Williams holding onto job

<b>PITTSBURGH - </b> After losing to the Steelers, 16-7, Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs said, "I think that is one of the best defenses I have been up against."

High praise, but he had to be blowing smoke, right? Doesn't a great defense need a shutdown cornerback?

After all, that wasn't Rod Woodson out there on one of the Steelers' islands Sunday. That was Willie Williams, who'll turn 34 years old the day after Christmas. That was the Willie Williams whose career peaked in 1995 when he tackled Lamont Warren to save the Steelers a trip to the Super Bowl, the Willie Williams who wasn't wanted in Seattle anymore.

Yeah, THAT Willie Williams.

"I don't think you need a shutdown corner," Williams explained. "You just need corners that can come in here and cover and understand the fire-zone defense. I think that's the whole key. If you can get two corners who understand what's going on, and the front seven will pressure the quarterback, that's Dick LeBeau's defense. So I don't think you need a shutdown corner."

But Williams has been exactly that while filling in for the injured Chad Scott. And it appears to be more than a temporary gig for Williams. Since he's moved into the starting lineup five games ago, the Steelers have gone from sixth to third in the NFL in pass defense. They beat New England, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Washington with Williams starting at cornerback.

Williams' name has rarely been called, although he did receive accolades for helping hold Terrell Owens to a season-low 53 yards receiving last month.

"He's doing some things that he did when he was here (before)," said secondary coach Darren Perry. "And when you get the experience, the game's not as fast, and you can tell it's slowed down for him tremendously. He just does some things naturally. When he was here, I remember lining him up, getting him lined up, talking to him on every play. Now he's back there like another safety with his communication skills."

That's why the Steelers wanted to bring Williams in for a workout last spring. With a young secondary, the coaching staff wanted a veteran and Williams' name was thrown around by Bill Cowher, Dick LeBeau and Perry, each of whom had either coached or played with Williams when he last played in Pittsburgh from 1993-96.

"I didn't want to be a part of it," Perry said of the decision-making process. "I knew I'd be a little biased. You try to look at it as subjectively as you can so you don't get the sentimental attachment that naturally comes with the guy that you played with, that you're friends with, that you're close to. You have to look at it objectively. The bottom line is getting the best players for our football team."

Because of the potential for bias, neither Perry nor LeBeau worked Williams out. That job fell to assistant DB coach Ray Horton. He passed Williams, and Williams has surpassed all expectations. And he just might keep Scott on the bench for awhile.

Of course, Scott, who hasn't begun practicing yet, and will need to work his way back up to playing strength once he does. The Steelers have time to make that call.

Is Perry surprised at what Williams has done?

"Yes and no," he said. "I didn't really get a chance to see him much at all in Seattle. I just knew he wasn't playing. What happens in this league, it's easy to get caught up in what other people are saying. If you get enough people saying, 'This guy can't play anymore. This guy can't play anymore.' Without looking for yourself, it's easy to get caught up in that. And I think that's what happened. People just thought he couldn't play because he wasn't playing in Seattle."

Williams was a free agent in Seattle, and the Seahawks made no attempt to sign him. But the phone call came from Pittsburgh, and Williams jumped at the chance to rejoin a familiar defense. With his help, that defense has become one of the best, at least in one Hall-of-Fame coach's opinion.

Williams himself believes this Steelers defense can accomplish what the '95 defense did. He sees similarities.

"Oh yeah, without question," he said. "We have an aggressive defense; we expect to win on Sundays; we're together playing as a team with chemistry. That's one thing about this football team. We're showing a closeness that we had in '95."

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