Falcons Head Coach Mike Smith said today that defensive back Brian Williams, who has arguably been the team’s best since the Falcons signed him on Sept. 6 after he was waived by Jacksonville, was placed on injured reserve and will miss the remainder of the season because of a knee injury.
Smith said Williams tore his anterior cruciate ligament and suffered related damage that will result in a complete surgical knee reconstruction. As potential replacements for Williams as the starting corner and nickel back, Smith named second-year man Chevis Jackson, who played more than 600 plays last season in a role similar to what Williams has played this season, rookie Christopher Owens, a 2009 third-round draft pick, and Tye Hill, acquired during the end of training camp from St. Louis for a draft pick.
“It’s going to be a big loss, but an opportunity for another player on our squad,” Smith said.
With Williams on injured reserve, the Falcons have a roster spot open. Smith said the Falcons would make a move to add a player, which he expected the team to announce in “the very near future.”
On a defense that ranks 21st against the pass, losing the veteran Williams will hurt. He was familiar with the Falcons’ scheme from his days in Jacksonville, where Smith acted as defensive coordinator before taking the Falcons’ head job, and helped instruct the team’s young secondary in both the scheme’s nuances as well as in strategy. (Cornerback Chris Houston is in his third season and Brent Grimes, who started next to Williams on Sunday, is in his second.)
Smith said he expected Williams would continue to attend meetings and help in that informal role. He said Williams would be around the team’s practice facility rehabilitating prior to his surgery.
“He’ll be a guy who will still impact our defense,” Smith said.
Plus, Williams made an impact on the field. In Week 1, he returned a fumble 53 yards. In Week 2, he blocked a kick, in Week 3 he recovered a fumble and in Week 5 after the bye he had an interception. He also had three passes defended and 22 tackles. Another difference that made the 30-year-old Williams stand out was his size. At 5-foot-11, 202 pounds, he is a bit larger than all of the other corners.
Williams was defending Bears’ tight end Greg Olsen on a pass in the end zone when he suffered the injury. He leaped to make a play on the ball and landed awkwardly with 6 minutes 18 seconds left in regulation on Sunday. He required assistance on the field before being helped off.
“Brian’s a very competitive guy,” Smith said. “He’s been very efficient and successful in this league at his two prior stops [Minnesota and Jacksonville]. I was very familiar with Brian and having an opportunity to coach him in Jacksonville and he’s come in and when opportunities have arisen for him to make plays, he’s done it. He’s been around the football and I think he’s been a great addition to our defensive unit through these first five games.”
With the NFL’s trading deadline on Tuesday, Smith acknowledged that the timing to go that route would be tricky and said that would be a question better answered by General Manager Thomas Dimitroff.
“We’d have to be real quick,” Smith said.
Cornerback is a position where confidence is integral and Smith said he did not expect Jackson to suffer in that respect, though he was demoted in favor of Williams after Williams’ acquisition.
“Chevis handled this very, very well in terms of not getting as much playing time,” Smith said. “I know personally he was disappointed. All the decisions we make are based on what’s best for the team. I know Chevis accepted it and now he’s going to get an opportunity to make the most of it and I think he’ll make the most of it. He’s got a lot of snaps. He played about 600 snaps in  in our sub package.”
In what would represent an optimistic parallel for the Falcons, Smith compared Hill’s situation to that of Domonique Foxworth, whom the team traded for last season from the Denver Broncos. Foxworth departed after the season via free agency, opting to sign with Baltimore. Foxworth played in 14 games for the Falcons, starting 10 last season.
The Falcons coaching staff worked Foxworth in slowly last season, starting mostly with special teams before he became a starter. Like Hill and Williams, who were acquired late in the preseason, Foxworth was acquired five days before the season opener.
“This will be an opportunity for Tye Hill, as well as I mentioned for Chris Owens and Chevis Jackson,” Smith said. “Tye had not gone through our [offseason team activities] and really had not gone through training camp. He was a late addition, very similar to last year with Domonique Foxworth, so there is a learning curve and Tye has been working very, very diligently to learn our defense and he’s going to get an opportunity this week to step in and compete for that corner position.”
While what sort of rotation the coaching staff chooses to employ among Grimes, Houston, Owens, Jackson and Hill remains to be seen, Smith acknowledged that the competition is not simply for playing time but for a starting job.
“Well we’re going to definitely have to have a starting nickel because Brian was playing our nickel and Brian was starting in our base defense as the corner, Smith said. “… It will be for both, playing time and who’s going to be the starter because we’re down a starter at the corner and the nickel position as we speak right now.”