What would Nick Williams have said if someone had approached him in training camp and told him that he'd be leading the Bears in sacks entering Week 11 of the season?
"I'd say you're crazy," said Williams, a defensive tackle who in fact is leading the Bears with the first six sacks of his five-year NFL career. "Everybody knows that I'm going to play the run, play the run well, and a sack is an afterthought for me."
Williams understands that the Bears signed him in 2018 primarily to be a run-stuffer. But with injuries this year to linemen Akiem Hicks and Bilal Nichols, the 6-4, 308-pounder has made the most of expanded game reps and emerged as an all-around player.
Williams was selected by the Steelers in the seventh round of the NFL out of Samford, a Christian university with less than 6,000 students near his hometown of Birmingham, Ala. He spent his rookie season on injured reserve before making his NFL debut in 2014 with the Chiefs when Bears coach Matt Nagy was Kansas City's quarterbacks coach.
Williams appeared in 26 games with the Chiefs and Dolphins over three seasons from 2014-16 before spending the 2017 season out of football. He signed with the Bears in 2018 after participating in an April minicamp on a tryout basis and remained with the team through the end of the season. Williams played sparingly in only two games, but he was thrilled to be back in the NFL, honing his skills in practice.
"It was a blessing," Williams said. "When you're out of the league, out of work, you appreciate it when you're finally back in. Last year just wasn't my time to contribute to the team and I just waited it out. This year, fast forward, now I'm trying to do my thing."
Williams recorded his first NFL sack Sept. 15 in a win over the Broncos. He followed with a second sack the next week in a victory over the Redskins and then registered two sacks in a win over the Vikings, making his first career start in place of Hicks, who missed the game with a knee injury.
Williams posted his fifth sack in a loss to the Eagles and followed with his sixth in last Sunday's win over the Lions, moving ahead of perennial Pro Bowler Khalil Mack (5.5) for the team lead.
"I always knew I could get to the quarterback," Williams said. "It was just a matter of getting the opportunity to get to the quarterback, getting those snaps, getting those plays in, and you'll eventually have success if you always bring your lunch pail to work. It's not surprising to me."
Williams credits his emergence as a pass rusher in large part to the tutelage he's received from defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano and defensive line coach Jay Rodgers.
"This is a great coaching staff," Williams said. "To be coached by Chuck, be coached by Jay Rodgers, he's one of the best to do it in the league as far as last year and this year."
The guidance that Williams had received from Hicks, who is on injured reserve with an elbow injury, has also been extremely valuable.
"He's a great coach," Williams said of his veteran teammate. "He tells me what he sees in between plays and things I can work on during the game. I work on it and I have success, so you can attribute some of my success to him."
Now that he's being given the chance to play all three downs, Williams has put more effort into sharpening his skills during pass-rush drills in practice.
"I'm taking those a little more serious than I used to take them," Williams said. "In the past [I'd think], 'I'm never going to be in those situations. When third down comes, I'll be jogging to the sideline.' But I'm taking them more serious and when you're getting those opportunities, do what you're coached and you'll have success."
Williams has improved as a pass rusher because he's doing a better job of using his hands. He's also digesting critical information during pass-rush meetings the Bears defense conducts every Thursday that focus on exploiting the weaknesses of that week's opponent.
No one on the Bears roster appreciates the position he's in more than Williams, who conceded that he didn't want to watch NFL games when he was out of the league in 2017.
"I would try not to, but I would catch them every now and then," he said. "I was like, 'I know I deserve to be out there,' and it worked out. I always knew I'd get another opportunity and I just stayed ready."