Keron Williams, the 27-year-old defensive line veteran, has finally cracked the code.
In his seventh CFL season, and third for the B.C. Lions, Williams has flourished into a fearsome force. After 11 sacks last year, a career best, the 6-foot-1, 260-pound defensive end has already piled up a league-leading six sacks in six games at the one-third mark of the 2012 campaign.
Williams is one of the pillars of the league’s No. 2 defence, by points allowed, and No. 1, by yards conceded, a performance that extends from the 2011 championship year, when the B.C. defence vied with Winnipeg’s as the CFL’s best.
As this season began, it had been envisioned that the Lions’ offence would take all headlines as it piled up points but instead it is the defence that is the big reason the team is tied with Edmonton for the league’s best record at 4-2.
So it is Williams, a veteran secondary, and the somewhat unexpected emergence of young players such as Adam Bighill – a 5-foot-10 linebacker with the CFL’s second-most tackles, two interceptions and two sacks – that form the early foundations of a run to repeat and seize victory in the CFL’s centenary.
The explosive start for Williams comes after years of tutelage under some of the game’s best on the D line, such as one-time defensive MVP Brent Johnson, the now-retired Lion who terrorized quarterbacks for a decade and is the Lions’ career sack leader with 89.
It’s called bend the corner – the elusive moment when a defensive end stirs a recipe of speed and strength to spin around and away from the grasp of an offensive-line tackle and on to an expressway to the quarterback and a sack.
“I took a lot of notes,” said Williams after practice this week as the Lions prepare to take on the Saskatchewan Roughriders (3-3) on Sunday, the Lions’ first home game in a month.
“It didn’t click till towards the end of season last year, when I finally learned how to really bend the corner, what all these coaches I had were saying,” Williams said. “Bending the corner’s hard, but it’s easy – without getting into the science of it.”
As Williams conducts advanced, and classified, scientific experiments on the D-line, Bighill roams the middle of the field. The 23-year-old seems like he would be an unlikely heir to Solomon Elimimian, the 2010 CFL rookie of the year who was voted the league’s hardest hitter last season on the way to the Grey Cup. Elimimian is at the Minnesota Vikings camp trying to land an NFL roster spot and has already snatched an interception in a preseason game.
What might have been a gaping hole for the Lions has been more than filled by Bighill. He has been twice chosen the league’s defensive player of the week, in just six games, the second time after the Lions neutered the Toronto Argonauts and Ricky Ray before the bye week.
At 5-foot-10, Bighill doesn’t immediately look like a professional linebacker. But the 230-pound alumnus of Central Washington University has shut up any skeptics in his sophomore pro year.
“People are like, ‘Well, he’s not very big,’” Bighill said. “It doesn’t matter. It’s about what you get done on the field. It’s something you have to overcome, and show people. It’s just the nature of fact that not many people my size are doing what I’m doing.”
Mike Benevides, the long-time defensive co-ordinator turned rookie head coach, is not surprised at all in his defence. Beyond Williams and Bighill, there is the ever-present veteran secondary, the glue that binds this year’s team to years past, and new players, such as Lin-J Shell, the defensive back who was third in the CFL in tackles in 2011 for the Argos before joining the Lions. Rich Stubler, former Argos head coach and veteran defensive co-ordinator, completes the package as he joined the team from the Edmonton Eskimos.
“There’s great continuity, and there’s some great pieces added,” Benevides said.
Both Bighill and Williams credit cohesion as the intangible that has propelled the Lions defensive success.
“We all play well together,” Bighill said. “There’s going to be weaknesses in your defence but we understand, because we have a veteran group, and understand what people are trying to do to us.”
Williams is succinct.
“We’re not playing selfish football. We’re playing as a family.”