As Wade Phillips takes over as Houston’s defensive coordinator, he inherits one of the league’s most talented and feared defensive players.
Mario Williams has been slowed by injuries the last two seasons, playing through shoulder and groin issues that ultimately cost him six games. But even banged up, he’s a defensive end any coordinator in the league would love to have.
Phillips will take a guy who’s played his first five NFL seasons in a 4-3 defensive front and work to transform him into a 3-4 end.
It’s a different job and it may be a difficult switch.
But Phillips cited Bruce Smith, the Hall of Fame defensive end and NFL’s all-time leader in sacks, who played in the coach’s 3-4 for five seasons in Buffalo, as an example of what Williams will be able to do in the new defense.
I spoke with Smith this week and asked him about his life as a 3-4 end, Williams, Phillips and the Texans’ transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4.
Here is the meat of our conversation:
How much were you a 3-4 guy versus a 4-3 guy?
Bruce Smith: I played my whole career in a 3-4. My whole career with the Bills, 13 years. We did, at some point in time when Wade came in, experiment with a 4-3, but just did not have it, whether it was the personnel or our not being able to get a grasp on it, we didn’t stick with it.
Phillips has been using you as a selling point for the transition with Williams. Does that fit from your perspective?
BS: I have the utmost respect for Wade, his coaching ability and his ability to be able to bring out talent. 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 don’t have help; when you have to make sure you have contain. You have to know when they are slide protecting, when they are fan protecting, when you have an opportunity to have one-on-ones. 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.
Being a dominant defensive end in a 3-4 defense, this is a much more difficult position to play. You’re going to get double teamed far more often than you will in a 4-3. That’s why his becoming a student of the game is critical.
How much do you know about him and his capacity to do that?
BS: The story is yet to be written. I haven’t spent a significant amount of time around him. I don’t know his study habits, I don’t know his workout habits. I’ve watched games specifically just to study him. He came on my radio show this past year. He is an extremely talented and gifted young man. I think Wade will be able to do a world of good for him.
Are they being a little risky moving him when he’s been very good in a 4-3?
BS: What’s good for the team? That’s the ultimate goal. Players can adapt. What is good for the ultimate benefit for the team to win games? We can’t think about whether one player dictates the defensive scheme or that we have to retrofit the defense for one particular player. What’s going to be the most beneficial for the defense and team as a whole?
If he’s a dominant player in a 4-3, he can be a dominant player in a 3-4. You’re going to take less abuse in a 4-3 than in a 3-4, that’s just by design. You’re going to get double teamed a hell of a lot more.
[A PK aside: That scares me. While Williams has not complained or used his injuries as an excuse, if he’s been beat up the last two years in the 4-3, is it smart to put him in line for additional abuse?]
Your thoughts on Phillips at this point?
BS: I can’t sing Wade’s praises enough. How he was able to command the respect of his players. I think it’s imperative that people get an understanding of this: Wade is the type of coach that thrives when there is accountability, when there are players that believe in his system and with players that are motivated from within.
If he has that type of atmosphere, he can be one of the most dominant defensive coordinators that’s out there. I just hope he’s landed in the right situation because I just think the way it went down in Dallas was an injustice.
Had you been a 4-3 end your whole career, how many more sacks might you have had?
BS: I’ve been told by other offensive linemen and coaches that had to scheme against me, ‘Bruce, you probably would have ended up with 300 sacks as opposed to 200 because of those double teams you had to face, occasional triple teams and the abuse and wear and tear on your body.’ I’ve had nine to 11 surgeries as a result of the chop blocks and things of that nature.
But I can say this: As a result of playing in a 3-4, I’m a complete player. Not only a dominant force to be reckoned with and I think the best that’s played the game rushing the quarterback, but I had balance. I was also a dominant run stopper. Ending a career with roughly 1,100 tackles while being the NFL sack leader, that goes to show you what kind of balance I had.
Mario’s going to have an opportunity to make a ton of tackles, he’s going to have opportunity to rush the quarterback. When people are keying in on him, Wade will move him around and try to get him away from the double teams, but they will still find you. The quarterback will walk to the line of scrimmage and point you out, the offensive line will say 'Hey, we need to get a couple hats on him.' But that will allow someone else either to have one-on-one blocking, or to come scott free. There are a lot of advantages.
How long will this transition take for Houston?
BS: It’s going to take some time.