Mike Williams, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' second-year receiver, was in the starting lineup on Day One of his NFL career. A fourth-round pick out of Syracuse in 2010, Williams quickly won the job of 'X' receiver in the Buccaneers' offense and just as quickly emerged as the team's top wideout.
Since that opening day of 2010, Williams has played in all 30 Tampa Bay games that have followed, starting 29 of them. In each of his first 29 outings, he caught at least one pass, and usually quite a bit more. That streak ended on Sunday, however, as Williams was shut out in the Buccaneers' loss to the visiting Dallas Cowboys.
There seems little doubt that the Dallas defense paid extra attention to Williams, especially with his usual starting partner, Arrelious Benn, sidelined by a concussion. However, according to Head Coach Raheem Morris, the real culprit in producing Williams' first zero was the relentless pass rush the Cowboys were putting on quarterback Josh Freeman. Because many of Williams' routes as the X involving him getting a bit down the field, in many cases there simply wasn't time for Freeman to find his number-one target.
"Your X routes, they're going to be deep digs, deep cutbacks that Mike runs well," said Morris. "We could have stuck a couple slants on him and done a couple things like that, some more quick game maybe, but the routes that Mike catches, which we've come accustomed to him catching, have been the deep, down-the-field routes. And last night it wasn't a good process for us."
Williams recalls being targeted with a pass just once, though even that is not reflected in the final stat sheet. That in itself is extremely unusual, whether the offense is clicking or not. Last week in Jacksonville, for instance, Williams was targeted a team-high seven times. Williams had been putting up his best numbers of the season over the last month, too. In a three-game stretch against Green Bay, Tennessee and Carolina he racked up 18 catches for 260 yards and two touchdowns.
Whatever the factors that contributed to that productive player being eliminated from the offense, it's not likely the beginning of a trend. Neither Freeman nor the coaching staff were purposely avoiding Williams, and he's sure to be back in the thick of things over the final two weeks of the season.
"I wouldn't say [there is] any lost confidence in him or with the coaching staff, but last night was obviously a tough night for him," said Morris. "He got his number called a couple times. We had protection breakdown issues. The X is kind of out of the factor. Trying to find the X when you have protection problems is a problem. And it's not protection problems with the blitz, scheme-wise or pointing it out or identifying it. It's just mano-a-mano…back to that. And when that stuff happens, you lose your X and that happened last night."
Williams, who led all rookie receivers in 2010 with 65 catches for 964 yards and set a Buccaneer single-season record with 11 touchdown catches, has put up another 60 receptions for 701 yards and three TDs this season. He says all of the Tampa Bay receivers have seen far more zone coverage this year than they did last year. And, on occasion, the other team's defense has done a very good job of scheming against Tampa Bay's attack, as happened on Saturday night. He says the Bucs have to work harder to find a solution when a game like that is developing.
"Other teams adjust, too," said Williams. "It's not just us going into the locker room making adjustments. They go into their locker room and make adjustments. They watch film too, and we've got to adjust to the adjuster. We have to stay on it and go out and play a good game."
Meanwhile, with Benn out, second-year man Dezmon Briscoe made his first career start, taking over the 'Z' receiver position. He caught three passes for 36 yards and actually scored the Bucs' only offensive touchdown of the night on a 13-yard catch-and-run in the third quarter. Briscoe has scored in three of the Bucs' last five games and is now the team's leader in TD receptions on the season, with four.
Overall Briscoe, who the Bucs signed after he was released by Cincinnati just prior to the 2010 season, has 26 catches for 328 yards. He has played extensively as a reserve but could get more time over the final two weeks if Benn is out for any length of time. Briscoe could even get a longer look if Benn is available, as the Bucs try to find out what they have in some of their young and unproven players.
Briscoe will simply take what opportunities he is given.
"I take it week-by-week depending on what goes on in the game plans," he said. "If that game plan is around me, then it's around me. The thing about us is that we don't have any selfish receivers, so whoever gets the ball gets the ball that game."
Briscoe is right about that, and Williams is a prime example. He is clearly the number-one option in the Bucs' passing attack but he has never complained about how often or not often the ball has been thrown his way. It's fair to say that Williams was subdued in the Bucs' locker room the day after Sunday's loss to the Cowboys, but it was due to the numbers on the scoreboard, not those in his stat sheet.
"I don't know…it's never about catches or stats," said Williams. "I'm just trying to get a win. I feel bad that we lost."