GREEN BAY – Tramon Williams was there the last time the Packers’ defense made an about-face in 2009. A year later, guided by a new direction, a secondary flush with talent helped propel Green Bay to a victory in Super Bowl XLV.
Charles Woodson, the 2009 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, served as the emotional leader of a unit that posted back-to-back top-five finishes in total defense during those two seasons.
Safety Nick Collins, named second-team All-Pro from 2008-10, was at the peak of his powers when he picked off Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the first quarter of the Super Bowl and returned it for a 37-yard touchdown.
And then there was Williams, a former undrafted free agent and practice-squad player whose nine interceptions (six regular season, three postseason) cemented him as one of the NFL’s top cornerbacks.
Almost eight years later, the name plates surrounding Williams’ locker are vastly different. The 12th-year veteran was re-signed in March to help bring along a young, but talented, stable of defensive backs hungry to avenge a vexing 2017 campaign in which the Packers finished 23rd in pass defense.
Williams doesn’t use any u-rah-rah speeches to motivate the young corners. That’s never been his style. Instead, the thoughtful veteran tells them how things were in the secondary not that long ago and why he believes the current collection of defensive backs has the potential to take it to the next level.
“We’re trying to get it back to where it belongs,” Williams said. “We have had some great players over the years here and I tell them stories about it. I tell them stories about Charles and Nick and all of those guys and what we did. Not to live in the past, but to give them a little history lesson, plus at the same time, let them know that we can surpass this.”
Now 35, Williams knows he has an important role to play both in the current and future success of the secondary. It starts on the field, where few could have anticipated Williams playing at this high a level for this long.
Williams started at left boundary cornerback across from one of the league’s fastest players, Darrius Heyward-Bey, during Thursday night’s preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
When rookie quarterback Mason Rudolph telegraphed a short pass to Heyward-Bey on the first play of the game, Williams used his veteran savviness to jump the stop route, grab the interception and bring it back for a 25-yard touchdown.
The takeaway sent shockwaves through the Packers’ sideline.
“‘T’ is a freak, man,” said cornerback Demetri Goodson. “He’s 35, but seriously he plays like he’s 25 years old. If you look at him, he’s shredded. He does everything the right way. He eats well. He comes to work the right way. He’s a true pro.”
It was fitting a rookie Williams took under his wing this summer, second-round pick Josh Jackson, snagged a pick-six of his own in the third quarter of the eventual 51-34 victory.
The Packers have invested a lot of resources into revamping their secondary in recent years. Green Bay used its top two picks on Kevin King and Josh Jones during the 2017 NFL Draft, and then did it again with Jaire Alexander and Jackson this past spring.
To offset the youth in the room, the Packers brought back Davon House last year and then re-signed Williams after an eye-catching 2017 season with the Arizona Cardinals, where he started opposite perennial All-Pro Patrick Peterson.
Now a veteran of 167 regular-season games, Williams has racked up 610 tackles, 142 pass deflections and 32 interceptions during an NFL career that nearly defies logic given his background as a walk-on at Louisiana Tech 15 years ago.
Of the few cornerbacks who manage to play into their mid-30s, even fewer can stand on an island. While Williams has the versatility to move into the slot, the 5-foot-11, 191-pounder didn’t shy away from working on the boundary last year in Arizona and seems poised to do it again in Green Bay.
“He’s a beast,” Jackson said. “I look up to him. I just ask him as many questions as I can. He’s a great leader.”
The value of Williams in the locker room can’t be overstated, either. Working alongside position coach Joe Whitt Jr., Williams helped develop three Pro Bowlers – Sam Shields, Casey Hayward and Micah Hyde – during his first run in Green Bay.
Feeling as equally enthusiastic about the potential of Alexander, Jackson and King, Williams already is making his mark felt off the field in his second stint with the Packers.
“Tramon, I can't say enough about him,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “Not only is he a fantastic player and has been for his entire career as a Green Bay Packer, Arizona Cardinal and Cleveland Brown, but he's also a fantastic locker room guy. You can't have enough great leaders like Tramon Williams, and I'm glad he's back in the green and gold.”
The idea of reuniting with Rodgers and making another run at a Super Bowl ring sold Williams on returning this Green Bay. Now that he’s back, the former Pro Bowler is ready bring along the next generation of Packers cornerbacks.
“Not a lot of guys get a chance to come back and actually play,” Williams said. “Most guys get to come back and sign a one-day contract and call it quits.
“I get a chance to come back and play, and I’m really humbled by that. I don’t take it for granted. I’m going to try to do the best I can to get these guys back to the Super Bowl, where we belong.”