The Vikings' quarterback seemed to regress in his second season. Did that tell us more about the player, or the Minnesota offensive scheme?
13 Sep 2006
by Michael David Smith
Mario Williams, the defensive end the Houston Texans chose with the first overall pick in the April draft, didn't have a sack in his NFL debut against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday. That's not a problem â€“ Oakland's Derrick Burgess, who led the league in sacks last season, failed to get one in the Raiders' opener. But what is a problem is that an analysis of Williams on every play of Houston's loss showed that he rarely even came close to getting a sack, and on several plays he looked ill-prepared for reading the complex offenses he'll face each week in the NFL.
The scouting report on Williams at North Carolina State was that he was a great athlete and pure pass rusher, but not a well-rounded player. Houston's coaches made it clear in the way they used Williams Sunday that they want him to do more than just rush the passer. Williams started the game at right defensive end, the primary pass-rushing position for a defensive player playing against a right-handed quarterback like Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb, and there's not much to say about his pass rushes, which all looked pretty much the same -- he'd rush to the outside and the Eagles' tackles, William Thomas and Jon Runyan, would have very little trouble controlling him.
But Williams did more than just line up at right end and rush the passer. He moved around throughout the game, sometimes lining up at the left end and other times lining up at tackle, especially in long-yardage passing situations. On one play, a second-and-11 on Philadelphia's first drive, the Texans even dropped Williams back into pass coverage at the snap, although the Eagles called a handoff to Brian Westbrook, so Williams essentially took himself out of that play.
Taking himself out of plays was a common theme for Williams throughout the game because he falls for too many fakes. You've seen the highlight of Donovan McNabb's 42-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Donte' Stallworth. That play worked because the Texans' secondary fell for a play-action fake, but the defensive backs weren't the only ones who fell for it. Williams started down the line of scrimmage on an inside rush that might have pressured McNabb, but he reversed course when he saw the fake handoff to Westbrook, following Westbrook to the outside. That gave McNabb time to throw the touchdown pass.
On McNabb's other touchdown pass, a 31-yard catch-and-run screen to Westbrook, Williams failed to recognize the screen, tried to rush McNabb, and didn't get to him in time. Westbrook caught the ball right where Williams would have been if he had stayed back for the screen and made a beeline for the end zone. According to the Football Outsiders game charting project, the Texans' defense faced screen passes more than any other team in the league last season. Having Williams on the field won't do anything to change that.
On a third-and-2 early in the third quarter, Williams lined up in a sprinter's stance at right defensive end. He rushed directly into the middle of the line, thinking the Eagles were running up the middle and looking to make a big hit. But the Eagles ran a pitch to the outside. If Williams had stayed at home he would have been in position to make the tackle. Instead Westbrook got past him for 17 yards. On a misdirection outside handoff to Westbrook in the middle of the third quarter, Williams again fell for the fake handoff up the middle, and Westbrook ran around the left tackle, right to where Williams initially lined up.
The biggest knock on Williams coming out of college was that when the opposition ran directly at him, he struggled. On first-and-10 late in the third quarter, that's exactly what happened: Thomas overpowered Williams and Westbrook ran right past him for a gain of five. But on another first-and-10 later in that series, the Eagles ran directly at Williams again, and this time, with tight end Matt Schobel blocking Williams one-on-one, Williams had no trouble pushing Schobel aside and tackling Correll Buckhalter after a gain of three yards.
One of Williams' most promising plays â€“ one in which he showed the athleticism that made him the first overall pick in the draft -- was a missed tackle. On a second-and-12 in the first quarter, Philadelphia handed off to Buckhalter up the middle. The play called for right tackle Jon Runyan to brush block Williams, then move on and block a linebacker. In that type of blocking scheme, the Eagles figure that Runyan does not need to hold his block on a run up the middle because no defensive end is fast enough to line up on the outside and still get to the running back before the running back goes through the hole. But in this case the thinking was wrong. Williams exploded into the middle of the line and got his hands on Buckhalter before Buckhalter got through the line. It was an athletic play, showing that Williams can cover five yards as fast as any 290-pounder you'll ever see. Unfortunately, Buckhalter ran through Williams' arms for an eight-yard gain. On a similar play later in the game -- a first-and-10 inside handoff to Westbrook -- the Eagles again only brushed Williams, and again he got into the middle of the line faster than they expected him to. He still didn't make the perfect tackle the Texans would have liked from him, but he did assist on the tackle after a four-yard gain.
But if Williams showed an impressive ability to get into the middle of the line, he didn't show much at all when he started plays in the middle. On a third-and-7 in the second quarter, Williams lined up as a nose tackle, directly opposite center Jamaal Jackson. He tried to rush straight ahead but didn't get close to McNabb. On the Eagles' last possession of the first half, Williams lined up at tackle, rather than at end, on every play of the drive, and was never able to get any pressure as the Eagles ran their two-minute offense. Several times Williams provided evidence that when he engages an offensive lineman, he can't overpower him. On a first-and-10 at the beginning of the second quarter, Williams ran directly into Philadelphia left tackle William Thomas and got nowhere. Thomas stonewalled him as Brian Westbrook ran up the middle for five yards.
It must be noted that Texans rookie middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans looked very, very good. He nailed Brian Westbrook for a loss or a short gain on several runs up the middle. If you didn't know, you'd assume Ryans was the first overall pick and Williams was the second-rounder.
Eventually Williams might become the kind of versatile player who can handle being an end on one play and a tackle on the next, and pass rushing on one play and pass coverage on the next. But right now he looks confused out there, like he's being asked to do things he doesn't fully understand. The Texans ought to pick one position â€“ probably right defensive end â€“ and let Williams master that before they have him moving up and down the line.
Only a fool would claim to know after one game whether Williams was the right choice for the Texans with the first overall pick. He's only 21 years old. He's a good athlete. All indications are that he's a hard worker and a smart person. He'll get better at reading offenses. But all we have to go on so far is one game, and that one game wasn't a good one.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season.
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