Even casual NFL fans have an idea of who Mario Williams is. Buffalo Bills fans, who rank among the hardest of hardcore NFL fans, obviously know who Williams is, and are delighted that he's now a part of their favorite football team. But how closely have any of us watched him play?
Speaking personally, what I knew about Williams as a player stemmed mostly from highlight videos and brief snippets of Houston Texans games that I'd caught over the years. I'd never put on a game of his and studied him closely, so that's exactly what I spent chunks of this weekend doing.
I haven't yet had time to watch all five of Williams' games from the 2011 season in their entirety, but I did manage to get through every snap of his two-sack performance in a Week 4 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. After the jump, I've jotted down some general thoughts from that game.
- Wade Phillips famously moved Williams to outside linebacker when he took over as Texans defensive coordinator last year, installing him as the weak-side pass rusher in base 3-4 sets. That's where Williams lined up in base sets against Pittsburgh, standing up away from tight ends, aligned on both sides of the alignment (it was about a 50-50 split between left and right).
- When the Texans went to nickel packages that featured four down linemen, Williams lined up exclusively as the left defensive end, which is, of course, the position he'll be playing in Buffalo.
- Keeping in mind that this was a Week 4 game, Williams often looked out of sorts playing in space and even in getting lined up pre-snap. Clearly, he was out of his element as a stand-up pass rusher, and was far more comfortable and much more productive when he had a hand in the dirt.
- On two separate occasions, Williams was asked to drop into coverage from his left end post as Phillips dialed up a zone blitz.
- Williams recorded two sacks in this game, both of them coming from left end. On the first, Ben Roethlisberger scrambled to his left, allowing Williams a better angle from which to disengage from a Marcus Gilbert block and make the hit. On the second, which came late in the game on a third and long, Williams was the first player moving on the snap and absolutely torched Gilbert, going nearly untouched and eventually wrestling Roethlisberger to the ground.
- He nearly got a third sack, too, when he walked a backup tight end into Roethlisberger's lap with ease. A back chipped Williams below the waist while he was still engaged with the blocker, however, taking Williams out of the play and allowing Roethlisberger to escape.
- When he was playing left end, Williams was consistently (though not universally) double-teamed, with the Steelers choosing to keep a tight end or a back to his side of the alignment as often as possible. That's not surprising.
- I liked what I saw out of Williams against the run. We'll get into how he plays the game a bit later, but when I watch a guy go through Heath Miller to tackle Rashard Mendenhall, it's hard not to be pleased. And when I say "go through Heath Miller," I don't mean that he tossed him aside or backwards like a rag doll; I mean that he almost literally tackled Miller and Mendenhall simultaneously.
- Williams is also a hustle player, which is so nice to see from a guy as enormously talented as he is. His first sack was a good hustle play. He also crashed hard toward Roethlisberger on one play, very nearly laying a big hit, before Roethlisberger craftily flipped the ball over the hard-charging Mario's head to a running back. The guy making the tackle 13 yards down the field? Mario Williams.
- The specifics of Williams' 2011 injury is very important - more important than is let on in day-to-day discussions. As you likely know, Williams was shut down after five games with a torn pectoral. He's fully healthy now, but keep in mind that it was an upper-body injury, because Williams is a player that relies heavily on his upper-body strength both against the run and as a pass rusher. He's a very tall player, and can't stay low out of his stance for an extended period of time, so he creates a lot of havoc based largely on his length, arms and powerful hands.
- Williams is not a speed rusher. He can, and has, beaten tackles with speed, thanks largely to good snap recognition and an excellent first step. But he's not a speed rusher; he's a power rusher. Williams is more likely to try to rush to the inside (between the tackle and the guard) than to the outside, because while he has that step and the length and athleticism to close, he's not going to beat many tackles simply by bending the edge. Teams are too well-prepared to allow for that, and it's not Williams' game.
The best thing that I can say about Williams based on this one full game of observation is that he creates disarray. He creates disarray in terms of how teams set up to block him, he creates disarray with overwhelming power and hustle, and he creates disarray especially when plays break down early, as he's outstanding at capitalizing on the slightest hesitation a quarterback can make. The guy, at least in this game, was every bit the beast he's been advertised as - and his presence alone will make life easier for the rest of Buffalo's defenders.