TAMPA — Mary Rosenthal had the best of intentions, but throwing a football with accuracy just wasn't among her strengths.
So years ago, when she insisted on playing catch with her young son, current Bucs receiver Mike Williams, she routinely overthrew him. It forced Williams to reach for the sky to come down with the wayward passes.
"Before I even knew how to run a route, I knew how to go up and get the ball," Williams said.
And he's still at it, regularly going up and over defenders to haul in passes that seem uncatchable. The 6-foot-2 Williams leaped over 6-1 Chiefs cornerback Stanford Routt on Sunday for a catch, then raced the remaining 40 yards or so for a touchdown.
The credit, it seems, all goes to mom.
"Every time I make a catch like that, I tell her that's because of her," Williams said, joking.
Defenses are taking notice, but Williams is actually drawing less attention in one respect. The presence of Pro Bowl receiver Vincent Jackson, signed during the offseason, often has defenders preoccupied, leaving Williams to face single coverage.
When that happens, Williams thinks happy thoughts.
"Six (points)," he said. "When I see man coverage, I think about a touchdown. Not even just a catch. That's like disrespectful. If you're going to play man coverage, I think it's disrespectful."
The comment from the third-year player raised eyebrows with the Saints ahead of the teams' matchup in Tampa on Sunday. But their players don't disagree.
"Now they have Vincent Jackson, who is just as talented, so the safeties have to lean more over there or truly play in the middle of the field," Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "(Williams) knows he has the one-on-one matchup. With most corners, I think he wins that matchup a fairly decent amount of times."
So where was the swagger last season?
Well, it might have been inappropriate given the season Williams produced. After his 2010 season, in which the fourth-round pick out of Syracuse posted 964 yards and 11 touchdowns (a franchise rookie record), Williams was held to three touchdowns and 771 yards last year. Also notable: the drop from 14.8 yards per catch to 11.9.
Defenses made it a point not to allow Williams to beat them. The result was a frustrating season. The lowest point: one catch for minus-4 yards against Minnesota. A few days later, Williams told reporters in bewilderment, "I'm playing terrible."
Dropped passes became frequent as the pressure mounted.
This season, he has three touchdowns, six receptions of 20-plus yards and a robust 22.1 yards per catch, behind only the 22.8 of the Browns' Josh Gordon.
And many of his 15 catches have — of course — been of the vertical variety.
"The way he contorts his body and continues to keep his feet, there's no coaching aspect to that whatsoever," Bucs receivers coach P.J. Fleck said. "He is a physical specimen when it comes to that. He understands ball position and where it's going to be and understands where he has to go to outjump the defender. That goes along with his hand-eye coordination and his ball skills."
This is not routine stuff, though Williams said the catch over Routt and others like it are exactly that.
"I think it is special; the ability to track a ball like that," Bucs offensive coordinator and former Giants quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan said. "It's a lot like Hakeem Nicks with the Giants. You run out of superlatives. It's just exciting."
But Sullivan emphasized Williams' off-field efforts as another key to his resurgence. Following the example of Jackson, Williams has become a better student of the game. He has always had a willingness to work, but now he's working smarter.
"I always worked hard, but (Jackson) is going to push you," Williams, 25, said. "He's going to take you to another level."
Know what might help take the Bucs to another level? More throws up top for Williams. He even had a little advice for quarterback Josh Freeman.
"We'd be a lot better," Williams said, "if he threw it like my mom."
He was kidding — mostly.
"She tells me all the time I wouldn't be here without her, and she's right," Williams said.
"I give her all the credit."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]