The emblem is everywhere, the shot of Mario Williams rampaging toward the quarterback. At the ticket office. On commercials. Replaying on the gameday video board. There is no escape.
Now, Williams is out Sunday with a foot injury. Possibly longer.
Inside the fieldhouse, Kyle Williams lamented the end of his 2015 season. He’s headed to injured reserve to have surgery on his knee.
This isn’t what the Bills had in mind for their AFC playoff push. But inside the locker room — “We are the Champions!” blaring from across the locker room — defensive tackle Corbin Bryant is ready. The original front four, the group making a quarter-billion dollars is down to Marcell Dareus and Jerry Hughes. That doesn’t mean the defense needs to suffer a sudden, painful demise.
“I feel we can be just as productive as the guys who were in front of us,” said Bryant, who has 23 tackles this season. “Obviously it’s a big opportunity for us to show what we can do.”
For the Bills’ pass rush to keep ascending — and flustering Tom Brady was a breakthrough — they need four much, much less heralded players to deliver: Corbin Bryant, Manny Lawson, Alex Carrington and IK Enemkpali. All took circuitous paths to the Bills.
Rex Ryan compared getting fired by the New York Jets to getting dumped by a girl. These guys know the feeling.
No question, Bryant repeats, they can sustain the starters’ level of play.
“I definitely think we can,” Bryant said. “Those guys like Kyle, especially, he put his years in the league. He’s gotten stats. He made the Pro Bowl. But for him, we have to pick up the slack. He’s a Buffalo Bill from the beginning to end. We just want to go out there and not have a drop-off.”
Carrington likely replaces Mario Williams at end, with Enemkpali an option, too. Bryant has been the one in for Kyle Williams at tackle. Lawson has been a mainstay, but could start rushing more. All have every reason to be starving for snaps Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium.
Bryant can’t even remember the exact number. Was it four? Five? In 2011, the Pittsburgh Steelers cut him repeatedly. And each time, Bryant met face to face with head coach Mike Tomlin to receive the bad news.
“My rookie year, I was there the whole time on the practice squad,” Bryant said. “Actually, I got cut and then they put me on the active roster for a few weeks, then cut me again, I was on the practice squad, then they brought me back there, cut me and put me on the practice squad, then they cut me off the practice squad. So I don’t know. How many is that?”
The Steelers would tell Bryant they were doing what’s best for the team. But after a while, he admits, you just say “Whatever.” Bryant latched onto the Bills’ practice squad in 2012, eventually earned a roster spot and has now been part of the rotation for three seasons.
So of course you think about stretches like that in Pittsburgh when an opportunity like this arises. Bryant lived at the Omni William Penn Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh never knowing — day to day, week to week — if he’d need to visit Tomlin’s office again.
After a while, getting “dumped” didn’t bother Bryant. Hundreds of players are whipped through the same unapologetic riptide of fringe NFL living. Many sink, many swim.
“Guys give up,” Bryant said. “I’m just glad I was able to get an opportunity here.”
Carrington? The 2010 third-round pick spent three seasons in Buffalo, signed a one-year deal in St. Louis, then returned to Buffalo on a one-year pact. Enemkpali? He broke a teammate’s jaw, was cut, shamed nationally and then given a second chance by Ryan. Lawson? This is his 10th season and he has thrived in 4-3, 3-4 schemes alike at linebacker and end.
Lawson’s motivational moment came in 2007 with the 49ers when he tore his ACL on a freak play. Two games into his second pro season, his career could’ve crumbled. Instead, he furiously rehabbed — Lawson still remember trainers telling him to “Calm down!” — and was back in 2008. From San Francisco to Cincinnati to Buffalo, the ability to adapt has kept him around.
Playing left end in Buffalo’s nickel defense Monday, Lawson bulled Sebastian Vollmer onto his heels to sack Tom Brady. No wonder he’d like to rush more.
“I do. It is contagious,” Lawson said. “It’s like the Lay’s potato chips. Once you have one, you can’t stop. So with that, I’ll seize every opportunity I have to rush the passer.”
Against the Patriots, the key was to blitz and drop players in mass confusion. Against Kansas City, Lawson said, the plan is to keep the mobile Alex Smith in the pocket.
Sans Williams and Williams.
“Trying to replace those two caliber of guys is tough,” Lawson said. “I don’t think anyone in this league can. But what we have to do is be prepared, be ready. This is our opportunity. ... The season continues without them. Our plan is the same, to take it one game at a time. First, the playoffs. Get to the championship.”
As a rusher, Lawson relishes the “game within the game.” He loves to start with speed, before working to power or an inside move. He said he wants tackles thinking “What is he going to do next?”
Bryant, inside, relies on his smarts, too. When the Patriots brought in two tight ends to one side of the field, he knew to cheat that direction. He’s constantly playing the number’s game and applying the X’s and O’s he studied for hours on film.
“I know what’s coming to me when teams get in certain formations,” Bryant said. “I have a good beat on what’s happening out there.”
While nobody around here would ever admit it publicly, a strong finish from Bryant could make the beloved Kyle Williams expendable. He’d be younger, (likely) cheaper and possibly even better. Bryant has reached a point where he’s not expecting that tap on the shoulder himself to see the head coach.
He knows he can play, far from Steelers mode.
“As long as you know what you’re doing,” Bryant said, “and you’re being productive out there for the coaches to see, there’s nothing they can say about you.
“I know I’m going to be here.”
And what gives him that confidence? “The way I’m contributing. I feel like I’m an important piece to what’s going on out there.”
Bryant and Co. get their chance to prove to the Bills just how important they are over this month final of the season.
Two household names are down, but the expectation doesn’t change.
“We control our own destiny,” Bryant said. “If we win every game from here on out, we’ll be in the playoffs.”