers, the veteran defensive back’s phone lit up with a call from a familiar number.
On the other end of the line was Charles Woodson, the eight-time All-Pro who shared a secondary with Williams for six seasons in Green Bay before making his own shift from cornerback to safety in 2012.
Woodson and Williams go back a long way. Members of the Packers’ Super Bowl XLV team, the two Pro Bowl cornerbacks combined to start 152 games together from 2007-12 until Woodson’s departure for Oakland in the 2013 offseason.
Woodson enjoyed a three-year renaissance patrolling the Raiders’ secondary, adding 10 more interceptions to his career ledger and being selected second-team All-Pro after his 18th and final NFL season in 2015.
Woodson, now an analyst for ESPN, occasionally checks in every now and then with Williams to see how he and his family are doing. This particular call, however, was strictly football.
“He just called me up two days ago, as a matter of fact, just to give me pointers on the safety position,” said Williams after Thursday’s practice. “It took him a couple years to get adjusted to the position and he gave me some tips on what to look for, different angles to take, coming from the corner position to the safety position (because) natural things for the corner to do is not a natural thing for the safety to do.”
Having played the position before in Cleveland, Williams said his routine wasn’t much different than normal going into his first start at safety against New England last Sunday, five days after Ha Ha Clinton-Dix’s trade to Washington.
For starters, Williams enjoyed being more involved in the overall defense instead of living on an island as he had as a boundary cornerback during the first half of the season. The trade-off is safeties are responsible for half, and occasionally, all of the field, compared to having a sideline to work off of.
The early returns were promising for Williams’ expanded role. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine praised his veteran defensive back for the support he provided downfield and how he crashed the line of scrimmage on a goal-line stop.
The only blemish was Josh Gordon’s 55-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter, where Tom Brady sailed a pass over Julien Edelman underneath. Williams said that caused him to change his angle and miss the tackle once the ball arrived to Gordon.
Besides that play, Williams felt he like was on top of tracking one of game’s very best quarterbacks from his place in centerfield, a confidence-booster for any defensive back at a new position.
“It’s really intriguing to me because I like to move around the field,” Williams said. “When you’re out there at corner, you know what your job is. You’re out here all day long with this one guy. That day, you may not be getting a lot of work, so it could get boring. This keeps you so engaged in the game, so I really like that.”
Like Woodson before him, Williams has been a portrait of availability throughout his career. The 5-foot-11, 191-pound cornerback has missed only five games due to injury dating back to his first NFL season in 2007.
He currently leads the Packers’ defense in playing time this season, playing 527 of 530 snaps. His experience and versatility were important for Green Bay against New England, especially after the defense was required to finish the game without cornerback Kevin King (hamstring) and safeties Kentrell Brice (knee) and Jermaine Whitehead (ejection).
Brice returned to practice Wednesday and was a full participant during Thursday’s padded practice, but King appears unlikely to play Sunday against Miami. Whitehead also was cut Tuesday.
While Williams appears to be settled in at safety, he also wouldn’t rule out possibly sliding back to cornerback, if needed.
“Possibility. Possibility,” Williams said. “I know every position on the defense. You could see me a little bit everywhere.”
The switch-up is reminiscent of the shift Clay Matthews made to inside linebacker at the midway point of the 2014 season, a comparison not lost on the six-time Pro Bowl linebacker.
After Sunday’s game, Matthews even approached Williams to ask him how he liked the move. Matthews found playing in space liberating, throwing some spice into what can otherwise be somewhat monotonous one-on-one pass-rush battles.
“I think he’s enjoying that, having some of that range to go make plays and break on the ball,” Matthews said. “He expressed to me how he felt confident last week making some of these breaks off Brady, who’s obviously the best in the business.
“I can’t say enough about a guy who’s in Year 12 who’s kind of taking one for the team, so to speak, to better us. We look for him to not only just fill the void but make plays. He’s consistently done that since I’ve been here.”
Asked whether he finds the addition of safety to his job description energizing at this juncture of his career, Williams can’t help but agree. Still spry and capable at 35, Williams has a 12-year vault of information and knowledge to put to use.
Williams also knows if he ever needs a few extra pointers, he has a future Pro Football Hall of Famer in Woodson who’s only a phone call away.
“It more came down to angles than anything,” said Williams of Woodson’s suggestions. “You have to be patient in the middle of the field and know those guys who are going to look you off, stay where you need to be, and then when they really commit to where they’re going to throw the ball, that’s when you go.
“He was giving me some tips, which was really good. I understood it when he was telling it to me.”