Mario Williams faces his former team again on Sunday. And his days in Buffalo may be numbered.
The veteran will count $19.9 million against the Bills' 2016 salary cap, an incredibly high number considering the team must make decisions on looming free agents Richie Incognito, Cordy Glenn and Nigel Bradham among others. This season, he hasn't been a natural fit in Rex Ryan's defense, either. Again on Friday, Williams expressed some displeasure with his usage.
After 38 sacks his first three seasons in Buffalo, Williams has only three in 2015.
Asked about wanting to be cut loose, he said, "That's already been said a long time ago. That whole big deal... It's been pretty much the same thing."
His defensive line coach Karl Dunbar has been more than pleased with Williams' production.
"He’s done a great job for us," Dunbar said. "The sucker’s been rushing the passer well. I know everybody talks to us that our sack totals are down. But if you watch our games, the quarterback’s not holding the ball. They’re getting the ball out of their hands. And he’s doing a great job of playing the run, doing everything we ask him to do.”
A foot injury sidelined Williams in Buffalo's 30-22 loss at Kansas City, a game in which Rex Ryan's defense hit quarterback Alex Smith zero times. He might be kept on a pitch count of sorts Sunday, easing back, but Dunbar said he looked good through practice this week.
"He moved around today well—running around, covering guys, dropping into the flat," Dunbar said. "Doing the things we ask him to do.”
That dropping into coverage has drawn the ire of fans this season. Williams expressed his frustrations after a 34-21 loss to Cincinnati and admitted Friday not much has changed. Either way, whatever his role, the Bills need Williams to be a threat these final five games. It's been a rocky year for the defense and Williams, despite solid in the run game, hasn't been providing many splash plays.
For comparison's sake, Julius Peppers moved to a 3-4 defense in Green Bay last season and was used in an "elephant" end role in which he rushed, dropped and was asked to do a bit of everything. At times, he was in a three-point stance. Other times, he was upright. And even at 34 years old, his presence helped Green Bay reach the NFC Championship Game --- Peppers led the Packers with 43 1/2 pressures and had a team-high 11 turnovers.
Williams, who's 30 years old and has a similar build, may still have plenty of juice left himself but it hasn't translated to big plays.
Dunbar believes he's still the same threat he was seasons past.
“When he comes off that edge," Dunbar said, "you watched the game, he hit the quarterback a couple times but the ball was gone. I think offensive tackles still need to be aware of him. Because he’s so big, he’s so fast.”
Dunbar noted that coaches have been trying to be careful with Williams in practice not to overwork him.
"We try to do a good job of not killing him in practice," Dunbar said. "Rex takes the pads off. We’ve cut back the reps. Because this whole deal coaching pro ball is you’ve got to get them to Sunday. It’s not like it’s college when you’ve got 16 guys and you can dress all 16. But on game day you dress six or seven or eight guys and they have to play the game. So managing them is a part of coaching pro ball.”
With Alex Carrington and Kyle Williams now on injured reserve, the Bills signed defensive end Lavar Edwards and defensive tackle T.J. Barnes this week for depth. They should help. But if Buffalo is going to have any sort of late-season renaissance on defense, Mario Williams probably needs to be the one leading the charge.
Dunbar wouldn't comment on Williams' future ("that's above my pay grade") but believes this is still a player who can change games.
"He’s disruptive," he said, "and you’ve got to account for him.”