PITTSFORD, N.Y.: Cornerbacks Tramon Williams and Justin Gilbert will forever be linked in Browns history.
That’s because the franchise almost certainly never would have signed Williams to a three-year, $21 million contract in March if Gilbert had shown signs of living up to expectations as the eighth overall pick in last year’s NFL Draft.
But the Browns acquired Williams, a longtime starter for the Green Bay Packers, because they let Buster Skrine walk in free agency and realized they couldn’t rely on Gilbert to start opposite two-time Pro Bowl corner Joe Haden.
The gravity of the situation couldn’t have been more obvious Monday, when the Browns and Buffalo Bills held the first of two joint practices at St. John Fisher College.
Williams, 32, and Gilbert, 23, combined for a heaven-and-hell day.
The 6-foot, 192-pound Williams was just about the only Browns cornerback who consistently held his own against the Bills’ receiving corps, which was without Percy Harvin (hip) for the entire session and without fellow standout Sammy Watkins (glute) for everything but individual drills.
The Browns were without Haden (hamstring) and fellow corners Pierre Desir (hamstring), Robert Nelson (hamstring) and K’Waun Williams (abdominal). The injuries to Haden and Desir thrust Gilbert into action with the first-team offense opposite Tramon Williams. K’Waun Williams is the defense’s primary nickel corner.
According to the Beacon Journal’s unofficial count, Tramon Williams had three pass breakups in 11-on-11 drills, including one near interception. Two of his breakups were in the red zone, including one in the back of the end zone.
“That was a key signing for us to really stabilize that room, losing Buster,” Browns coach Mike Pettine said of adding Williams. “Anytime you can bring a veteran guy that’s proven that he can play at a high level for a long time in this league, it’s a great example for our young guys. He can certainly still play now.
“I think he’s a great complement to Joe [Haden]. He understands being opposite of Joe Haden he’s going to get a lot of throws his way. We understand that as a staff, so we’ll do some things to help him out, to hopefully free him up that he can make some plays. I can’t say enough good things about him. He’s been the ultimate professional.”
On the other hand, Gilbert had a nightmare of a practice.
According to the Beacon Journal’s unofficial tally, he allowed 11 receptions (four in one-on-one drills, one in a seven-on-seven drill and six in 11-on-11 drills), didn’t break up a single pass and surrendered a catch every time he was targeted. He unofficially surrendered one touchdown in a one-on-one drill and two during an 11-on-11 drill in which the ball was placed on the 25-yard line or closer.
Reporters obviously don’t know players’ assignments like their coaches do, so there is some gray area when tracking practices.
For example, Gilbert let Bills receiver Robert Woods blow by him during a play in an 11-on-11 period. Free safety Jordan Poyer was late in his attempt to pick up the coverage, and Woods caught a deep pass from quarterback Matt Cassel on a go route. If Gilbert didn’t blow the coverage, he would have only allowed 10 catches, including five in 11-on-11 drills, according to the Beacon Journal’s tabulation.
Either way, Gilbert has admitted he erred during a similar-looking play Thursday night in a 20-17 loss to Washington in the preseason opener. He explained he got caught looking into the backfield and allowed receiver Pierre Garcon to sprint past him uncovered. Garcon would have easily scored a touchdown had he not dropped a deep pass from Robert Griffin III at the Browns’ 15-yard line.
ProFootballFocus.com graded 33 Browns defensive players in the exhibition opener and ranked Gilbert last. He was targeted eight times and surrendered four receptions, according to the website.
So Gilbert followed a rough preseason game with a dreadful practice against the Bills. He was not made available to the media Monday.
“That’s the life of a corner,” said Pettine, who spent practice watching the Browns’ offense against the Bills while the defense worked on a separate field. “You have to have that short-term memory and be able to bounce back from a play. The best corners are confident corners, and that’s something that comes from having success. And if he’s in a little bit of a slump, it’s on him. We have to help him, but he has to play his way out of it.”
How can the coaching staff help Gilbert play his way out of such a dramatic funk?
“You don’t overreact,” Pettine said. “You get them to stay true to their technique. When guys get in trouble, it’s when their technique starts to slip. They start to do things out of structure to overcompensate. To me, it’s a trust thing. Trust his own athletic ability, trust what we’re telling him and just go out and take it play to play.”
The 6-foot, 202-pound Gilbert struggled with maturity issues and an undisclosed personal problem as a rookie last year, but Pettine said he has been receptive to coaching recently.
“He’s good in the meeting room,” Pettine said. “He understands his mistakes. He wants to learn. He wants to get better.”
Williams could be instrumental in helping Gilbert recover because he knows the importance of putting tough breaks behind him.
As a member of the Packers last season, Williams allowed Seattle Seahawks receiver Jermaine Kearse to catch the 35-yard, game-winning touchdown pass in overtime of the NFC Championship Game despite applying extremely tight coverage near the goal line.
“I use that example to some of the guys who feel down some time,” Williams said. “I’m like, ‘Man, come on.’ It’s one of those things where I’ve been experiencing this game a long time, and one of my strong points is to let that play go. Obviously, if I had another play, I would have been a lot happier. That’s been one of my strong points as a DB — to let the last play go.
“I’ve actually watched [the play]. I like to face my demons face to face. That’s the only way you can get better is to see what I could have done better in that situation. I gave credit where credit was due. [Seahawks quarterback] Russell [Wilson] threw a nice ball. [Kearse] made a nice catch. I was in good position. At the end of the day, you can live with that. If you feel you have done everything you could, you can live with the results.”
As for Gilbert, Williams has faith he’ll be able to overcome the adversity he’s facing early in his career.
“It is good for him to go through some of those trials right now,” Williams said. “He will be better. Trust me. No doubt about it. He’ll be good.
“It is just about coming in and believing and competing, pay attention to details. Once you can do that, you will find yourself doing some good things. In his case, some of the things I see, he is in good position a lot of the times. He just has to figure out what it is, and he’ll be better.”
Williams’ diligence is one of the reasons Pettine believes he’s capable of excelling at an advanced age for an NFL corner.
“Is he really 32?” Pettine joked. “No, I’m not surprised [he’s playing well] because he takes care of himself. He’s a guy that’s lasted this long, and a lot if it is because of his intellect. Just to hear his conversations with [secondary coach Jeff Hafley, defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil] and the other DBs, it is detailed, high-level stuff about routes and wideouts and things that he sees. To me, that’s so good for our young guys.”
The Browns hope Gilbert is taking notes from Williams. Gilbert has talent. However, adequate knowledge and confidence might be lacking.
“In this game, things are going to happen,” Williams said. “You have to find a way to keep that confidence up.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/abj.sports.