It took a little prodding, but I actually got an emotional rise out of Mario Williams on Wednesday.
Williams had been asked about the perception that the defense would have to carry the Bills to the playoffs this season. On the contrary, he said. The team needs to be one solid chain, with each individual providing a powerful link.
Doesn’t it kill you to sit there every January watching the playoffs on TV, I asked him? You’ve never played in one, right?
“Nope,” Williams said.
Does it bother you?
“Yeah,” he said. “There’s a lot of guys who never played in a playoff game. I think they’d say the same thing. But it’s a team game. I mean, if you want me to burn the building down, that’s another thing. I don’t like talking in general. That don’t mean it doesn’t bother me.”
Well, it ought to bother him. Williams will turn 30 on Jan. 31, the day before the Super Bowl. He had 13 sacks and made the Pro Bowl last season. Until J.J. Watt (who replaced Mario in Houston) signed his $100 million deal early this week, Mario had the richest contract of any defensive player in NFL history.
But he has yet to appear in a playoff game. You can say the same for his decorated defensive linemate, Kyle Williams, and several other members of a defense that set a franchise record with 57 sacks last season, ranked 10th in the NFL in overall defense, but finished with another 6-10 record.
No one wants to say it, but the defense will have to play even better if the Bills hope to snap their 14-year playoff run. Unless EJ Manuel and the offense experience a sudden, miraculous epiphany in the coming weeks, the defense needs to be consistently dominant for the team to be in the playoff hunt.
“We need to be a lot better,” said Jerry Hughes, who had a career-high 10 sacks last season. “We have to be a lot more stout against the run this year. There’s always areas we can improve. So we spent the offseason addressing those areas, and now we’re looking to start this season off improving as a whole.”
They could begin by not allowing so many big plays. In their 10 losses last year, the Bills allowed 42 plays of 20 yards or more. They allowed nine touchdowns of 35 yards or more in their six road losses alone.
“Yes, that has to change,” said coach Doug Marrone. “And we’re playing a team with potential to make a lot of big plays.”
The Bears present a formidable opening challenge for the Bills’ defense. Under first-year coach Marc Trestman, they set a franchise record with 445 points (they also set a team record by allowing 478).
Chicago has a strong-armed veteran quarterback in Jay Cutler; an elite receiver tandem in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey, who combined for 189 catches, 2,716 yards and 19 TDs last season; and Matt Forte, a splendid two-way back who had 1,933 scrimmage yards and 12 TDs a year ago.
So if the Bills’ defense is looking to make an opening statement as one of the NFL’s best units, it should be happy to start out Sunday at Soldier Field.
“I’m happy to play,” Mario Williams said. “The game’s the game. You should have the same feeling for each game.”
That sounds good, but road games tend to be more difficult for the Bills’ defense. Since opening the vault for Williams in 2012, they’ve gone 4-12 away from home and allowed 31.5 points in the dozen losses. Oh, and they gave up 42 points a game in the last two fiascoes up in Toronto.
Here’s a radical thought: If the Bills’ defense wants to be considered one of the NFL’s elite, how about playing big against a top offense on the road? Let’s stop the talk about the ‘D’ carrying the team for an entire season until they prove they can do it for a single day in a hostile atmosphere.
There’s ample reason to knock Manuel. He had some abysmal performances on the road last year. But you can’t put it all on EJ. It wasn’t Manuel who allowed Geno Smith to throw two TD bombs, or Bobby Rainey to go 80 yards on the second play of the game; or made LeGarrette Blount look like Jim Brown.
Maybe Jim Schwartz will make the right adjustments to a defense that was high-risk, high-reward last season. Maybe Brandon Spikes will be the run-stopper they’ve lacked. But I can’t remember the last time the Bills won a road game against a quality offense, a team with a good quarterback and a gifted, balanced stable of weapons.
The Bills haven’t had a winning record on the road since 1999. They haven’t won a road game against a team that finished with a winning record since a 16-13 win at the Jets five years ago. During their 14-year playoff drought, they have a grand total of seven road wins against teams that ended up over .500.
This isn’t the first time we’ve been told that a Bills defense was ready to take its place among the sport’s elite. I’ll maintain a wary skepticism. Mario can treat it like just any game, but a road test against this mighty Bears offense is an intriguing way to kick off a critical Bills season.
“It’s going to be fun,” Hughes said. “It’s Week One, the start of the NFL season. So we’re excited about this upcoming challenge. We’ve been hearing a lot about their explosive offense, so we’re excited to go out there Sunday and put it to the test.”
People talk about this being the deepest and most talented Bills team in years. Doug Whaley said so on draft night, when he traded next year’s first-rounder and promised his team would be a playoff contender.
The time for talking is over. We’ll find out soon enough if this defense is capable of carrying a team. Go on the road and carry the day against a top offense, for once.