Commentary

Mario returns, but Bills aren't super

Williams leads struggling Buffalo D into Houston; Eagles-Saints loser in big trouble

Originally Published: November 1, 2012
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Week 9 features plenty of interesting reunions.

Mario Williams, the first pick of the 2006 draft, returns to Houston for a game against the Texans. His selection over Reggie Bush in 2006 was initially controversial until Williams consistently started sacking quarterbacks. His move to the Buffalo Bills in free agency last offseason has been blasted because he's been mostly invisible on one of the worst defenses in the league.

Also this week, the Titans play former Vanderbilt star Jay Cutler, whom fans in Nashville preferred as a quarterback selection over Vince Young. When the Philadelphia Eagles play the New Orleans Saints on "Monday Night Football," Eagles coach Andy Reid will stare across the field at his former defensive coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo. Would the Eagles be 3-4 had Reid talked Spagnuolo back to the Eagles as defensive coordinator instead of retaining Juan Castillo, who was fired after six games?

One of the strange aspects of the Jacksonville-Detroit game will be seeing WR Mike Thomas go up against the Jaguars five days after the Jaguars traded him to the Lions.

Here are the trends for NFL Week 9:

[+] EnlargeMario Williams
Kellen Micah/ICON SMIMario Williams, right, has only 3.5 sacks, and the Bills' defense has been a sieve.

1. Mario not-so super so far: The Bills thought the additions of defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, and rookie cornerback Stephon Gilmore would copy the model of how the Texans turned around their defense in 2011. The Texans hired Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator in 2011. After drafting a defensive end, and signing a cornerback and a safety, the Texans went from being one of the worst pass defenses in the league into one of the best. That hasn't been the case with the Bills, who switched to a 4-3 and can't stop anyone. The Bills are giving up 424.1 yards and 32.4 points a game. Williams signed a six-year, $96 million contract in the offseason, but this trip to Houston has to be frustrating for him. Even though he had five sacks in five games playing linebacker in the Texans' 3-4 last year, the defense has shown no ill effects from his departure. Williams admits he has plenty to prove in this game. He holds the Texans' franchise record for sacks with 53, and he admitted this week he felt uneasy about the swiftness of his departure.

2. The Big Uneasy: The Monday night showdown between the Eagles and Saints features two of the NFL's biggest disasters. Dream Team II in Philadelphia has been another disappointment. Michael Vick is going week to week trying to hold onto his starting quarterback job and Reid's tenure as the Eagles' coach will likely end if he doesn't make the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Saints' defense is posting some of the worst numbers in NFL history. The Saints are giving up 474.7 yards a game. A loss to the Eagles would all but end their hopes of being a playoff team -- they would be 2-6. The team that fixes its defense first probably has the best chance to win. The fun part of this game will be the desperation of the offenses. Vick can put up a lot of yards running around and making plays, but he knows 17 points a game isn't enough to win. Drew Brees can carve up any defense and he will have extra urgency Monday.

3. The Class of 2004: Most people look at the quarterback draft class of 1983 as the best ever. John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly were in that class. The next generation of football fans may favor 2004. Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Eli Manning and Matt Schaub headlined that class. Sunday's game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants is special because it's only the third time Roethlisberger has gone against Manning. Both quarterbacks have two Super Bowl rings, and the next ring could lock up a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Manning has made fourth-quarter comebacks his specialty. He has 11 fourth-quarter comeback victories in his past 25 games, including recent come-from-behind victories over the Redskins and Cowboys. Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley is having Roethlisberger throw shorter, safer passes, which is setting Big Ben up for his best season on third-down conversions. Unless there is a Super Bowl meeting between these two teams, these quarterbacks can meet only once every four years. Archive this one.

4. Slumping sophomores versus young guns: Cam Newton has struggled in the Panthers' 1-6 start. He's not connecting consistently on short and intermediate passes. And he continues to lose close games, losing four in a row by five points or fewer. In his brief career, Newton is 3-11 in games decided by eight points or fewer. Newton was the talk of the 2011 season for the excitement he created on the field, but Robert Griffin III, whom Newton faces Sunday, has been a bigger story as a rookie. Like Newton, RG3 has the running and throwing skills to frustrate a defense. But Griffin has proven to be more accurate and has shown a little better leadership than Newton, who needs wins to improve his grumpy disposition after games. The other slumping second-year quarterback, Christian Ponder, faces rapidly improving rookie Russell Wilson when the Minnesota Vikings visit the Seattle Seahawks. Ponder started out hot, throwing bubble screens to Percy Harvin and setting up handoffs to Adrian Peterson. For whatever reason -- Ponder says it's his footwork -- Ponder has hit a wall. He's 27-of-52 over the past two games for 309 yards, and he's had five interceptions in his past three games. Wilson slowly keeps improving and Seattle's coaching staff lets him do more and more each week. Wilson has generated two fourth-quarter victories at home this year and almost pulled one out in Detroit last week.

5. Dalton's decline: Andy Dalton is another second-year quarterback hitting a little bit of a wall. Dalton led the Bengals to a wild-card playoff spot last season and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl. Dalton started the season hot, gobbling up big play after big play in the team's 3-1 start, but the Bengals are on a three-game losing streak and Dalton is struggling. On Wednesday, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said Dalton needs to be more of a jerk and take a firmer leadership role in the offense. Dalton isn't the most fiery guy. He's professional. He's respectful. He gets the ball to wide receiver A.J. Green. Maybe he can learn something from Sunday's opponent, Peyton Manning. Manning is a superb leader, who directs his offensive players like a traffic cop on every play. The challenge Sunday is for Dalton to match Manning possession for possession, which might be tough.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
Tom Pennington/Getty Images The Cowboys (3-4) need a victory. Unfortunately for them, unbeaten Atlanta awaits.

6. The clock is ticking: Before the season, even Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones admitted the window for the core group of the Cowboys' roster is starting to close. Tony Romo, Jason Witten, DeMarcus Ware and Jay Ratliff are now in their 30s. At 3-4, the Cowboys' season is at a crossroads, and it doesn't help that they are playing the league's only unbeaten team, the Atlanta Falcons. The season has been baffling for the Cowboys. They are scoring only 19.6 points a game, three-and-a-half points less than last season. Romo has 13 interceptions in seven games and coach Jason Garrett continues to mismanage fourth-quarter and late-game play calls. Against the Giants last week, Garrett called three pass plays after a second-and-1 at the Giants' 19-yard line.

7. Rookie QB showdown: One of the most interesting games Sunday features Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts going against Ryan Tannehill of the Miami Dolphins. Tannehill's status is a little in question because of a knee bone bruise and some swelling in a quad. The amazing part of this game is it has AFC playoff ramifications, as both teams are 4-3. In the downtrodden AFC, even the loser of this game stays in the playoff race. As expected, Luck in on pace for a 4,000-yard season. But Tannehill has outdone Luck in one respect: He's mastered the no-huddle offense. The Dolphins are running more than 50 percent of their snaps with Tannehill in no-huddle. It helps that the Dolphins' offensive coordinator is Mike Sherman, who developed Tannehill at Texas A&M. Sherman is doing so well with Tannehill he more than likely put his name into the head-coaching talks for next season. Any coach who can develop a young quarterback will have a market. Luck also has the fortune of being developed by Bruce Arians, who worked with Peyton Manning and Roethlisberger in their formative years.

8. A must win in Cleveland? Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh called Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns a must-win type of game. That may sound strange in this series. The Ravens are on a nine-game winning streak against the Browns. During that streak, the Ravens surrendered more than 17 points only once. But the Ravens are struggling in two areas: Their no-huddle offense hasn't done well in road games, and the defense can't stop anyone. Harbaugh took the bye week to work on improving the defense. The Ravens are giving up 143 rushing yards a game. When they are in their base 3-4 defense, the Ravens are giving up 5.6 yards a play and 4.4 yards a rushing attempt.

9. Rising to the top: Week 9 might establish if the NFC North, which is emerging as the league's top division, could promote having three possible playoff teams. The AFC North did that last season. Overall, the NFC North is 12-6 in non-divisional games, 6-3 against the NFC West and 6-3 against the AFC South. Except for the 5-3 Vikings, who have a tough assignment in Seattle, the rest of the NFC North has favorable games. The Green Bay Packers host the Arizona Cardinals, who are on a four-game losing streak. The Detroit Lions travel to Jacksonville and face a 1-6 Jaguars team that just traded them wide receiver Mike Thomas. The Chicago Bears head to Tennessee to face a Titans defense that is surrendering 32.1 points a game.

10. A chance to challenge: Quarterback Josh Freeman is starting to get hot as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers try to figure out if they have a chance for a playoff spot. They've won two of their past three. They travel to Oakland to face a Raiders team that has won two in a row. The winning team will be 4-4 and thinking it has a chance. The Bucs have problems, though. They lost guard Carl Nicks for the season. Cornerback Eric Wright has a sore Achilles and could end up with a four-game suspension for taking Adderall. The Bucs invested heavily to make a playoff run this year, so losing two of their high-priced free agents could hold them back. The Raiders didn't have much cap room available, so coming out ahead of the Bucs after using fewer bucks would mean a lot to the new front office.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer