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Gregg Williams: A Complete History

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We know the Saints have the offensive firepower to win an NFL championship, so those Saints fans who are holding out hope that 2009 will finally be the year the Saints break out of their forty year funk and go to the Super Bowl, are all working under the same basic assumption that new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is going to have what it takes to turn the Saints defense around. You believe that he will bring the Saints all the answers they seek. You believe all the defensive moves the Saints have made this off-season are all for the best. But what do you really know about him? Chances are, probably not as much as you should know about the man charged with saving this franchise. I've done a lot of research on the man, the myth, the legend that is Gregg Williams and what I have found is nothing short of interesting. I share it with you.

How did he wind up in New Orleans?

Gregg Williams grew up in suburban Kansas City in a town called Excelsior Springs, Missouri. He was a talented athlete throughout high school who played quarterback, pitcher, point guard; all key positions in their respective sports. He attended college at Central Missouri State. His entrance onto the NFL scene was through a ten year stint with the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans that started in 1992. Starting out as Defensive Quality Control Coach, Gregg eventually worked his way up to defensive coordinator in 1997. But he really put himself on the map when his defense took the Titans to the Super Bowl in 1999. So much so that Williams was able to parlay his success into a head coaching job with the Buffalo Bills from 2000 to 2003. But things didn't turn out as he planned.

Probably thinking about some fancy new blitz. (Photo Source)

"They wanted me to be hard," he [Williams] recalled.    

And so he was. 

"Gregg did everything that was asked of him. He was a team player," said Tom Donahoe, who was the Bills' president at the time and hired Williams.    

He had some moderate sucess in transforming the Bills but his new tough-guy persona was beginning to sink in and become the norm as Williams gained a reputation for being an arrogant know-it-all, something he never was before. Said an anonymous league general manager...

"A lot of people said he changed in Buffalo. He thought he was all that."    

Williams was also disturbed by a lot of the off-the-field stuff they don't tell you about when you become a head coach in the NFL, particularly living in the public eye. Shortly after moving into his new house in Buffalo he and his wife attended a party at a their new neighbors house. He spent the entire night pinned in a corner by guests but two days later there were sports radio reports claiming he was drunk, arguing and an embarassement. He was hurt and never the same.

"I'm not [exaggerating] on this story," he said. "If you talk about an edge to me or an arrogance to me, well, I do get my feelings hurt and I do have a sensitive side to me that I protect with an edge.

"Now that's on the air."

Eventually Gregg was fired after the 2003 season and returned to his old position as defensive coordinator, this time with the Redskins. It was an immediate sucess. He was able to take everything the Redskins already had and put together a solid defense. The third best defense in the league in fact. It would only get worse from there, however, as the Redskins defensive ranking fell to ninth overall the following year and thirty-first in the entire league in 2006. Rumors of his arrogance began to swirl yet again. He let a lot of key players like Antonio Pierce walk via free agency, believing it was his coaching talent that made his defense so great, but it blew up in his face and the defenses suffered noticeably. 

But there is another side to the story. The Redskins hired Al Saunders as offensive coordinator in 2006, largely because Williams spoke so highly of him, and he brought with him a fast paced offense that either scored quickly or went three and out; never sustaining drives. Thus Williams' defense was on the field incredibly more than usual and the effects were too much. This fact has been debated and may or may not be true. Williams himself credited the decline to playing the increasingly strong offenses that were blossoming in the NFC East at the time. 

Last year Gregg started a one-year stint with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Instead of being given a new contract his old Redskins contract was merely transfered to Jacksonville. Thus, when last season ended the Jags had the option to let him go or re-sign him. He was never able to put anything substantial together in Jacksonville and the results were disappointing. They parted ways amicably and in early January of this year the Saints signed him.


What is Gregg's coaching style?

I'm a firm believer that a coach's personality can be seen in his on-field product and no more so is this evident than with Gregg Williams. Throughout all my research for this piece I came across one word more than any other that was used by Williams or about him.


When he was first hired by the Saints, the Times-Pic introduced New Orleans to the new DC with this article. In it Williams explains to us what we might expect from his coaching philosophy...

"We want to be a tough defense, we want to be a smart defense, and everywhere I've been able to play, we've been pretty nasty," Williams said. "We've been able to play with good aggressiveness. Those are the things that I think win you football games, tough close football games -- that's toughness and intelligence."

In the same article he also details what he expects from his new players...

"There's going to be some blisters and some hurt feelings, but trust me, there will not be one player who leaves that meeting that isn't clear on what I want and what my expectations are," Williams said. "I can't do anything with the DNA your momma and daddy gave you, but I can make sure you're tough and play hard."

Interestingly enough, he gave the same spiel in Jacksonville after being hired there. Here it is from the Jacksonville Jaguars official website

"If you want to play on a defense (Del Rio) coaches or I coach, you'll have to be a tough football player," Williams said following Tuesday's practice. "I'm not going to apologize for being competitive. You've got to think you're the best and you have to play with an attitude."    

If you think Williams is full of hot air, however, think again. His former players all confirm what Gregg is preaching. Antonio Pierce speaks about his former coach... 

"Gregg Williams is a very tough, very verbal coach. When I was there, I respected him a lot," said Pierce, now with the Giants. "He may be killing his players in practice, but he was the first guy patting you on the back after you've made a big play."    

So does Sam Adams...

"He's an aggressive, hard-charger. He's going to dog you as he sees fit. Some cats can't handle that."    

And also Lawyer Milloy...

"Guys don't need him to bring a pacifier to the game. This is a man's league."  

Williams giving instruction while in Washington. (Photo Source)


You're getting my point. Williams is not a dude you want to piss off in practice. Simple as that. Some players respond positively to his coaching style while others can't stand it so it will certainly be interesting to see how specific Saints players react. Perhaps we'll even see some shake ups on the roster because of attitude conflicts.

One definitely enticing aspect of Williams' coaching is his ability to work with what is already given him and create a great defense from it. He did it in Tennessee...

One of Williams's great strengths has been his ability to take the base "46" defense of his first NFL mentor, Buddy Ryan, and adapt it to whatever situation arises. For instance, when he was the Tennessee Titans' defensive coordinator in 1999, the season they went to the Super Bowl, his teams used lots of man-to-man coverage on pass plays. The next year, with a defense less suited to such coverages, he used almost no man-to-man. The Titans wound up with the top-ranked pass defense in the NFL that season.    

And he did it again when he arrived in Washington...

"I'll give Williams his credit. A lot of us were surprised by what he got out of them, but there is not a lot of talent there," said one general manager who did not want to be quoted by name because he was speaking about another team. "They kind of did it with smoke and mirrors."    

Even with Jacksonville he attempted to take what they already had and make lemonade with the lemons he was given.

"We've looked at the things they've been able to do here for many, many years. We'll try to meld it all together,"    

This is definitely good news that Saints fans really want need to hear right now because he will certainly have his work cut out for him with the current Saints defensive roster.


What kind of defense can we expect from Williams?

Ahhh, now this is the million dollar question all Saints fans want to know.  In short, it's a 46 defense also known originally as the Bear 46. It was created by Buddy Ryan while he was the defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears and the name comes not from any formation but from Bears safety Doug Plank's jersey number. Here is the basic theme behind it.            

The "46" was an innovative defense with a unique defensive front; designed to confuse the quarterback. The line was shifted dramatically to the weak side (opposite the Tight End), with both Offensive Guards and the Center "covered" by the Left Defensive End and both Defensive Tackles. This front forced offenses to immediately account for the defenders directly lined up in front of them, making it considerably harder to execute blocking assignments such as pulling, trapping, and in general, pass protection. Moreover, the Right Defensive End would align outside of the Left Offensive Tackle, leaving him "on an island" when trying to block him.

Another key feature of the "46" is that both outside linebackers play on the same side of the formation. To avoid confusion the strong side linebacker (who is no longer lining up on the strong side) is frequently renamed to the Jack Linebacker. The linebackers line up behind the linemen two or three yards from the line of scrimmage. The primary tactic is to rush five to eight players on each play, either to get to the quarterback quickly or disrupt running plays.

At it's most basic form, this is what the base "46" formation looks like.


Let's look at it a bit more deeply by position.

Defensive Line: The "46" requires a lot of pressure from the front four, particularly the defensive ends. Pressure is constantly being applied from the outside and a lot is required from the two end positions. 

Linebackers: The outside linebackers play just off the line of scrimmage acting basically as two extra down lineman. The middle linebacker is also in the box next to the strong safety. 

Safeties: The strong safety is so far up that he is essentially a fourth linebacker. He has the option of blitzing or dropping back, always leaving defenses questioning. The free safety is left alone in the backfield for cover help. 

Cornerbacks: The cornerbacks are responsible for playing tight man-to-man so they must have great coverage ability because safety help is minimal and limited to only the lone free safety in the middle of the field. 

We all know Williams is a tough guy off the field and that attitude will definitely show through in his defense. The main objective of the "46" is attack, attack, attack the pass protection from all angles in an effort to shutdown the quarterback. With eight men in the box, pressure can come from anywhere; from all eight men to simply the front four and anywhere in between. The trick is constantly mixing up the pressure packages and formations in an effort to test the opposing offense and look for weaknesses to exploit later in the game. It's also meant to always keep the offense guessing where pressure will come from next. This is an inheritently aggressive defense built around a lot of blitzing. And blitz Williams will do. This is no secret. He told us so when he first arrived here in New Orleans. 

"You've got to be excited about the offense," Williams said. "... If you like to (play) pressure defense like I do, then you get a chance to pin your ears back and rush the passer more when you can put points on the board."

But don't expect the defense to look exactly like this. It would be considered a bit unusual in today's NFL and after Bill Walsh developed the West Coast Offense to exploit the "46", too many teams now can easily take advantage of the traditional formation. It is more likely that the Saints will use the basic philosophy behind the "46" but in an adjusted version that will probably look more like the traditional 4-3 with lots of different pressure packages. 


How will this all mean for the Saints?

I'm not gonna lie to's gonna be tough. The good news is we don't need Gregg to turn water into wine. Just give this offense a middle-of-the-road defense next year and it should make a world of difference. 

First of all, expect more blitzing and a lot more excitement. Gone should be the days of Gary Gibbs and the term "vanilla" defense. Williams is an aggressive guy who likes to play an agressive defense. Will Smith and Charles Grant will need to step up their games and start earning those fat paychecks. That is fact. With Williams' scheme, the pressure from the defensive ends is crucial. If they can't give him what he wants from his defensive ends he may very well tell them to take a long walk. This is also probably why the Saints picked up Paul Spicer. Depth at this position will be important.

Also needing to step up their game will be Saints cornerbacks, particularly sophomore Tracy Porter and new acquisition Jabari Greer. Jason David, this system is not for you. It appears the free agency acquisition of Greer was a crucial one and neccessary if the Saints really want to implement Williams' defensive strategy. If the CB's can't stay with their receivers, however, this system will break down.


So there he is, Saints fans, in all his glory. Williams has the weight of the entire Who Dat Nation on his shoulders. Honestly, I think it would be quite an accomplishment for any coach, let alone Williams, to make something out of the Saints defensive nothing. But to believe in the 2009 Saints is to believe in Gregg Williams. And so, with all this new knowledge I have only one question to ask you. 

Do you believe?