Even his teammates marvel at Mario Williams.
“A freak of nature” is how defensive back Aaron Williams describes him.
“A guy that big who can move that fast, it’s just unbelievable,” Aaron Williams said. “I’m really happy that he’s on our team.”
Bills fans everywhere are tickled pink to have Mario Williams right about now – including the greatest pass rusher in team history.
“I think he’s playing at a high level right now. He’s healthy and any time that you have a player of his magnitude that’s healthy, he’s expected to play at a high level,” former Bills great Bruce Smith said in a phone interview this week with The Buffalo News. “He puts the pressure on himself, and it’s nice to see him being in the position that he’s in, and being able to perform.”
Given his contract, it’s inevitable – although maybe not quite fair – to draw comparisons between Smith and Williams. With his 4.5-sack game against Carolina in Week Two, Williams broke Smith’s team record for a single game.
Williams’ 10 sacks through the first seven games this year are one more than Smith had in the same time frame in 1997.
“I mean, that’s Bruce. So to be mentioned in the same sentence is obviously a great feeling,” Williams said. “It’s a great accomplishment.”
Williams is tied for second in the NFL in sacks along with Kansas City’s Justin Houston, behind Indianapolis’ Robert Mathis. They are on pace to break the NFL record of 22.5 in a single season, which was set in 2001 by Michael Strahan of the New York Giants (sacks became an official NFL statistic in 1982).
“My biggest thing is the ones that I missed,” Williams said. “We went back and looked at it – there’s about four or five, literally, that I missed. … I’ve got to make those. My team is looking for me to make those. When I’m there, I’ve got to make it.”
Williams missed one sack last Sunday against Miami – on the Hail Mary attempted by quarterback Ryan Tannehill on the game’s final snap – a play that still had him fuming this week.
But the two times he did get to Tannehill were perhaps the most timely plays he’s had in a Bills uniform. The first sack came in the fourth quarter, when Williams used a stutter-step move to blow past Dolphins tackle Tyson Clabo to the inside. He had Tannehill in a bear hug before the quarterback had a chance to even look downfield.
The next came with less than 3 minutes to play in the game. Williams ragdolled Clabo right into Tannehill, and forced a fumble that was recovered by Kyle Williams, setting up the go-ahead field goal.
“We definitely needed to get the ball back,” Mario Williams said. “Everybody was fighting for the ball if you had the chance at it. … Thank goodness we recovered it.”
Williams was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week for the second time this season. He’s the first Bills defender to do that since Bryce Paup in 1995.
“Without the help of my teammates, you know, I couldn’t have done it,” Williams said. “We came out, played ball, played off one another and got after it.”
The leader of Buffalo’s upcoming opponent has taken notice.
“He’s really had a great year. He’s healthy; you can see that,” said New Orleans coach Sean Payton. “He’s explosive. He’s definitely a guy that you have to know where he’s at each play. … I mean, he can change a game – and he has.”
The Bills are moving Williams around the defensive line pre-snap in an effort to keep the offense off balance.
“Us being able to have the ability to move him a little bit, that definitely helps,” coach Doug Marrone said. “People have a plan. If you’re just … that right defensive end to the quarterback’s left, people can game plan that. I think it’s a little bit difficult when you have a player that moves around a little bit.
“He’s an outstanding player, he really is. I think you could put him anywhere and he’ll be productive.”
If Williams continues his current pace, he’ll break Smith’s team record of 19 sacks set in 1990.
“That wouldn’t bother me one bit,” Smith said. “This is a different era of football. They’re throwing the ball 30 percent more times per game, so that allows for players to have more opportunities to get sacks. First and foremost, any time he has success, that means the team has success. I want the Buffalo Bills to win. I want the fans of Buffalo to have something to cheer about.”
Smith and Williams have known each other for years, but their relationship is rather casual. They last talked a few weeks ago, but football wasn’t a topic of conversation.
“He’s definitely opened the door for communication. … I just don’t want to impose,” Williams said.
If Williams feels any pressure in being compared to arguably the best pass rusher of all time, he doesn’t show it.
“I don’t have any thoughts on anything like that,” he said. “I just play football.”
Smith, though, said Williams has shown a respect and appreciation for the players who have come before him in their dealings.
“I believe he gets it and he understands it,” Smith said. “That comes from trying to become a student of the history of the game and understanding the impact of the great ones who came before you and the legacy of the records and the impact they have made on the NFL.”
Williams largely credits his turnaround this season to the new coaching staff put in place by Marrone.
“It’s been huge … them coming in and pretty much wiping the slate clean,” he said.
If any player needed that, it was Williams. While his first season in Buffalo was far from a statistical bust – 10.5 sacks, 46 tackles, two forced fumbles – his performance on the field didn’t live up to the contract he signed, one worth potentially $100 million that makes him the highest-paid athlete in Buffalo sports history.
The first half of Williams’ 2012 season was compromised by a wrist injury that ultimately led to him having surgery on the team’s bye week – a decision that took the team by surprise.
Things were even more tumultuous in the offseason, when Williams’ engagement was broken off, and his ex-fiancee – as part of a lawsuit filed over possession of the engagement ring – released text messages insinuating Williams threatened suicide.
When Williams arrived at training camp at the end of July, he missed time because of a foot injury that Marrone was at first less than forthcoming about. The team closely monitored his repetitions in the preseason, a decision that is paying dividends now.
“I think my main focus early on was so much for the injury,” Marrone said. “Making sure that he was healthy.”
Marrone said aside from a few “private” conversations, his dealings with Williams have been no different than they would be with any other player.
Be it health, scheme or a clear frame of mind – the Bills are getting what they paid for with Williams this season.
“I feel a lot more comfortable,” Williams said. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s time. Maybe this is a good time in general for me in my career.”