Mario Williams understands the business of the NFL, that players change teams on a regular basis just as he did in 2012 when he left the Houston Texans in free agency to join the Buffalo Bills. He knows coaches change teams, too, such as when defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz exited the Bills last January after Rex Ryan became their new head coach.
For Williams, this wasn’t exactly the happiest of developments. In Schwartz’s one season in charge of Buffalo’s defense, Williams thrived from his end position, registering a career-high 14.5 sacks on the way to his fourth Pro Bowl appearance.
“We all understand that part of the game,” he said recently. “Things change, personnel change, obviously coaches change. We pretty much just take from what we learned from” Schwartz “and kind of keep it going. I mean, that’s the only way you can do it in this league, because it’s pretty much a revolving door.”
The primary lesson Williams learned from Schwartz was how to be a highly effective pass-rusher and run-stopper in a scheme that mostly had him and fellow end Jerry Hughes working in a wider than usual alignment for their position. Williams and Hughes were key components in the “Wide Nine” configuration – which refers to one of the ends being in the “nine technique,” a spot located outside of the tight end – that Schwartz coached as well as anyone in the NFL.
Williams learned about how to maximize his performance and complement the efforts of the other highly talented members of the Bills’ defensive line, including tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams.
Now, Mario Williams has some re-learning to do.
The Bills’ defense will undergo a significant change under Ryan and new defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman. Schwartz employed a base 4-3 look that called for Williams and Hughes to function almost exclusively as linemen. Ryan uses a 3-4 base that calls for Williams and Hughes to work as outside linebackers, although there also will be situations where they play on the line and are part of a good deal of mixing and matching that goes on within one of the more multiple schemes in the league.
Williams got a good taste of this before with the Bills, in 2013, when Ryan coaching disciple Mike Pettine ran the defense. And Williams excelled then as well, finishing with 13 sacks and being selected to the Pro Bowl (although the Bills did struggle far more against the run than they did last year).
Still, Williams appeared to be more comfortable and natural in a three-point stance and doing the things that a lineman does as opposed to dropping into coverage more frequently as an outside linebacker is asked to do.
The Bills’ new coaching staff isn’t the least bit concerned that its defensive scheme might take something away from the production of Williams or Hughes.
“We try to put our best players in the best positions to make plays and sometimes you have to take them a little bit out of their comfort zone,” Thurman said. “Then there’s other times you have to make them decoys and if you can make them a decoy and allow somebody else to make a play, it makes the defense stronger.
“We’re not going to get too far away from what” Williams and Hughes “do best and both of them get after the quarterback. The way this defense is split up, it’s one of multiplicity and we try to take advantage of our playmakers so we ask them to do a lot of different things.”
Williams says the similarities between Pettine’s and Ryan’s schemes give him and the rest of the members of the defense a “head start” and should make the transition easier.
He also is excited about what he and the rest of a unit that ranked fourth in the NFL in yards allowed last season will be able to do this year under Ryan, who has vowed that the Bills will improve to No. 1 in the league. “Extremely high” is how Williams characterizes his expectations for the coming season.
“Understanding the defense, I love it,” Williams said. “It gives everybody ample opportunities to just do different things and just be able to bring different looks, different angles, and attacks, stuff like that. So I’m ecstatic.”
“Obviously, with the scheme, with Rex, anything’s possible. So I think right now, we’re just doing building blocks. But the sky’s the limit, so I’m pretty sure there will be a lot of changes and things as we progress and become readapted to a hybrid defense.”
For a coaching staff that knows no boundaries to its collective imagination, Williams is an ideal fit.
Ryan and Thurman can’t wait for the chance to utilize him in the wide variety of ways that they expect to pay off with all sorts of difference-making contributions. They are determined to do their part to make him even more productive than he was last season.
“Athletically, he can do about anything he wants to, so we’re going to try and take advantage of that,” Thurman said. “We’re going to ask him to do multiple things. He seems to be receptive to it.
“But we know his number one strength seems to be getting after a quarterback, so we’re not going to get too far away from that.”