If you have four functioning limbs, Philip Rivers will find a way to get you the football.
Unfortunately for the San Diego Chargers, finding players with four functioning limbs has been a problem over recent years. Danny Woodhead tore his ACL in Week 2. Keenan Allen tore his in Week 1. Stevie Johnson had previously been ruled out for the season with a meniscus tear, leaving the Chargers with only Travis Benjamin and Antonio Gates from their best five pass catchers. Hunter Henry was lying in wait to take on a bigger role but he wasn't going to soak up the targets of three more established players. Henry, Benjamin and Gates needed at least two more complements to form a viable receiving corps.
In Dexter McCluster the Chargers found a running back who could seamlessly fit into the Woodhead role. At least, stylistically he could. The back already had an established relationship with offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. At receiver, the light shone brighter on Dontrelle Inman and Tyrell Williams.
Williams is the one who has flourished.
While it's much easier to be a wide receiver with Philip Rivers in this type of offense than it is elsewhere, you still have to take advantage of the setup you operate in. Williams has caught 31 passes for 526 yards and two touchdowns so far this season. He's showcasing a skill set that should be eerily familiar to Chargers fans who previously watched Malcom Floyd thrive as Rivers' lanky, deep threat. The difference between Floyd and Williams is that Williams has the chance to become much more.
The second-year receiver was undrafted out of Western Oregon in 2015. He only caught two passes during his rookie season but one was an 80-yard touchdown against the Denver Broncos. He was left wide open on that play as the Broncos secondary confused itself while playing quarters. Against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, Williams caught a 49-yard pass early on during the first quarter. It wasn't a blown coverage this time, though the play fake combined with the play call from the defense afforded him an opportunity to run unopposed downfield.
Rookie De'Vondre Campbell is the middle linebacker on this play. Williams lines up on the line of scrimmage as the interior option in the trips bunch to the left. As Williams runs a deep route that is arcing across the field from the moment he leaves the line of scrimmage, Campbell will be responsible for covering him.
Campbell takes himself out of the play with his slow read of the play fake. He couldn't afford to freeze in his spot for a moment and he took one long step forward. With that step, he never had a chance of running with Williams. Campbell was always going to need safety help to prevent Williams from getting open but that is the kind of matchup that is afforded to a receiver in this offense. Rivers is an equal-opportunity passer, he won't force the ball to any of his targets and he makes each a threat. That means you can't tilt your coverage in any direction. You can assign your best cornerbacks to specific players. Williams will never be on the receiving end of that treatment while Travis Benjamin is healthy.
His long, comfortable stride allows Williams to glide downfield before running underneath the ball. Once he secures the catch he begins to accelerate, extending the play as far as he can down the sideline.
Williams caught a 38-yard pass in the second quarter that was very similar to his first long gain. Yet his most impressive play of this game might have been the one that didn't even count.
Your eyes will instinctively try to follow the ball in the above gif. Watch the play through once first if you need to but then focus on Williams. From this angle you can see how he releases from the line of scrimmage and plays to the safety's actions reading run. By setting in front of him before skipping past him he doesn't give the safety a chance to react to his route (my apologies for the gif jumping a bit at this moment, it was a fault on the film from NFL.com, not something that could be fixed in editing).
His smooth transition and acceleration that followed allowed Williams to get into his route between the second and third levels of the defense. Travis Benjamin has the football and is trying to throw it in his direction but he hesitates. He should have delivered the ball at this point. Williams doesn't stop in his route when Benjamin hesitates, he keeps moving towards the sideline.
This is the point in the play where things get really interesting.
Williams makes a hands catch and the ball sticks as soon as he touches it. While doing that, he keeps his left foot inbounds and attempts to stop his right toe just before the line. He's unsuccessful, but only by an inch. The ball was originally ruled as a reception before being overturned. Whether Williams was an inch in or an inch out of bounds doesn't really matter on this play. What matters is how he approached the ball by the sideline. He was aware of the sideline and used a posture to catch the ball that gave him an opportunity to come down with it. These are natural ball skills where the hands and feet work together in concert.
A receiver who approaches the catch point like this will catch more passes than he drops while affording his quarterback (or wide receiver acting as a quarterback in this case) a greater margin for error with his accuracy. Not that Philip Rivers generally needs a margin for error.
Rivers has a long history of getting the most out of his receivers but he has enjoyed particular success with longer receivers who can make plays on the ball in the air. He understands leverage and is capable of putting the ball in spots that play to the receiver's positioning against specific coverages. Whether it was Vincent Jackson, Chris Chambers, Malcom Floyd, Danario Alexander, Seyi Ajjirutoto or even Lardarius Green, Rivers knows how to use the bodies of bigger receivers.
That's not to say Williams is reliant on Rivers to throw him open all the time.
Against the Oakland Raiders three weeks ago, Williams caught five passes for 117 yards and a touchdown. He split a cornerback and safety for his touchdown and beat press coverage for his longest gain of the day, a 50-yard play against David Amerson. Amerson didn't offer much resilience as Williams advanced off the line. The receiver didn't need to show off fleet feet or make an aggressive move. Instead he used his strength to continue downfield as Amerson engaged him. Once through his stem, Williams angled towards the sideline before using his upper body to bounce Amerson away from him slightly.
Those actions were enough to create an opportunity to sprint away from the cornerback on a post route. Rivers delivered a catchable ball and Williams made a good catch. Had Rivers been able to lead him downfield he could easily have had a touchdown.
Williams is averaging 17.0 yards per reception. He has 10 plays of 20 or more yards and three plays of 40 or more yards. On 31 receptions! It's inarguable that he is a deep threat and that is his primary role in the Chargers offense. However, on Sunday against the Falcons, Williams also showed off an ability to create after the catch on a crossing route. Crossing routes are a staple of the Chargers offense because Rivers always knows when to go to them. That means if you run a crossing route and are targeted, you're likely to be wide open. Those routes rarely require the receiver to work to get open either because Rivers will throw to them against zone or when the assigned defender in man coverage is picked off or naturally without leverage because of his alignment.
The defense isn't pressing receivers at the line before the play begins and they drop into zone as soon as the ball is snapped. Rivers immediately knows he will throw the ball to Williams who initially lined up in the slot. Williams makes a comfortable hands catch while turning his eyes to the linebacker who is set to confront him. The linebacker has good positioning to come up and make a tackle but WIlliams shows off quick, precise feet to use his aggression against him. From there you can see his acceleration as he bends around the corner.
Although the first move on this play was the most important because it got the first down and set up the second, the second move was arguably even better. Williams' ability to slow himself down, almost to a complete stop, by shuffling his feet to shift back infield before continuing further down the sideline is an impressive athletic act. It also requires spacial awareness to understand the angle/speed of arriving defender so he could use his momentum against him.
Williams is an intriguing talent and, at 24 years of age, someone who is in position to be both a short and long-term contributor for the Chargers offense. It's hard to expect much from Keenan Allen or Stevie Johnson in 2017 considering Allen's injury history and Johnson's age. That should give Williams an opportunity to compete for a spot amongst the top three receivers. For the short term this season, there is no reason to think his production is going to slow down. He has a clearly defined skill set with a great quarterback in an offense that lives on throwing the football.
If anything his production should improve as his number of targets to this point hasn't yet yielded many scoring opportunities.