Marcus Williams and Saints motivated to move past bittersweet 2017, take next steps

No one knows how the 2017 season ended for the Saints better than safety Marcus Williams. As he prepares for his second year in the NFL, Williams' pinned tweet about turning his nightmare into motivation is a constant reminder of the Minneapolis Miracle -- the play that ended with Stefan Diggs in the end zone, putting the Vikings through to the NFC Championship Game. 

Immediately after the play, Williams spoke about it to reporters. "The ball was in the air. I didn't go attack it," he said on Jan. 14. "I've just got to be that guy, go up, and get the ball. As the safety back there, you've got to be the eraser. That was my job. The last play of the game, you've got to go do it, and you've got to save the game."

Williams didn't have to talk about it then -- everyone saw what happened. Indeed, since then, Williams has responded to nearly every question even tangentially related to the play the same way. "I'm trying not to talk about that," he told through a Saints representative when he was asked about the support for him after the season concluded.

Saints beat writer Nick Underhill said that Williams has every right to move on and focus on this season -- and he's completely right. Williams has no reason to let one play in the 2017 season define him, especially after what was a solid rookie year and as he continues what's been a standout training camp.

Williams and the Saints are ready to move past last year, a year that went better than Saints fans could have dreamed. First-round pick Marshon Lattimore and third-round pick Alvin Kamara won Defensive and Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, respectively, but Williams -- a second-round pick out of Utah -- was also an integral part of the Saints' success.

From the free safety position, Williams finished third on the team in total tackles with 73 and second in interceptions with four, just one behind Lattimore. Williams, however, isn't patting himself on the back.

"I feel like those are average numbers for me," he told through the Saints rep. "I always want to improve my game. I always want to be better than who had the most picks the last year and I want to be the guy who has the most picks this year. It's just my mentality to be better than whoever is on the opposing team, or whoever is playing the same position as I am."

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In fact, Williams' 2017 numbers are fairly average for him compared to his college stats. In his final two years at Utah, he had five picks in both his sophomore and junior seasons and finished with 65 tackles in 2015 and 64 in 2016. When the Saints took him in the second round in 2017, they knew what they were getting: A ball-hawking safety who can make tackles in the back end. Basically, something that they've struggled with at the free-safety position since Malcolm Jenkins left the team for the Eagles after the 2013 season.

In training camp this year, Williams has been one of the Saints' MVPs. There was a stretch of three consecutive days that Williams had an interception.

Even though future Hall of Famer Drew Brees is the one throwing the ball, Williams isn't buying into his own hype yet.

"Camp is camp," he said. "It is not the real game. Until you get into the real game, none of that matters. But preparation is always key. I prepare the same way I do in practice is the same way I should play in the game. Practice is a big part of how you perform in the game, so that's why I do perform in practice. Hopefully it translates to the game."

There's plenty of hype surrounding the 2018 Saints. A lot of that hype surrounds Kamara -- who said the Saints would have crushed the Eagles in the NFC title game -- as people look to see if he can emulate his terrific rookie year. But 2017 marked the beginning of an identity shift for the Saints. Brees posted his lowest number of attempts since 2009, and had fewer yards and touchdowns than he has since joining the Saints in 2006. Yet his completion percentage hit a career-high at a staggering 72 percent and he threw his fewest interceptions since since 2004 with eight. The Saints became a ground-and-pound team, with Kamara and Mark Ingram leading the way.

Even for all of that, the most marked difference in the Saints was their defense. A defense that people often said could be considered successful even if they ranked in the 20s in yards allowed exceeded those expectations. The Saints gave up 36 touchdowns -- the fewest since 2013 -- and they were 17th in the league in yards allowed at 336.5 per game.

More importantly, their 25 takeaways were tied for ninth in the league, and the most for the team since 2012 when they had 26. All of those stats paled in comparison to the swagger that the defense showed. Between the team celebrations and the fact they just seemed to be enjoying themselves, it looked like a completely different Saints defense than the one from recent years. Cameron Jordan, the anchor of the Saints' defense, finally didn't look like a man who was trapped.

The Saints defense, posing after forcing a turnover last season, was a major part of the team's success in 2017. USATSI

As Brees enters the waning years of his career, the Saints have prepared for life after him in the draft. They've drafted offensive linemen, they've bolstered the defense -- including trading up in the first round in April to take defensive end Marcus Davenport -- and they traded up last year to grab Kamara. For Williams, it's all about helping the defense from his part of the field and controlling what he can.

"Every defense wants to be the top defense, but it's all about the preparation," Williams said. "It's all about what you do in the offseason. Coming into the regular season, our goal is always to be number one. So, I feel like that is our main goal. Take the ball away, be a nasty defense, smart defense, relentless, get to the ball. The way I can help is to be that leader in the back end. Be able to get around the ball. Take the ball away. Just do my 1/11th on the field, so it'll take care of the rest."

For all their 2017 success, Sean Payton wants even more out of the Saints defense this year.

"Sean kind of challenged the defense the other day in a team meeting," Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said last week, via The New Orleans Advocate. "Talked about scoring defense, talked about how we used to practice that back in 2009. So we made a pact than when we do that, the whole defense is going to get down there and get the ball in the end zone."

The 2009 Saints defense was one of the most opportunistic in Saints history, finishing with five pick sixes and two fumbles returned for a touchdown. The team hasn't come anywhere near those numbers since, including a stretch between 2013 and 2016 when the team scored a total of one defensive touchdown. They had three last year, but Payton is challenging them for more.

The Saints defense may never have a run like the one to the 2009 Super Bowl. Tracy Porter alone had one of the most outrageous runs of clutch interceptions the NFL has seen in some time. But if the unit can give the Saints even better field position to start drives, this team will continue to be a force to be reckoned with.

Williams can only do his part. But he does have motivation around him, and a solid base for help.

"I have a training facility that I work out in California called Winner Circle Athletics," Williams said. "My trainer there ... does a great job preparing me for the preseason. My family motivates me, I motivate myself and my friends motivate me."

The Saints are entering this season with Super Bowl aspirations, and the young players are at the core. Kamara, Lattimore and Williams are redefining the Saints' Super Bowl window, which everyone thought would close when Brees retires. If these players can continue to keep up their success, the Saints should be right in the thick of things this year -- and for years to come. A lot of those hopes rest on the young defense and, of course, continuing to capitalize on some remarkable drafting.

It's clear that Williams, at least, isn't struggling with motivation. If the Saints can be the "nasty" and "smart" defense that he envisions, they could be an even tougher team to deal with than last year.

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