No one is, or should be, asking Leonard Williams to be Lawrence Taylor or Michael Strahan.
But it is more than fair for John Mara, for Steve Tisch, for Dave Gettleman and for Joe Judge and Pat Graham to ask Leonard Williams to be Leonard Williams.
Specifically, the Leonard Williams who recorded a career-high 11.5 sacks in 2020.
The Leonard Williams who was rewarded with a three-year, $63 million deal, with $45 million guaranteed.
“It’s not even about the money to me,” Graham said before practice Thursday. “Our best players have to play well, that’s how the league is set up. Your best players have to play well.”
As the late Giants GM George Young was fond of saying — it’s always about the money. Williams is the best player on a defense that has regressed alarmingly from a year ago.
For the Giants to have any shot Sunday against the Rams, the Big Cat can’t give Matthew Stafford nine lives, or even one, and give his team more bang for its bucks. The Giants’ best player on his side of the ball has to play like the best player, and the time is now.
He has grown enough as a player in his prime and as a man to believe that his time will come again.
“I think every year people have asked me about pressure,” Williams said. “Last year when I was on a contract year they asked me about pressure. The year before that when I got traded they asked me about pressure. Now that I’m on a new contract, they’re still … there’s always gonna be pressure in this league. You never focus on the pressure. You focus on what you can do to help the team, and how you approach work every day.
“We’re focused on winning this week, and eventually my hard work is gonna pay off.”
He is one of the good guys. Joe Judge raves about him in the locker room, and I was surprised that he was not voted a captain by his teammates.
“The coaches are happy with the work I’m putting in,” Williams said. “Sacks and stuff like that come in bunches. I feel like if I just keep working, stuff will eventually come my way.”
So far, just 1.5 sacks have come his way.
“I don’t think there’s any particular reason,” Williams said. “I think it’s just overall, if you just keep hitting the nail, it’ll eventually come your way.”
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Williams is the one who must bring the hammer for a defense that has just eight sacks and was shredded by Dak Prescott & Co. for 515 yards and failed to set the edge in the run game. He has maintained that it’s not always about sacks, and of course it’s not. He has prided himself on being a disruptive force, and he does have 27 tackles in five games — a season after having 57 in 16 games. Offensive coordinators have to account for him. But sacks are sexy. Sacks get you paid.
“I’m not stressing about it,” Williams said. “I’m not gonna try to change my work ethic, change anything about myself, and like play out of the system to chase stats. I think if I just keep playing within the system, they’ll eventually come.”
That will be music to Graham’s ears.
“What I don’t want him to start doing,” Graham said, “is pressing.”
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Not to worry.
“Exactly like I said, I don’t want to like get out of my work ethic and out of my traditional way of playing to press for stats and please the crowd and please the fans,” Williams said. “Obviously getting sacks and stuff like that helps our defense, but me playing within the scheme and not pressing is also gonna help the defense. And as long as I keep playing within the scheme and keep doing my job and keep working hard, the stats will eventually come.”
The defensive performance has been so unacceptable for Graham that he is willing to simplify the scheme so his players can play faster, and moving Williams to create a mismatch should be on the table as well. Williams could certainly use a partner in crime to take the heat off him, specifically the emergence of rookie OLB Azeez Ojulari (three sacks in the first three games). The last thing the Big Cat wants is to be labeled as is a one-hit wonder.
“It’s definitely not lack of effort, I know that,” Graham said. “He’s playing hard. He’s worked hard in practice, and sometimes you just hope it comes in bunches at some point. But I know it’s not from a lack of effort, and the skill set’s still there.”
On a 29th-ranked defense filled with Giants who need to look in the mirror, Graham will look first.
“I would say it starts with me helping him find better places to put him at, improving that, and then hopefully it starts to click at some point,” Graham said. “Whether it’s taking advantage of technique or hitting something a little bit quicker. That’s what we’re working on today, and that’s what we’re working on this week. Obviously we gotta do a better job.”