By Sal Maiorana - Rochester D&C
Mario Williams won't look back to the 2012 season, not because it would conjure too many bad memories, but because he just doesn't look back.
"That was last year," Williams said Wednesday afternoon following practice, and after he'd found out he was named AFC defensive player of the week for the second time in 2013. "There were obstacles and things that came up and we had to deal with it. You can't go back and control it."
All Williams can control is what happens from today forward. It has always been his mode of operation, at least on the football field, and this season, no one can argue with the results that approach has helped him produce.
The 6-foot-6, 292-pound defensive end is tied for second in the league with 10 sacks, and those sacks have come in just seven games, the fastest any Buffalo player has reached that plateau. Impressive considering the NFL's all-time sack king, Bruce Smith, played 15 years in Buffalo.
By winning the player of the week award, Super Mario became the first Buffalo defender to be honored twice in the same season since 1995 when another big-ticket free agent signee, Bryce Paup, did that on the way to winning the NFL defensive MVP award.
"Without the help of my teammates I couldn't have done it," said Williams. "It's just another day to me. It feels good just to be able to go out there and compete and getting after it. It's something I look forward to and get excited about."
Rarely did Williams sound that upbeat last year in his dealings with the media.
Williams came to Buffalo with tremendous fanfare 19 months ago. The Bills targeted him in free agency, and though very few NFL observers thought they'd ever be the team to land the crown defensive jewel of that free agent class, they did with a whopping contract offer that could eventually be worth $100 million.
However, Williams - the highest-paid athlete in Buffalo sports history - fell well short of living up to expectations from fans and media and, maybe even the team.
He finished with 10.5 sacks, 46 tackles, 2 forced fumbles and 2 recoveries. Respectable numbers, but certainly not eye-popping for a guy who was advertised to be a game-changing type of player.
There were extenuating circumstances, though. He began the season battling a wrist injury that limited his ability to gain leverage on blockers, and it hampered him for almost half the year. He played in a defensive system coached by Dave Wannstedt that didn't properly take advantage of his explosive skills. And, as we came to find out later, his personal life was in free fall as his engagement fell apart.
Williams hit control/alt/delete when the new year rang in, anxious to start anew, and then the Bills did the same thing when they cleaned out the coaching staff, hired Doug Marrone who in turn brought in respected defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.
Almost from day one, Williams knew Pettine's aggressive defense was going to rejuvenate his career, and it has.
"I was extremely excited because I knew what type of mentality we had with the coaching staff and knowing how they were going to use players and put us in position," Williams said. "The system is a great system and we have a great coach teaching it."
The biggest difference for Williams was Pettine moving him around to both sides of the formation, and standing him up as a rush linebacker in certain sets, something he did during his last season in Houston.
"He's lining up in a lot of different spots," said Saints coach Sean Payton, who has spent much of the past week and a half (the Saints were on their bye) studying Williams on tape. "You see him lined up at left end, rush end in the nickel, and he can also play inside. He's healthy, you can see that, and he's explosive. Definitely a guy you have to know where he's at on each play."
The Dolphins knew where he was in the fourth quarter Sunday, yet they were powerless to stop him. Twice he bulled his way through the offensive line to sack Ryan Tannehill, and on the second takedown he stripped the ball out and Kyle Williams recovered at the Miami 34. That set the stage for Dan Carpenter's game-winning field goal.
So, is it the scheme that's the difference, or is it Williams' talent that has been the key to his half season of success?
"I'm sure Mike would tell you it's scheme, and Mario would tell you it's talent," Marrone said with a smile before offering his take. "Having the ability to move him definitely helps. People have a plan - if you're the right defensive end, people can game plan that. It's a little more difficult when you have a player who can move around. But he's an outstanding player; you could put him anywhere and he'd be productive."
Another reason why Williams is excelling in 2013 is his comfort level. He was the new guy last year, trying to fit in with new teammates who'd already been part of Chan Gailey's defense for two years.
This year, Williams has better familiarity with his teammates and his surroundings, and he learned the defense together with everyone else.
"He came in here and it was a new environment, and I think now he just feels more comfortable," said safety Jairus Byrd. "He knows what to expect, he likes what we're doing and he's going out and making plays."
And, as Byrd pointed out, having a dominant pass rusher is vital for any team, no matter what scheme.
"If you look back through history, every great defense had that guy who was bringing pressure nonstop up front," said Byrd. "And we have a great d-line, so there's no reason he can't be that kind of force up front."