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Saints’ P.J. Williams returns to native Florida, looks to continue building on best season | Saints

P.J. Williams is treating it just like any other game.

Never mind that he’ll be in Tampa, just 90 miles from his hometown of Ocala, Florida.

Never mind that he’ll be going up against his college teammate and friend, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston.

Never mind that he grew up a huge fan of the Bucs, rooting for guys like Warren Sapp, Mike Alstott and Ronde Barber and others as 9-year old kid when they won Super Bowl XXXVII.

“It doesn’t mean much now, because I’m far from a fan now,” Williams said. “I don’t think about playing the team that I liked growing up. I just want to win.”

For the fourth-year cornerback used primarily in nickel packages, it’s a chance to continue building on what has been his best season yet.

His 40 tackles this season leaves him just seven shy of tying his career-high 47 from a season ago.

“I feel like I’m getting comfortable every week, playing with a lot more confidence and being able to play fast,” Williams said. “Just knowing the game plan and executing the game time. Just overall, I’m taking my game up.”

It helps that Williams is finally healthy after an injury-plagued start to his career. A hamstring injury ended his entire rookie season in 2015. He played in just two games the following year but suffered what at the time looked like it could be major injury in Week 2 against the New York Giants. Williams lay on the turf at Met Life Stadium after taking a knee to the side of the helmet and another knee to the back of the helmet on the same play. Williams was immobilized and carted off the field.

His recollection of the play?

“I remember being in the ambulance,” Williams recalled. “But I never think about it. It doesn’t affect me at all.”

Williams was placed on injured reserve for the remainder of that season after what was determined to be a concussion, but he never doubted he’d return.

Neither did his teammates.

“It was a scary moment for all of us, but God kept him close and he bounced back, and it’s like he never left,” safety Vonn Bell said. “He isn’t afraid to make the big hit, and he’s still sticking his nose in there when it gets cloudy and muddy. He lays his body on the line for us, just playing fast and making plays.”

Williams said he is as healthy as he’s ever been after playing the end of last season while battling tendonitis.

His performance in the seventh game against the Minnesota Vikings — when he returned an interception for a touchdown and also helped force a momentum-swinging fumble — earned him NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors. Williams also recorded his first career sack on Thanksgiving night against the Falcons.

“P.J.’s really intelligent, he’s really smart and understands how to operate inside in that nickel position,” said Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. “He understands leverage and when we ask him to play receivers, he knows where his help is. He knows zone coverage and how teams are tyring to attack him. You can win a lot of games and do a lot of good things with highly intelligent players. I think P.J.’s had some success. That builds your confidence and allows you to come out and play more freely and aggressive.”

There was a time this season when it didn’t seem like Williams would get those snaps, particularly after a Week 3 when he struggled against the Falcons. His woeful day included giving up a 75-yard touchdown to Calvin Ridley.

“I feel like I didn’t play well at all that Atlanta game,” Williams said. “After that, I just wanted to make sure I played a whole lot better to help the team.”

Cornerback Marshon Lattimore noticed the difference.

“After the Atlanta game, he really locked in after that,” Lattimore said. “From that point on, he was great. Playing corner in the NFL, you’re going to have those rough games and you have to know how to bounce back, and that’s what he did. We knew how P.J. could play, and he’s showing that more this year.”

Now Williams returns to his home state of Florida, where his football journey began.

He stays in touch with Winston, with whom he played for three seasons at Florida State. The two were on the Seminoles team that beat Auburn in the 2014 BCS National Championship Game. Winston and Williams were named the game’s most valuable players.

They stay in touch, with Williams giving Winston a bit of ribbing leading up to Sunday’s game. Williams’ last interception against Winston came in practice at Florida State. He has yet to intercept Winston as a pro. 

“Hopefully this week,” Williams said. “I talk junk a little bit to him, told him not to come at me. Don’t look for him to complete any passes on me.”

But Williams is more focused on the Saints getting a win, avenging their season-opening loss.

“They are a lot better, but I feel we are a lot better too,” Williams said. “I feel like we are the better team. We just have to play like it. We are trying to win the NFC South championship. Losing last week (against Dallas) makes me want to win this week. That’s the main thing for me.”

Follow Rod Walker on Twitter, @rwalkeradvocate.

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