It all started with that seventh pick.
It was 2017 and coming off a disappointing 5-11 record, the Chargers had the 7th-overall pick in that year’s draft with a litany of holes to fill across the roster.
Guys like safety Malik Hooker, offensive tackle Garrett Bolles, or defensive end Jonathan Allen were the common names pinged to the Bolts in the weeks leading up to the draft. But, due to another season-ending injury that ended Keenan Allen’s 2017 before it really began, the Chargers took it upon themselves to approach the draft with a different mindset.
With that seven-overall pick, while all three aforementioned names were still available, the Chargers selected Mike Williams, a highly-touted wide receiver from Clemson that came with some injury concerns following a 2015 collegiate season that ended with a severe neck injury.
We can all recall his injury-riddled rookie season. He struggled with a lingering back issue that saw him all but miss training camp, the preseason, and then the first five games of the regular season.
On October 5th, Williams caught a single pass for five yards in his long-awaited debut against the Oakland Raiders. Although he didn’t miss another game the rest of the season, Williams managed a meager stat line of 11 catches for 95 yards. His best game coming against the Buffalo Bills where he caught five of eight targets for just 38 yards.
As the season ended with the team just barely missing the playoffs, Williams wasted no time in getting back to work on his craft. Fueled by the early “bust” talk and commentary that the Chargers should never have gone with a wide receiver so early, he got together with Allen and other teammates to work on his releases and his route depth (he noted this was his biggest issue he wanted to work on).
After countless workouts consisting of running up hills, around and through cones, and working on agility drills across a number of sandy beaches, Williams was ready to bounce back in a big way during his sophomore campaign.
When all was said and done with the 2018 season, Williams walked off the field having made his own small mark on Chargers history.
Williams became the first Chargers receiver since 1996 (Tony Martin, 14) to record 10+ receiving touchdowns in a single season. He joins tight end Antonio Gates as the only Chargers players to record 10+ in a season, with Gates having done it four times from 2004-2014.
It’s crazy. You would have fully expected Allen to have done this by now, especially when he’s the one getting an average of 147.5 targets over the last two seasons. Williams had just 66 in ‘18. Allen’s single-season high was eight, way back in his 2013 rookie season.
It’s nothing short of an anomaly that Williams had this much success finding the end zone. He averaged just 2.7 receptions on 4.1 targets per game which means he scored a touchdown every 4-5 touches. That’s some insane efficiency and, likely, quite unsustainable.
Or is it?
Normally I would agree and say this was just a “flash in the pan”-type of season for Williams but after throwing on the tape, there were many obvious similarities throughout in terms of how they continuously schemed him open that make me think this isn’t just a fluke.
The most common method they used to get Williams open is the use of stacks in the formation, usually coming from a “Snugs” look. Below you can see what some know as “Snugs Flip”, a formation that brings your wideouts in close within the box. In regular “Snugs” the slot receiver is on the line of scrimmage while in the flipped version, it is the flanker and split-end on the line.
A Snugs formation is often utilized by offenses to gain an advantage against man coverage where they can bring a player in motion to attack bump-n-run man coverage. It also helps an offense with their outside run game if they have a running back with enough gas in the tank to win the corner.
Another reason to love the Snugs look is that it can help a quarterback decipher the defensive coverage in a snap. If they are playing man, the outside cornerbacks will be lined up on top of the outside receiver. If they are playing zone, the outside corner will have a slight outside leverage on number one.
Now, below is the first touchdown of Williams’ career which he scored in week 2 against the Buffalo Bills.
Prior to the snap, Williams motions down next to tight end Antonio Gates to give us that conventional Snugs stack to Rivers’ left. If you’re reading the defense with the rules listed above, the defense is telling Rivers’ they are in zone as the corner sits just outside Williams at the bottom of the screen. However, Buffalo safety Micah Hyde starts to roll down over the top of Gates giving the offense giving them a Cover 1 look which means they are likely playing man-to-man underneath.
As Rivers takes the snap, Williams works to the outside hip of the corner, stepping on his toes before breaking back inside, keeping his route “skinny” as to avoid the other safety on the back end. Gates runs a simple hook underneath which keeps Hyde engaged enough for Williams to clear him and open back up inside.
Rivers puts the ball exactly where it needs to be for Williams to go up and get it before getting smacked on the way down. Heck of a throw and catch, to be honest. It’s also exactly what fans hoped would come from a receiver like Williams.
In the Chargers’ third game of the season, Williams broke out even more with a two-touchdown performance against the new and intimidating LA Rams defense. With guys like Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib at cornerback, it was hard to imagine anyone not named Keenan Allen having a decent day against this secondary.
But somehow, against all odds, Williams prevailed.
The clip below is Williams’ second score of the day and- well would you look at that, they’re sitting in a Snugs formation.
This time, Williams is the slot receiver up on the line scrimmage with Allen to his left. The defense is showing man coverage from the get-go with only one safety playing over the top on the near hash.
At the snap, Williams presses vertical with Allen following. As Williams gets to the cornerback’s level, Allen breaks to the sideline and Williams breaks off his corner route to the pylon. Rivers and Williams and were both lucky that the safety was late getting to the corner as the ball was thrown just behind Williams, forcing him to stop to make the catch. But then Williams puts his big boy pants on and muscles his way to the pylon for the score.
His fourth, and arguably easiest touchdown of the season came against the Tennessee Titans when both squads tussled across the pond in week seven.
The Chargers came out of the huddle in 13-personnel with three tight ends, Williams, and running back Austin Ekeler in the backfield.
With Virgil Green and Sean Culkin connected on the left, Gates and Williams are set to the right. Prior to the snap, Rivers motions Gates down to the slot, just inside Williams. It’s not as condensed, but they are now in a loose Snugs Flip look.
The outermost defender is playing off and outside of Williams and the safeties end up in a two-high look before the snap. This gives Rivers the notion that they’re in zone coverage.
From the snap, Williams hits the jets and goes vertical, splitting the cornerback and safety. Gates runs an out route at 10 yards which gets the the cornerback to drop Williams and sit on Gates. However, the safety to that side has his eyes set on the veteran tight end as well, likely believing he’s the obvious target with the Chargers trying to keep the chains moving.
As Williams gets to the safety’s level, the defender stop his feet for a split-second before realizing #81 is blowing right by him.
Easy pitch-and-catch on the corner route.
Some may think it’s giving Ken Whisenhunt and the coaching staff too much credit, but they did a fantastic job pairing Williams (a noted top pick who struggled mightily in his rookie season) with a proven veteran (Allen & Gates) when it came to these stack alignments.
It only became more evident as the year went on that, no matter how many touchdowns Williams was going to score, opposing defenses weren’t going to give him the attention he rightfully deserved.
Five weeks later, the stumbling Arizona Cardinals visited StubHub center in what was hopefully going to be a bounce-back game for the Chargers following their home loss to the Denver Broncos. In that game, Williams notched his second multi-score game of the season.
Williams’ numbers weren’t super impressive by any means, but when he does the things he was drafted for, he doesn’t need to decorate the box score.
In one of their first trips to the red zone, they come out in a Trey Left look with Gates flexed into the slot. On the outside, the Mike and Tyrell are in a stack with Mike on the LOS.
When the ball is snapped, Mike begins to work vertical. Tyrell takes an outside release before pivoting back inside. Gates gives his defender a little wiggle before settling over the middle of the field. With the underneath and middle defenders preoccupied, Mike-Will is left one-on-one with the cornerback.
Mike gets a little help from the defender being so passive on this play but his route is also exceptional. The corner doesn’t go to shake hands with Williams until he’s already 10 yards downfield. Mike sees this and breaks his route off violently, creating five yards of separation almost immediately. This also causes the corner to panic and get all kinds of turned around.
It’s another score for Williams who can’t help but wonder why this is all too easy.
In no surprise whatsoever, Williams ended his sensational year exactly how he kicked things off.
In the team’s final regular season game against the Broncos in Denver, Williams scored his final touchdown of the year on the same route that he used for his first score in week 3.
Williams and Allen start in a Snugs Flip stack to the left before Allen is sent across the formation to reveal man coverage. As his defender chases, the only guy left on the back end is the safety. However, he’s either sent on a blitz or bites on the play-action way too hard and opens up the entire end zone for Williams to work with.
All he has to do is get on the corner’s toes before breaking it back inside for the score. This time, without the wallop from a safety.
From week 1 to week 17, teams chose time and time again to make Williams an after-thought in their game plan preparations. Time and time again, Mike-Will made them pay. Even when the game was on the line and Williams had already scored a trio of touchdowns against them, the Kansas City Chiefs still got their coverage mixed-up and left #81 wide open in the corner of the end zone to make the easiest catch of the season.
With the other Williams cashing in with the Oakland Raiders, there’s no chance that the third-year receiver will get overlooked in the same manner again. It’s up to the coaching staff to continue to develop plans and strategize for their younger guys in hopes of another receiver breaking out in a big way in 2019.
(Can you say former 2018 Training Camp Superstar Dylan Cantrell?)