After week three of the 2005 NFL season Carnell Williams had secured that barring catastrophic injury or precipitous decline, he would be thought of as one of the best young backs in football for the next three years. He's narrowly escaped the later fate, putting up enough superficial numbers to mask the one and four/fifths seasons of disappointment and inadequacy that followed. Consider: After three straight one hundred yard rushing games to start the season, Williams posted just three more the rest of 2005. He only topped 4.5 YPC in two, both against the awful--and in fact worst in the league--Atlanta rush defense. Because of the bunching of those initial three games and the subsequent injuries, the Haynes Manual provides this diagnostic for Cadillac: Injury and a porous offensive line. Despite PFP 2006 projecting Williams with a very good and cutely sequential yardage total, 1234, for 2006, the comment beneath Williams stated: "KUBIAK is probably a little too conservative with this projection." Williams defied expectation, tallying just 798 yards and one touchdown on the ground. The Bucs line was young and pretty bad, but when 10 year journeyman Michael Pittman stepped in for the injured Williams in week 15, it didn't stop him from posting back-to-back 5.5+ YPC performances. Don't misconstrue that, Pittman had a pair of poor rush defenses himself to pick on, Cleveland and the late season Hawks, but a star back in the making should not be so easily overshadowed by 31 y/o backup.
After all this fuss, it might be time to wonder if Williams hadn't had his three best games to start his career, but had, instead, mixed those performances throughout his first two seasons, would we still be thinking of Williams as a franchise back with a ton of potential? Or a bust? Jon Gruden is hell bent to help us find out, as he's never shied away from riding Williams. Williams is completely healthy entering 2007, something paranormal in of itself, and has a shiny new second round pick to blow holes for him, Arron Sears. It's a little bit of everyone's responsibility to tackle Williams, but overmatching the rookie left guard falls on two men, Chartric Darby and Brandon Mebane.
Sears is a powerful young guard. Powerful as-is, powerfully built and with room to add more. Concerns about an arthritic knee pushed down his draft stock, but wherever he is in five years has nothing to do with Sunday. Jon Gruden loves to rush up the gut, directing more than half his runs up the middle each of the last two seasons. The same should prove true on Sunday, as Gruden will look to overpower Seattle with Sears and 2006 first round selection Davin Joseph. Unfortunately for the Hawks, being overpowered has become par for the course for Rocky Bernard and Chartric Darby, making it all the more important that Brandon Mebane can step in and stuff the line on obvious running downs.
As I said before, week one matchups are more about questions than answers and one that has certainly been at the forefront of many fan's minds will be examined and at least partly answered Sunday, can Darby or Mebane effectively clog the opposition's rushing lanes? Darby looked good in the preseason and I wouldn't count out a late career peak for Chuck, but this is primarily Mebane's show. Sears is precisely the type of guard that scouts watched him disappear against, powerful and long armed, Sears is not the best pull-blocker but can consistently engulf opposing tackles. Mebane put on a clinic against the league's scrubs in the preseason, dominating the point so effectively that instead of just forcing double teams, he was regularly splitting them. Williams, for all his struggles, is still explosive and once he finds the second level, very dangerous. On Sunday, Williams may post poor yardage totals for all sorts of reasons, lack of attempts if Seattle's offense really surges, a plethora of stifled runs if Seattle's attacking linebackers find seams, but what matters beyond Sunday, to the 10 games Seattle faces against potential top rushing offenses, is how many runs of 10 or more yards the Hawk's allow. Mebane and to a lesser extent Darby must be able to stack the pile, keep the "garbage" from reaching the second level. If Mebane can, Williams will mix unsuccessful runs with a few 4-9 yards bursts. Lofa Tatupu, Julian Peterson and Leroy Hill should record lots of tackles, and Deon Grant and Brian Russell few. Sears is not the best left guard Mebane will face in the next 17 weeks, but, both rookies, with Sears strength and ability to engulf, this matchup will serve as a progress report for our young defensive tackle. Much rides on him succeeding.