It’s no secret that Jameson Williams, the Detroit Lions’ first-round pick in 2022, hasn’t lived up to expectations yet. Though his ACL recovery and a four-game gambling suspension has kept him off the field for both game days and practices for the majority of his young career, the fact remains that in 10 games played, Williams has just seven catches for 112 yards and two touchdowns. He has yet to play more than 50% of offensive snaps in a single game, and he’s been plagued by drops and mental mistakes. When targeting Williams this season, Jared Goff is just 5-of-16 for 71 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, five drops and a passer rating of 49.6.
Several people have suggested ways to get Williams on track. The most commonly pitched solution—most recently suggested by former Lions receiving legend Herman Moore—is to get the ball quicker to Williams. Throw him some quick screens, slants, short outs, to build some confidence and gain some momentum.
In theory, this makes a lot of sense. In reality, the Lions have tried that, and it’s not working. And when you think about it, of course it’s not working, because that is highlighting what Williams is currently struggling with the most.
On the surface, quick plays where the ball is out quickly seem like easy pitch and catches. An easy throw by the quarterback and an easy route for the receiver. It may only gain you 4-6 yards, but it’s an easy success, and the hope is success breeds more success.
Except, that’s not all true. It’s often the quick-strike stuff that requires the most precision and attention to detail, in particular with this offense led by coordinator Ben Johnson. Tight end Sam LaPorta described this perfectly during the bye week on the “Green Light with Chris Long” podcast.
“(Goff) is very decisive in what he wants with route running, not to mention that Ben Johnson is very particular on yardage, routes, landmarks,” LaPorta said. “That makes it easy for me. It was a lot to memorize at first, for sure, but I know that I have to be snapping up this route at 6 yards because the timing of the play. If I’m not at 6 yards—if I’m at 7 or 8 yards—it screws up the entire timing and he’s going to have to progress to his next option. So once I memorized a lot of those details, I figured out what Jared needed from me, and I’d like to think of him as that security blanket for him.”
Those little details are the exact things that are missing in Williams’ game. How do I know this? Because that’s exactly what coach Dan Campbell said back in training camp.
“I told him this back in the spring, you want to feel like by the end of camp, man there’s a level of polish,” Campbell said. “Man, the splits, the route depth. You want to begin to feel like there’s a lot of polish to detail and that he has this pretty good rapport with Goff by the time he leaves because I think if we can get there, I don’t think it will take very long to pick it back up once he comes back.”
Unfortunately for Williams, two weeks after this quote, he went down with a hamstring injury and missed the rest of training camp and the preseason. He would miss the next month due to his suspension. That level of detail was never nailed down, and he’s still playing catch-up.
The visual proof is out there, too.
The Lions tried to do exactly what everyone was asking for early in the game against the Ravens. On the second play of the game, Williams ran a simple out route. The issue: Goff threw a 10-yard out, and Williams ran a 12-13-yard out.
With the line of scrimmage at the 41.5-yard line, the ball arrives at the catch point almost exactly 10 yards from there. Meanwhile, Williams’ route stretches a good 3 yards beyond that mark.
The ball placement forces Williams to have to come back for the ball, make a diving grab, and instead of a first down, Williams lands out of bounds and it was incomplete. I obviously cannot say for certain if this was an imprecise route, a bad throw, or poor communication. But the conclusion is all the same: these quick plays are not coming easy between Goff and Williams right now. The chemistry that is essential for the “easy” plays has not been built yet.
Flash forward to the end of that game, Williams is Goff’s checkdown option after the receiver goes in motion. The second-year receiver slows his route, waiting in space, and Goff overthrows him, clearly expecting him to run more downfield.
Another easy pitch-and-catch that is not coming easy. Again, I’m not trying to put the blame on one or the other—I’m simply pointing out the two are not on the same page when these plays require absolute precision.
On Monday night last week, the Lions dialed up another easy play—and this one even got to utilize Williams’ best and most trusted asset: speed. They send him in motion against man coverage, already giving him a leg up. He runs a perfectly fine wheel route. And Goff smartly throws it on his back shoulder, to ensure his receiver doesn’t get blown up by the defender. What happens?
Not the desired outcome but ridiculous play design by Ben Johnson to scheme open Jameson Williams on the fly.— Al Karsten (@bigalfredosauce) November 8, 2023
Now if the Mad Scientist can get in his lab laboratory and cook up some layups, with much lower degree of difficulty, for Williams that would be ideal. pic.twitter.com/qxYJUgs33W
The drops are what they are. I don’t know if they’re fixable, but I don’t believe it to be a confidence problem that is solved by a bunch of 2-yard passes. Talking to people he knows and hanging around him in the locker, I don’t get the sense that this is a kid with the “yips.” In fact, when he was last asked about the drops, he laughed off the question off like everyone was making a much bigger deal of it than he was. (12:30 mark below)
But here’s what I do know: the chemistry, the precision—it’s coming. It may have come more naturally with LaPorta and other receivers on the team, but remember that it didn’t truly break through for a guy like Amon-Ra St. Brown until the last couple months of his rookie season.
And if you squint hard enough, some of that is developing with Williams and Goff. To me, the most promising play of Williams’ career came in the second quarter of the Monday night tilt against the Raiders. Lined up in the slot, Williams ran up the seam and at about the 15-yard mark, he cuts inside. There, the ball is waiting for him on a perfectly delivered ball from Goff.
I do still wonder about some of the details on this play—Williams nearly runs right into Josh Reynolds after the catch. However, this was an anticipation throw from Goff. Williams hasn’t even made his break by the time Goff is uncorking this.
And Williams is right where the ball is delivered.
The Lions don’t need to give Williams some easy passes and dink and dunk their way downfield. That’s not going to do anyone any favors. That’s not Williams’ game, and it’s not addressing the bigger issues at hand. They simply just need to rep and rep and rep, and then rep some more. Hammer out the details, and continue to put Williams in positions to utilize his best asset: speed.