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Jets’ Quincy Williams is fast, focused and on the prowl for his next prey

Jets’ Quincy Williams is fast, focused and on the prowl for his next prey
By Zack Rosenblatt
Oct 11, 2023

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Quincy Williams sat at his locker in Denver before Sunday’s game against the Broncos and pulled up a video on his phone, a cheetah hunting a gazelle. He has the video saved. He watches it before every game.

That’s how he’s always described his play style as a linebacker: like a cheetah — the fastest land animal in the world — stalking its prey. He used to think it was all about that speed. No gazelle, no matter how fast, was ever going to outrun a cheetah, just like no one on a football field was ever going to outrun him. But then C.J. Mosley, his New York Jets teammate, changed his perspective.

 

Watch the video again, he told him. Pay closer attention.

“Do you ever see a cheetah just run as soon as he sees his prey?” Mosley said. “No, he’s calculating every single step, he’s trying to see which way he’s going, and as soon as he sees that spot, he’s hunting. I think that describes (Williams’) game. If his eyes are right, if he knows what’s going on, if he can anticipate plays, he’s going to be there every single time.”

When Williams first came to the Jets in 2021, claimed off waivers from the Jacksonville Jaguars after training camp, he was playing violently, and fast. But for every big hit or big play he’d make, there would also be missed tackles, mistakes in coverage or untimely penalties.

Not anymore.

That’s why that cheetah analogy works. Now, Williams is not just fast. He understands the proper way to stalk his prey.

“I think it’s a great analogy,” Jets linebackers coach Mike Rutenberg said.

Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson learned that the hard way Sunday, when Williams sacked him twice late in the fourth quarter. The second sack forced a fumble, which Bryce Hall scooped up and scored, clinching a win for the Jets and maybe saving their season after a 1-3 start.

 

It was a culmination of three years of work the Jets coaching staff invested in Williams after claiming him from the Jaguars, and all Williams has done behind the scenes to reach this peak. That led defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich to declare “there’s not a better backer in the NFL right now,” something he said before Williams’ season-altering performance against the Broncos.

Pro Football Focus grades Williams as the fifth-best linebacker overall and second in coverage, which Williams admitted was a weakness coming into this offseason. He’s first in stops, which PFF quantifies as tackles that constitute a failure for the offense. His missed tackle rate is down to 8.3 percent from 14 percent in 2022 and 12.1 percent in 2021. And he’s 10th among linebackers in splash plays, per TruMedia.

 

“He is a game-wrecker,” Jets coach Robert Saleh said Sunday. “I’m so proud of him. You talk about the players, they get thrown away and they try to find their way. He stuck to it, kept his head down, kept working and he’s found his way and we’re very fortunate that we have him.”

It didn’t happen overnight. This offseason, Williams picked Mosley’s brain to learn his process, about how he became an All-Pro linebacker, and how to start games quicker. He trained in Atlanta this offseason with Lily Abdelmalek, who has worked with some standout NFL and MLB players. He met with Jets team dietitian Nicolette Mense about eating properly so he can stay healthy for a full season. Williams said he worked in some defensive back drills to help improve his coverage ability. After three years in the Jets system, he finally had a complete understanding of his job on the field. This offseason, he started to learn about what the 10 other players on the Jets defense were doing, too.

“That goes back to a goal he had for himself,” Rutenberg said. “He started learning his job and keeping it about him and then he learned other people’s jobs and that allowed him to play faster and start to recognize what the offense was doing. It goes back to his approach: Learn his job. He perfected that craft. Then it was: Learn other people’s jobs, see how he fits in. And now he does a great job studying the offense too to see where he can help himself make plays.”

Rutenberg lauded Williams’ humility and ability to pinpoint the areas in which he’s lacking. Some days, Rutenberg said, Williams will create his own drills to work on something.

“That’s the cool part about him, to see his maturation,” Rutenberg said. “Where he has the humility to say: I want to work on this, and here’s the best way to do it.”

This was always the vision Saleh had for Williams, long before he even had the chance to coach him. Williams didn’t come into the NFL with the same level of hype as his brother, Quinnen Williams, whom the Jets drafted third overall in 2019. Williams played collegiately at Murray State, an FCS program, and didn’t really break out until his senior season. The Athletic’s Dane Brugler had Williams graded as an undrafted rookie, and he wasn’t alone. At the time, Saleh was with the San Francisco 49ers, who he said needed a linebacker.

 

Coach Kyle Shanahan told him: If you want a linebacker, go and find a Day 3 guy. Williams was on that list. But then Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell surprised many by picking him in the third round. Caldwell was fired in 2020, and Williams was cut by Urban Meyer’s coaching staff before training camp in 2021. The Jets had No. 2 priority on the waiver wire at that point — the benefit of going 2-14 in 2020 — and happily scooped him up. To the uninitiated, it looked like they were simply signing the brother of one of their best players, but that had nothing to do it — even if it didn’t hurt.

He was inserted into the starting lineup that year when Jarrad Davis got injured, and hasn’t looked back since. In 2021, he finished with 110 tackles, two sacks and three forced fumbles but missed 14 tackles and allowed nearly 10 yards per catch, per PFF.

“It didn’t start off fast,” Saleh said. “He was learning, but you could tell his length, his speed, his mindset, he was still trying to figure himself out.”

Ulbrich said Williams was a “raw” player when he joined the Jets, but was “absolutely willing to learn.”

Rutenberg doesn’t even buy into the narrative that Williams was a wild player before this year, more style than substance, which was the perception by many. The Jets linebackers coach points out that Williams played a different style at Murray State. He was in the apex, Rutenberg said, which is more of a hybrid safety/linebacker role. In the NFL, he became a “stack” linebacker, which is the more traditional positioning, behind the defensive line.

So Williams, Rutenberg and the Jets coaches put in the work to get him adjusted to a new style of play, and last year the worlds started to collide: The fast and hard-hitting part of his game — Williams considered Brian Dawkins and Kam Chancellor his football heroes growing up — conjoining with an understanding of where to be.

“We had the great fortune of getting him here and getting in this system where he’s able to get his superpowers and put them on repeat,” said Rutenberg, who was with the Jaguars when Williams was drafted. “You can see the success he’s having because of the work he’s put in.”

 

In 2022, Williams played well enough to get a three-year, $18 million deal in free agency, the Jets believing in his potential ascension to Pro Bowl-caliber player. That investment has already paid off handsomely through five games.

USATSI_21496362-1-scaled.jpg
 
Quincy Williams (56) celebrates after a tackle of Patriots WR Kendrick Bourne in Week 3. (Vincent Carchietta / USA Sports)

“I couldn’t be more proud of him,” Mosley said.

Ulbrich said Williams is “playing at an elite level.”

“It’s just so exciting to see for the young man, because he’s a guy who just works so hard at it, it’s so important to him. I know when he came here, it’s always hard when you get cut, especially by the team that drafted you … you can start questioning yourself. That’s just human nature,” Ulbrich said. “For him to come here and really just grind and put his nose down and work and prove it every single day with humility … it’s really cool. All the accolades, as well as he’s playing, it’s not by accident.”

The Jets needed a big play in the fourth quarter against the Broncos. Williams gave them two. The Broncos had the ball at their own 25-yard line with two minutes left, and after a short completion, a blitzing Williams sacked Wilson for an 8-yard loss. He celebrated with his signature upper-cut after the play.

Three plays later, Ulbrich sent Williams blitzing again, something Ulbrich has rarely done in his time as Jets defensive coordinator.

“As soon as that play was called,” Williams said after the game, “I already knew it was a sack.”

Williams chased Wilson out of the pocket, a cheetah stalking his prey.

“I ain’t worried about nobody outrunning me,” Williams said. “To be honest with you, I’m the fastest linebacker in the league. I say that very confidently and humbly.”

He got him, tackling Wilson at the legs as the quarterback fumbled the ball away. Hall scooped it up and ran it back 39 yards for a touchdown. When Williams got to the sideline, Rutenberg celebrated with him.

 

Recently, Saleh sent Caldwell, who drafted Williams, a text message with a photo of the player. The message:

“Hey man. You were right: He’s a good freaking linebacker.”

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20 minutes ago, hungry jackson said:

From the 2nd he got here he jumped off the screen.

Glad the Jets re-upped him.

 

GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO ! # 56 to the Pro Bowl 

First game I recall noticing him was that Titans game early in 2021. He was just a heatseeking missile all over the field. Hadn’t seen a Jet linebacker move like that in a long time. So cool to see him improve into one of the best LBs and harness that insane energy. 

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