There is likely no better indication of how far Damian Williams has come in his development as an NFL wide receiver than what he has done when he has almost nowhere to go.
With four touchdown receptions in a span of six games ending with victory over Carolina a little more than a week ago, the second-year pro out of USC supplanted the injured Kenny Britt, who scored three in two games, as the Tennessee Titans’ leader in touchdown receptions. He also helped make them one of the NFL’s most productive and proficient red zone offenses.
Three of those four scores came on plays inside the opponents’ 20-yard line, two, in fact, from inside the 10, which left the defense relatively little ground to protect.
“It’s way harder because you have less options [in the red zone],” Williams said. “They know you’re not going to run like a 40-yard go … so it condenses the field. Therefore, safeties and corners can actually both kind of play you at the same time.”
The epitome of Williams’ prowess in such confined spaces was his eight-yard touchdown reception against the Cincinnati Bengals on Nov. 6. On that one, which he said worked exactly as planned, he used basically every inch available to him, caught the ball against his left shoulder and managed to get both feet down inside the back line of the end zone with defenders — one safety and one cornerback — on either side of him.
There was not much more than an inch between the front of his foot and the back of the end zone when he made the reception.
“You have to have a knack for that,” offensive coordinator Chris Palmer said. “Nine out of 10 receivers would not have gotten their feet in. We tell our receivers you have to be two yards from the end line and work the back of the end line.”
Prior to Sunday’s game at Atlanta, the Titans led the NFL in touchdown percentage for red zone possessions. They had gotten to the end zone 15 times in 21 tries, a success rate of 71.4 percent.
New England was next at 63.4 percent, although it had almost twice as many opportunities. In fact, Tennessee had the fewest red zone possessions of any of the top 10.
“I kind of like that because it speeds up,” quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. “I sort of like the red zone — everything happens faster, [and] I like when it happens faster. I like being in the red zone. I just wish we would get there a little more.”
Eleven of those 15 red zone touchdowns came on pass plays, and Williams’ three were the most of any Titans. His first — the first touchdown of his career — was from four yards out against Cleveland. He followed that the next week with a 19-yard touchdown catch against Pittsburgh.
“When you get down there, that’s when teams make wins or losses,” Williams said. “You get down there and put points on the board, it makes it a lot easier for the defense to go out there and make a stop.
“I’m just trying to find open spots. I know where I’m supposed to wind up, but we never know what they’re going to do. [It’s] just having a plan and sticking with it and trying to get to an open spot.”
Touchdowns are not new to him.
Williams grew up in Springdale, Ark., where he played high school football under current Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. As a senior he scored 24 times on 63 receptions.
In college, he played one season at Arkansas before he transferred to USC, where he played two more. He averaged one touchdown per game in his first season with the Trojans and scored 17 times on 147 career receptions — an average of one touchdown every 8.6 catches — between the two schools.
His ability to get to the end zone in the NFL as well — and to do so quickly — is rare, at least in the Titans’ experience. While not overwhelming, getting four touchdown receptions in his first 24 career games is notable.
Beginning with Kevin Dyson, their first round selection in 1998, the Titans drafted 18 wide receivers through 2010, the year they selected Williams with the first of two third-round choices.
Seven of those 18 never even made it to 24 games played for the franchise, and only Dyson (five) and fellow first-round choice Britt (10) as well as Brandon Jones (five), a third-round pick in 2005, had more touchdown catches through their first 24 appearances.
“What he’s been able to do, especially in the red zone where it’s so tough to score touchdowns because the field is condensed, is he’s been able to get separation and go up and attack the ball,” wide receivers coach Dave Ragone said. “Especially down there, anticipating where the ball is going to come enables you to make a play.”
With Williams, of course, the majority of his playing time through his first 24 games was as a special teams player. It was only when Britt missed four games last season with a hamstring injury and sustained a season-ending knee injury in Week 3 of this season that he has gotten extended opportunities as a wide receiver.
“He’s a young player that’s developing,” Palmer said. “There’s a belief in the league that it normally takes a player three years to become an accomplished receiver. Here is Damian in his second year and he’s doing some very, very nice things.”
He also has started to show some variety.
His fourth touchdown came from 43 yards out in the 30-3 rout of Carolina. He covered most of that distance after he caught the ball and made two defenders miss. That and a 40-yard reception along the sideline — another tight spot — later in the contest contributed to his first career 100-yard receiving game.
“I think when they drafted him, there was a lot of excitement about how he was going to come here and help us,” coach Mike Munchak said. “Last year he showed flashes of it when he got opportunities, he didn’t get as many opportunities last year. When [Britt] got hurt he got a chance to start, and I think every week you are seeing a guy get better and better. It’s confidence. It’s the opportunities he is getting.”
The process has had its challenging moments.
Early in the season he dropped a couple balls that came his way, which continued an issue he had during the preseason. Although not the only one, he initially had issues with pre-snap positioning that led coaches during the bye week to change the nature of the offensive huddle with the hope it would allow players to get to the proper spot more promptly.
Williams also drew the ire of Palmer in a Week 5 loss to Pittsburgh because he came to the sideline at one point and claimed he could get open deep against the player covering him. When Palmer called a play accordingly, Williams did not go full speed down the field and it turned into an incomplete pass.
That led to a heart-to-heart talk between the two prior to the next contest.
“His biggest point to me is that he sees more in me than I do,” Williams said. “Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know, but it just let me know that he expects a whole lot from me, and he probably expects as much from me as I expect from myself.
“It was a little strange. … In high school, I was one of the best players. In college, I was one of the best players. It’s different having that conversation with your coach then versus now. I’m still trying to learn. I’m still growing. There’s so many things I don’t know about this league.”
It looks — at this point, at least — as if he has a pretty good idea of what to do when room to run is at a premium.