In the midst of his eighth training camp, Ravens defensive tackle Brandon Williams is ready to put on the pads and “silence the talk.”
After a virtual offseason program and a prolonged ramp-up period due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Ravens finally begins full-team practices on Monday. It’s a time that often serves as a separator between players who look good in shorts and those who excel in full gear.
“I’ll actually be able to see what these young guys got,” said Williams, who collected 34 tackles and one sack in 14 games last season. “You hear a lot of talk, you see a lot of good footwork on the field with the pads off, but when you finally get the pads on, you actually get to see what they have full-go.”
The 2018 Pro Bowl defensive lineman says rookies Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington are “coming along very well” despite the obvious challenge of not having a normal spring program or preseason games, but all eyes will be on the standout veteran additions to the defensive line made by general manager Eric DeCosta. Called “the twin towers” by Williams, five-time Pro Bowl selection Calais Campbell (6-foot-8) and former Super Bowl champion Derek Wolfe (6-foot-5) are expected to boost Baltimore’s run defense and pass rush from a year ago.
Those acquisitions as well as the free-agent departure of Michael Pierce prompted defensive coordinator Wink Martindale to move the 31-year-old Williams back to nose tackle. It’s a position he hasn’t played as regularly in recent years due to Pierce’s presence and the Ravens’ lack of consistent 3-technique linemen, the position that lines up on the outside shoulder of the guard.
“I’m pretty much back home playing what I know, playing what I’m naturally used to doing all the time,” said Williams, who made the effort to report to camp with more muscle tone to help maintain his speed. “If I have to play [3-technique] for my team, then I have to do it because that’s what they need from me and that’s what I’m here for.
“I’m back in my natural habitat. I’m ready to take on double-teams, go against centers again, and just wreak havoc in the middle.”
Williams’ ability to take on two blockers at the line of scrimmage will be key in keeping first-round rookie inside linebacker Patrick Queen — or fellow 2020 third-round pick Malik Harrison — free to roam sideline to sideline. That work usually doesn’t show up on the stat sheet, but it will be pivotal for both the Ravens and the 6-foot-1, 336-pound defensive tackle in 2020.
Entering the fourth season of a five-year, $52.5 million deal that’s scheduled to pay him $9.25 million this season and $9.5 million in 2021, Williams is at a point in his contract and career when the Ravens must closely weigh whether the value he brings on the field matches the financial commitment. That balance will become more critical next season with Pro Bowl left tackle Ronnie Stanley and Pro Bowl outside linebacker Matthew Judon scheduled to become unrestricted free agents and other young stars rapidly approaching the end of their rookie contracts.
For now, the focus is on Williams anchoring a run defense that ranked an underwhelming 21st in the NFL at 4.4 yards per carry allowed — easily the worst single-season mark in team history — and allowed 4.54 yards per attempt last season when including the stunning playoff loss to Tennessee when Derrick Henry ran for nearly 200 yards. That inconsistent run defense was why head coach John Harbaugh cited the desire to improve the front seven to better complement an elite secondary.
The Ravens are confident adding Campbell and Wolfe, selecting Queen and Harrison, and moving Williams back to his original position will do the trick. They have just under a month to get acclimated with each other on the field before the 2020 opener against Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb and Cleveland.
“It’s definitely been a focus of ours. I know the Cleveland game [in Week 4 last season] stands out to me and probably everybody else, and so does the Titans game,” said Martindale, citing two losses in which the Ravens ceded a combined 410 rushing yards. “I think that’s the reason why Eric and ‘Harbs’ made some of the moves that they made. On [Monday], we’ll be in pads, and we’ll keep making it a major focus.
“I think Calais said that you have to earn the right to rush the passer, and we have to knock down that run game because, trust me, the Cleveland Browns are going to try to run the ball.”