When new Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips had Bruce Smith as a 3-4 end in Buffalo for five years, it was easy to make that work. But what if the all-time leader in sacks was rushing the passer as an outside linebacker in that same 3-4 concept? That's the challenge presented to defensive lineman Mario Williams, who's been rushing from outside the ends in Phillips' system.
Bruce Smith played 18 of his 19 seasons at right defensive end in a 3-4, and his sack total is all the more impressive because he was facing so many double teams with an outside linebacker frequently outside him. When he took over Houston's 4-3 defense and made the switch to a 3-4, Phillips cited Smith as the perfect example of a 3-4 end who could still disrupt.
"I have the utmost respect for Wade, his coaching ability and his ability to be able to bring out talent," Smith told ESPN's Paul Kuharsky in January. "Mario is a very talented young man and I don't think he has scratched the surface in what he is capable of, just utter dominance on the defensive line. Playing in a 3-4 scheme, you have to be a student of the game.
"You have to know where the double team is coming from; where the pressure is coming from if there is a blitz package; if you have help … If you know when that double team is coming, you have to know if you can beat it quick enough before that second guy gets a hand on you and all of a sudden the two offensive linemen are chasing you. In many cases, that's what happened for me. In many cases, you have to know where that chip block is coming from, if they are leaving the tight end in."
Judging from his excellence in Houston's former 4-3 fronts, Williams would seem to have all the tools to make that happen. But through the first two preseason games, Williams has made the move from 4-3 end to 3-4 outside linebacker, and the early returns seem to indicate that the position doesn't suit his body type. The four best sackmasters in the NFL in 2010 — Dallas' DeMarcus Ware, Kansas City's Tamba Hali, Miami's Cameron Wake, and Green Bay's Clay Matthews — all played in either 3-4/5-2 fronts or some sort of hybrid scheme, and all but Ware stand 6-foot-3; Ware is an inch taller.
At 6-foot-6 and 290 pounds, Williams looks completely out of place as a rushing outside linebacker. He lacks the ability to get low enough to get under pads and either slide off or spin off to pressure the quarterback. Quite often, he can be easily pushed out of the play before he even starts to advance by tackles who get low and block his legs and torso out of place. He also struggles with the quick-twitch agility it takes the best 3-4 outside linebackers to adjust to the play and go from pursuit into coverage (or vice versa) at the drop of a dime. He'll often get to a spot or a zone late, only to be boxed out of the play too easily by a tight end.
Two scouting combines ago, I asked Pittsburgh Steelers president of football operations Kevin Colbert (who would know better?) just what made a great 3-4 defensive end. "That 6-5 or 6-6 body type, or even 6-3 like Ziggy [Hood, Pittsburgh's first-round pick in 2009], we have to project if that body type can play in our defense," Colbert said. "It's kind of like the undersized defensive end projecting to a 3-4 linebacker. You have to look at their size, their athleticism, their intensity. You're not worried too much about their techniques because, for the most part, they're going to be broken down from what they did in their college schemes to what we do in our schemes. It's a whole new learning technique."
A certain amount of body length, combined with the size and strength to hold the point, make the best 3-4 ends. Williams seems to have those attributes like few others in the league.
And that's why I'm very surprised the Texans haven't simply moved Williams inside to a sort of "super-five-tech" position. I know they have veteran Antonio Smith and rookie J.J. Watt as their current main ends, but as Smith is two inches shorter than Williams and has some edge speed, I wonder if it might not be better to make Smith more of a power "endbacker" if Phillips is compelled to run as many five-man fronts as he seems to prefer. Maybe they could rotate in hybrid fronts if Wade wants to go one-gapping, play Williams closer to the tackle, or find other ways to get Mario Williams back on the good foot.
Right now, he is a man very much in a foreign place.