What Does Trent Williams Bring to the 49ers?
Image Credit: CBS Sports
Reporter: Uh, Coach, you lost Bertier. Is your defense in trouble?
Coach: You cannot replace a Gerry Bertier, as a player or person.
“Remember the Titans”
And, you cannot replace Joe Staley.
For the next three decades, San Francisco 49er fans will compare all tackles to Staley. Fall short of that high watermark, and the player will be cast into Malebolge, written off as a fraud.
Fortunately for the 49ers, executive management made a few shrewd moved during the 2020 NFL draft to swindle acquire veteran left tackle Trent Williams from Washington.
Offensive line draft picks, and trades, excite only a handful of football deviants. Therefore, if the Williams trade left you with sulfur breath or as placid as the toll of the iron bell, then keep reading.
Shockingly, Williams is not the typical offensive lineman usually pursued by general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan. Coming out of the University of Oklahoma, Williams was named to the first-team Big 12 twice and a unanimous All-American once.
Washington selected Williams as the fourth overall pick in the 2010 draft, and he delivered on his $60 million contract. While suffering under Dan Snyder and wildly inconsistent win-loss records, Williams earned All-Pro honors in 2015 and 2017. Fans also elected him to seven straight Pro Bowls between 2012 and 2018.
Last spring, Williams underwent surgery to remove a type of cancer on his head. I only know what I read in the news about this issue, but it appears that this was when Williams’ relationship with Washington went south.
According to reports, Washington’s medical staff noticed the growth before 2019 and told Williams it was minor. Williams spoke with Washington’s beat reporters on October 31, 2019, and noted he had no trust in the team’s medical staff.
Williams didn’t play a snap for Washington last season, and Washington granted permission for him to seek a trade in March 2020.
There is no better tackle to replace Staley than Williams in terms of pedigree and background. Williams also brings knowledge of Shanahan’s offense with him, which should significantly ease his transition to the playbook.
Some of Shanahan’s terminology or play design might have a different look or feel since Williams was in the offense, but the overall strategy hasn’t changed. Shanahan still relies on outside zone runs, 2/3 Jet pass protection, and a variety of movement plays to move the ball downfield.
2013 Season: Week 13, 1st Quarter - 1st and 10 at the NY 17 (10:44)
Shanahan’s zone runs attack the strong and weak sides of the formation, which is part of what makes the design so lethal.
He dedicates a few pages of his playbook to weakside runs called “Wanda,” which Shanahan calls with regularity.
Shanahan has not bothered to change “Wanda” since he was Washington’s offensive coordinator. The play is still executed from a single-back formation to strike the edge of the weak side.
The offensive line uses outside zone rules to create space in the defensive line. In the play above, the run was going left, which means each offensive lineman looks to his left to determine if he is covered or uncovered.
An offensive lineman is covered when a defender is between the lineman’s nose and the nose of the lineman to his left. The lineman is uncovered if that scenario is not occurring.
Williams was covered on this run, giving him the assignment of relocating Giants defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka.
Kiwanuka did not have a good evening against Williams, finishing dead last in overall defensive grading and tackling. The play above encapsulates how Williams neutralized his opponent.
2013 Season: Week 13, 2nd Quarter - 3rd and 7 at the WAS 44 (15:00)
“Jet” protection is a staple drop back protection for the 49ers’ offense. Like any NFL-level blocking scheme, the line and back need to be in total unison to keep a quarterback standing.
“300 Jet” told Washington’s offensive line to slide away from the call and let Williams and the back pick up the left side of the line. The minor nuances with each defensive front change the read and alter the assignments for the offensive line.
The Giants’ free safety was in the box just a few yards away from the Plug linebacker. That look told Washington’s running back Roy Helu to read the Plug first and the free safety second. I’m guessing Williams, left guard Kory Lichtensteiger, and Helu worked a protection call like “Gap” that told Helu to block the A-gap.
That left Lichtensteiger to take the free safety, and Williams alone to shore up the left edge.
I’m not one to know the wild flames that burn or die within a professional athlete. Staley might have wanted to come back for another run at a ring, but his injuries and want for more time with his family outweighed his desire.
Williams seems to have something to prove to himself, to the league, and possibly something to shove in Washington’s face.
Washington hasn’t had a playoff team in five years, and hasn’t lost fewer than six games since 2012. I have to assume Williams wants to win and wants more than just a taste of a Wild Card playoff game.
There is never enough of that type of attitude for locker rooms. The 49ers have responded well to people like cornerback Richard Sherman and linebacker Kwon Alexander. Williams can be a welcome addition to keep those survival fires burning strong.
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