The first time Cary Williams saw Andre Johnson was in 2008 when Williams, then a rookie with Carolina, prepared for his only action of that season. He couldn't take his eyes off of Houston's go-to threat at wide receiver.
"It was amazing seeing him for the first time," Williams says now as he prepares to face Johnson again on Sunday when the Eagles take on the Houston Texans. "I've always thought he was the best out there and one of the greatest of all time to do it on a consistent level year after year."
Williams didn't play much on that December day in 2008 when Johnson caught 11 passes for 207 yards and a touchdown. Williams was a reserve cornerback in Baltimore when he saw Johnson again, in 2010, so he didn't get too close to the action as Johnson caught 14 passes for 140 yards and a pair of touchdowns for the Texans against the Ravens that day.
Williams was a starter in the 2011 playoff game when Johnson had 8 catches and 111 yards in Baltimore's victory, and the two tangled quite a bit in a 2012 regular season game when Houston and Baltimore played. Houston routed the Ravens, 43-13, sending Baltimore into the bye week in a nasty mood. Johnson caught 9 passes for 86 yards and Williams made 8 tackles and they went back and forth and had a highly competitive day. The Ravens, of course, bounced back and won the Super Bowl that year and Williams joined the Eagles as an unrestricted free agent in the following offseason.
Williams will see quite a bit of Johnson on Sunday. The great Johnson has 973 receptions, 13,212 yards and 62 touchdown receptions in his career, and he's off to a terrific start in 2014 with 46 catches, 551 yards a touchdown. In his 12th season, Johnson may not be quite what he used to be, having battled some injuries in recent seasons, but he is still a huge talent, extremely dangerous and part of a great twosome (along with DeAndre Hopkins) that Houston has to build around in the passing game.
And Johnson no doubt has Williams's attention this week.
"Big, physical guy, physical with his hands, physical at the point of attack with the ball, a guy that is good in the run game and will block you," Williams said. "He's very much like (Larry) Fitzgerald (Arizona Cardinals). One of the best, regardless of whether the team is good or not. Those are the guys who do it every year. He can do it all. He's got great body control. In my opinion, I thought he was the best guy I faced ever because of his ability to catch the ball, run routes, his ability to separate at the ball.
"What else has he got? Hmmm ... Whether it's a run or pass, you see the same effort from him. He wasn't a guy that tailed off in the run game. He played all four quarters and he did it quietly. He wasn't the type of dude who would talk trash in your face after he beat you. He was just gonna get his 100 yards and be quiet as heck."
Is Johnson the same as he was in 2012 or in 2010 or way back in 2008?
"I think he still can play at that level. I don't know what is going on down there and it seems like he had gone through some issues with the team or the organization or whatever, but I still think he's an elite talent. You see what Larry Fitzgerald did last week. They are premier players, all-time talents."
It is not easy for cornerbacks in the NFL today, and Williams and Bradley Fletcher live it every week. They battle. They are tenacious. They are physical. They win some battles and they lose some and they keep coming back for more.
The Eagles need to tighten up in the secondary, and everyone understands that. There have been too many big plays, and the costly ones in Arizona went for 80 yards (Fitzgerald) and 75 yards (John Brown) and they ultimately made the difference on the scoreboard.
There are no plans to rotate personnel or change the scheme. Williams and Fletcher are the starters, and Brandon Boykin is the slot cornerback and Nolan Carroll has found his valuable niche in the dime package and Jaylen Watkins is growing as a rookie.
It's an enormous task, every week.
"There's never a break, to be honest with you, because every one of those guys has talent," Williams said. "You just try to go out there and put your best foot forward, use your technique, stay within the scheme and make the most of the opportunities that are presented.
"I know this: On Sunday we're going to see a guy who is one of the greatest to play this game. That is a wonderful challenge. It's exciting. He's going to make you pay for any mistakes you make."