EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ: For just a second, Leonard Williams hesitated. The first sack of his NFL career couldn't actually be this easy, could it?
Just after the Jets rookie fired across the line of scrimmage Friday night in New York's preseason matchup against the Atlanta Falcons, he picked his head up and saw Falcons quarterback T.J. Yates drop back three yards deep in his own end zone. He began to pursue when it suddenly clicked:
No one was stopping him.
"It was weird," Williams said. "It surprised me, but I'm going to take it."
Untouched, Williams met Yates in the end zone for the first sack, safety and game-changing play of his NFL career. The two points put on the scoreboard the moment Yates hit the turf sparked 28 unanswered for the Jets in the team's 30-22 victory. It was just the beginning of a dominant night for the sixth overall pick in this year's draft, too. Williams finished with five tackles, 1.5 sacks, three tackles for a loss and two quarterback hurries.
Not bad for his MetLife Stadium debut.
"It just felt great being out there and making plays," Williams said. "It felt great finally hitting the quarterback. We practice all the time and when we get to the quarterback, we have to ease up, so it finally feels great being able to not stop."
In the Jets preseason opener a week ago against the Detroit Lions, even though Williams got the start, he played minimal reps. The rookie was vocal this week in practice saying he wished he'd had the chance to play more and get in a rhythm. Sure, he got his feet wet against the Lions, but he never got a chance to start to swim. Just when he thought he was beginning to get going, he was on the bench.
Versus Atlanta, Williams got what he wanted and he rewarded the coaches for keeping him on the field. He was a force against the run, made whatever quarterback lined up under center miserable and displayed to all what led to him being labeled the best defensive player in the draft. When Williams was on the field, he had the Falcons reeling, and his teammates fawning.
"He's so young, he doesn't realize the potential he has," Jets offensive guard Willie Colon said. "He has that Richard Seymour-type body, that prototype body, and the sky's the limit for the kid."
That body is something Williams is still learning to use to his advantage. Since he became a Jet, he's spent countless hours with coaches who have worked to teach him how to use his long arms to his advantage. Sure, he's got speed and strength, but his arms allow him to get an advantage that others simply can't.
When Williams comes off his line, his ability to extend and separate himself from an offensive lineman can allow him to read a play, react, and then get to the ball carrier or quarterback. If he can perfect that, the sky's the limit for what he can accomplish.
"They tell me all the time I've got long arms," Williams said. "Coaches tell me all the time to come off the line from the ground up and just use my arms. There's still room for improvement and I'm going to continue to work on it next week."
The more Williams improves, the more nights he'll have like Friday. If he can continue to duplicate that performance, his teammates will continue to feed off of it. The USC product says that something he prides himself on. If his play can inspire his teammates to make something happen, well, that's as good as Williams doing it himself.
"I like (being an inspiration)," Williams said. "When I'm out there, even though I'm a rookie, after we break the huddle I'm trying to get the defense going. I'm still a rookie, so I can't do too much, but I definitely try my hardest to get the team going.