You kept hearing it last week in Allen Park: Jameson Williams is coming. He may have arrived, for good, in the Lions' comeback win over the Bears. It was Williams' 32-yard touchdown catch with three minutes to play, on which he burned Chicago's secondary, that brought his team back from the dead.
To hear him break it down afterward was to listen to a student of the game:
"I had a pylon route, I seen the safety before the play, we're running it off of him. He was inside of me, I knew I’d get 12 to 15 yards. If he’s not able to run with me to the back pylon, then we got him. After we make that read, it’s on the corner, he’s either going high or low. It’s me or the corner route under me, so it’s either-or, and Jared made the read and we just got on the board quick."
Dan Campbell talks often about "FBI:" football intelligence. Williams is known for his speed, but he's also got a mind for the game. A feel for it, too. He's spent most of this season winning the respect of his coaches and teammates by attacking his blocks in the run game, no small thing for a wide receiver drafted 12th overall. Now he's earning their trust by making plays of his own. Take it from his quarterback.
"The last couple of weeks for him have been so good," said Jared Goff. "He’s practiced so well. We do trust him now. We trust him a lot, and I do trust him to make that throw in that situation. He’s doing a hell of a job blocking, he’s doing all of his assignments correctly and he's starting to come on really nicely for us. As he continues to progress, the level to which our offense could possibly go with him is pretty exciting.”
Campbell has said repeatedly that he's not worried about Williams' numbers. As he carves out a bigger role, the catches, yards and touchdowns will take care of themselves. Three weeks in a row, Williams has played a career-high percent of the offensive snaps for Detroit, from 40 percent to 52 percent to 65 percent. He's caught six of eight targets over that stretch for 78 yards and a touchdown. The targets will climb in the weeks ahead.
"He’s part of the herd," Campbell said. "He’s been accepted. The way he works and the way he goes and blocks and he’s starting to run some pretty good routes and he’s making some catches, there’s a lot of guys that are beginning to trust him. And that’s been earned. He just keeps getting better and better and better.”
This is the natural progression of a player who's now played 12 games in the NFL. As Amon-Ra St. Brown put it, Williams is still "damn near a rookie." The 22-year-old said last week that he was close to breaking through, then went out on Sunday and scored the biggest touchdown of his career.
"I just feel like the more I get in the game, the more I practice and the more I be out there with my teammates, the more fun we can have and the farther we’re gonna go," Williams said. "It’s just building confidence for me, also for the team. And as we keep going, we’re just trying to build a train that nobody can stop."
That train is fueled by selfless talent. The Lions play as hard for each other as any team in the league, bonded by the struggles they endured early in this rebuild. They've been to the pits of defeat and never want to return. They were 4-19-1 in their first 24 games under Campbell and Brad Holmes, 16-4 since. Asked about his appetite for run blocking, Williams said, "We just help our brothers out."
"It’s something how we do it. You don’t see a lot teams moving like that, you don’t see a lot of receivers in the league going to block for running backs 40 yards, 60 yards down the field, but you’re going to see the Lions do that, for sure," he said.
Williams has been misunderstood, at times, in Detroit. Some of it has been self-inflicted. Some of it stems from stereotypes. Because of the position he plays, the suspension he incurred, the stirs he's caused on social media and his lack of production through his first season and a half in the NFL, Williams has been perceived by some as immature or aloof, by others as a diva with a me-first attitude, and by many as a bust. He's mostly just a 22-year-old finding his way in the NFL.
"There's a ton of expectations on him being a first-round receiver and he’s had a tough start to his career, dealing with injuries and the suspension," said Lions co-captain Alex Anzalone. "He’s just trying to get it done by any means, whether that’s blocking and now he’s catching some critical plays in the game. (His touchdown) was awesome to see.
"His mentality, it’s easy to get lost in this football world of media and fans, and he just keeps showing up for his teammates. And that’s really who he is. Obviously there’s a perception about him that probably isn’t as true as you think it is. … Some guys live and breathe football, and he’s definitely one of them."
Asked if that zeal for the game connects Williams to his teammates, Anzalone said, "100 percent."
Williams walked off the field Sunday with a smile plastered on his face. It had little to do with his touchdown, everything to do with the Lions' improbable win. From Ohio State to Alabama to the NFL, Williams said it was the first time he's ever played in a game "where we actually had to get on the ball and run the two-minute drill."
"That’s probably one of the most fun games that I’ve been a part of, just coming back in the last five minutes or so," he said.
While Williams spent most of last season rehabbing a torn ACL, and the first month of this season stuck on the sidelines, these are the moments he was waiting for. He rocked Ford Field on Sunday. He'll play in his first Thanksgiving game on Thursday, for the first 8-2 Lions team since 1962. He said he was even thinking about eating an early Thanksgiving dinner Sunday night, like an appetizer for the big day. Williams is happy because his team is winning, but far from satisfied as he hits his stride.
"I just plan on getting a lot more wins, a lot more touchdowns for my team, making a lot more plays for my team. This is really just the beginning for us," he said. "We 8-2. We trying to keep it going and get in the playoffs and do big things in the playoffs. It’s just another step on the ladder we gotta complete so we can get to the top."
Williams is climbing, one rung at a time.