by Doug Farrar
Houston Texans outside linebacker Mario Williams
When new Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips had Bruce Smith as a 3-4 end in Buffalo, 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 (ex-?) defensive lineman Mario Williams, who's been rushing from outside the ends in Phillips' newly adopted system.
Bruce Smith played so much of his Hall of Fame career as an end in a 3-4, and his sack total of 200 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 made the move from 4-3 end to 3-4 outside linebacker, and the early returns seemed 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 in some sort of hybrid scheme, and all but Ware stand 6-foot-3; Ware is an inch taller.
At 6-foot-7 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 was surprised the Texans didn’t move 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. I thought after those first two games that maybe the Texans could rotate in four-man fronts if Wade wanted to go one-gapping, play Williams closer to the tackle, or find other ways to get Williams back on the good foot.
Though those first two games, he was a man very much in a foreign place. In the preseason opener against the Jets, he didn’t register any defensive totals – no tackles, sacks, or quarterback hits per the NFL’s official scorekeepers. In the follow-up against the Saints, he registered two tackles and a pass defensed. Very little pressure, either on tape or in the stat totals.
The third preseason game, against the 49ers, brought some different looks. On about one in four plays where Williams was in the game, the Texans had him lining up as the defensive end in an over front look. But on the Texans’ first defensive play of the game, he was in the left LEO/Elephant end position with his hand off the ground, and he got washed out of a running play by right tackle Anthony Davis. That’s more a pseudo-end-linebacker position for teams that want to run 3-4 principles while maintaining variable fronts and different kinds of pressures. Green Bay’s Matthews, who had more sacks last year looping inside than he did rushing from the edge, is probably the best current example, while Seattle’s Chris Clemons plays LEO very well out of what looks like a traditional 4-3. Williams does not look comfortable in that LEO role; it exacerbates many of the same issues that keep him from being an effective “endbacker.”
The fifth defensive play of the game was the first time I saw Williams as a pure slanted defensive end in a four-man front. He had his hand on the ground, and he absolutely overwhelmed Davis right out of the gate. He beat Davis back with strength, turned inside when he got to the quarterback, and looked more imposing than he had all preseason from a two-point stance. Williams had one play on the second drive in which he was able to get off the ball quickly from a two-point stance and gain advantage, but against a quarterback with any sense of pressure and the ability to step up into the pocket (i.e., someone not named Alex Smith), the near-pressure might not have been as impressive. It also doesn’t hurt that Davis’ kick step is not the stuff of legend.
On the next play, Williams had his hand down again, beat Davis head-up with strength again, and got nearer to the quarterback than he did with his hand up. Against the 49ers, he had five tackles and a forced fumble, and he looked far more active and effective in those four-front looks where he could play the end position.
Indianapolis Colts vice chairman Bill Polian recently said that no matter what players you give Phillips for his fronts and overall defensive concepts, he will make it work.
“He is able to take a player who would not otherwise be a 3-4 player and get a lot out of him that you don’t think, and I don’t think, is a 3-4 plays in body-type, skill set,” Polian said. “He can get a lot out of him. Wade will make [Williams] better. Williams is a great 4-3 end and Wade will make him better.”
With all due respect to two gentlemen who have forgotten more about football than I will ever know, I’m not so sure that putting Williams in any sort of linebacker role is a move that will ever allow him to exploit the strength, height, and leverage battles he’s won throughout his career. If the idea was originally to turn Williams into some sort of evolutionary version of Bruce Smith — and I don’t think that’s out of the question — something got lost in translation.
Denver Broncos strongside linebacker/rush end Von Miller
2011 second-overall pick Von Miller seemed to be a man without a true position in a similar sense – when I was writing the unit comments for the Denver chapter of FOA 2011, I had trouble reconciling the rush end position he played so very well at Texas A & M, and the 4-3 strongside linebacker position he would be playing for the Broncos. Miller flashed some nebulous ability in coverage during Senior Bowl week, but he’s very much a DeMarcus Ware-style player in my mind: Wind him up, and watch him go forward. Before I watched NFL tape on Miller, I wanted to get the takes of two people who had watched him already. First, I asked Greg Cosell, Executive Producer of ESPN’s NFL Matchup show and a longtime friend of the site, how did he see Miller’s role?
“He’s a strongside linebacker in their base 4-3, and he’s a rush end in either a two-point stance or a three-point stance in their sub packages,” Cosell said. I loved him coming out of college. Do I think his best position is strongside linebacker in a 4-3? I don’t. But I’m not going to rip John Fox. He runs a 4-3, and that’s where they’re going to use him. He’s going to be a pass rusher on 55 percent of the plays anyway, so I have no qualms. I think he’s got a chance to be a DeMarcus Ware-type NFL pass rusher. He is incredibly quick and fluid and dynamic, and he is a natural pass rusher. He can stick his foot in and – he’s almost like a running back in that he can stick his foot in the ground and change direction with incredible explosives."
With all of Miller’s speed and agility, Cosell also brought up what he called the “velocity sack” – where he took the 320-pound rookie right tackle James Carpenter and actually bulled him back by sheer speed force. This was Miller’s most impressive play against the Seahawks, because you saw more than just sheer inline quickness. And as Greg intimated, Miller’s footwork is better than I first imagined. I thought that San Francisco’s Aldon Smith had the best pure deceptive footwork of any potential pass rusher in this draft – by deceptive footwork, I mean the ability to start one way and go another, leaving the blocker behind. Miller has a frightening capacity for getting his body weight going inside, and then turning at near full speed to beat the edge, in a way that very few NFL tackles will be able to contend with on a consistent basis. When teams are dealing with Elvis Dumervil on the other side, and if the Broncos will be flipping Miller and Dumervil as much as they appear to be in the preseason, it’s going to be tough to know who to deal with – and who should deal with them.
Cecil Lammey, the Denver-based NFL Insider for FRSN and a senior writer for Footballguys.com, spends enough time covering the Broncos out at Dove Valley for me to want to get his take on how the Broncos are actually intending to use Miller over time.
"Miller is a strongside linebacker in title only,” Lammey told me. “John Fox has been moving Miller around the formation during camp, and so far in the preseason we've seen his best plays happen when he's got his hand in the dirt as a defensive end in a 5-2 formation. They usually put him on the open end with contain responsibilities, where he can speed rush to get to the quarterback. Miller might be the fastest pass rusher in the league, and he acts like a mind reader on the field because of the way he can anticipate the snap count. Miller has a quick first step, and an extra burst to get to the quarterback when the opponent is in his sights. Once in a while, the Broncos will use Miller in coverage on a tight end, but you can tell that he's not comfortable doing that yet.”
Based on what I've seen, I think the Broncos will be running more hybrid fronts and 5-2 looks than people may expect, with recent ex-Eagles acquisition Brodrick Bunkley at the nose, Robert Ayers and Kevin Vickerson as the ends, and Miller and Dumervil as the pure rush ends. This would optimize positional value for the talent they do have on the line, and take at least a step to stopping the team’s problems against the run.