Rookie CB Williams gets first start for Falcons
ATLANTA -- Rookie cornerback Jimmy Williams, the Falcons' highest-drafted player this year, will get his first regular-season start on Sunday as Atlanta coaches scramble to address problems in a secondary beset by injuries and inconsistency over the past month.
A second-round draft choice, Williams will move into the lineup at right cornerback, replacing veteran Jason Webster, who will be sidelined for at least a month, and perhaps for the balance of the season, by a groin injury.
Webster had been playing poorly before the injury, and some observers felt he might be benched in favor of Williams, but the coaching staff seemed intent to stick with the more veteran player before an MRI exam at midweek revealed a torn groin.
"This is my time to step up," said Williams, a former Virginia Tech star who has played in all eight games in a backup role, and registered five tackles and one pass defensed. "The [injury] situation has taken a toll. We've got to stop the bleeding, and part of that is on me to do the things I feel like I can do to help this team."
For the second straight season, the Falcons have been thinned at cornerback by a rash of injuries. Nickel corner Chris Cash sustained a season-ending fractured arm in the final preseason game. Then last week, in the team's loss at Detroit, top reserve Kevin Mathis, who can play both cornerback and safety and had performed well as the nickel defender, suffered a fractured neck that likely will end his career.
It marked the second serious neck/spine injury in six years for Mathis. The 10-year veteran had managed to make it back this season after suffering a catastrophic knee injury, one in which he tore three ligaments, in the spring of 2005.
Even Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall missed practice time this week with a sore hamstring. Hall will start at left cornerback on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, but is playing at less than 100 percent.
The injuries have contributed to the poor play of the secondary over the last month, but there have been too many lapses even when the Falcons had their regular starting unit on the field. Atlanta has surrendered 1,200 yards and eight touchdown passes in the last four games and has slipped statistically to No. 31, next to last in the league, versus the pass.
In recent weeks, opponents have exploited the vulnerabilities of safeties Lawyer Milloy and Chris Crocker, a tandem that has upgraded the Falcons' performance against the run, but which has problems in coverage.
"Too many guys trying to do too many things to help compensate," Hall said. "We have to all go in and just play our own game, try not to do too much, and could on each other to get this worked out."
The Browns rank just 25th in passing offense and second-year quarterback Charlie Frye has played unevenly. But Cleveland does present some challenges in the persons of tight end Kellen Winslow and wide receiver Braylon Edwards, both former first-round picks. Winslow leads all NFL tight ends with 51 receptions, the third-most catches in the league among players at any position. Edwards is averaging 14.3 yards on 30 receptions.
So despite the Browns' 2-6 record, there is the potential for Cleveland to test the Atlanta secondary, which, admittedly staggers into the game. The Browns figure to challenge Williams and he knows it.
"It makes sense," Williams said. "I'm the new guy and they'll try to find me."
Going into his senior season at Virginia Tech, the physical Williams was regarded as the top cornerback prospect in the country. But some perceived attitude problems and an average senior year dropped him into the second round. The Falcons felt they got a steal being able to land a first-round caliber player where they did, and the consensus was that Williams would vie for Webster's starting spot in training camp. But he never mounted a serious run and Webster opened the season as the starter.
Now the Falcons need Williams, who has played only sparingly in nickel packages in the first eight games, to perform to his potential. Return specialist Allen Rossum, who has a sore knee, will move into the nickel role that Mathis held for the first half of the season.
"We're kind of piecing things together right now," acknowledged coach Jim Mora.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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