Mario Williams: Man of Steel


Mario Williams is on the verge of erupting for a sack explosion during the second half of 2009.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article first appeared in the Houston Texans Gameday magazine on Nov. 29, 2009, for Houston's showdown at home against the Indianapolis Colts.

Mario Williams had a monster year in 2008. He terrorized enemy quarterbacks with 12 sacks. He created general havoc in opposing backfields and was good enough to earn a starting position in the Pro Bowl.

Super Mario, as he is called, wears a Superman tattoo on his right arm. The Texans are wearing their Deep Steel Blue uniforms for today's game against the Colts, suitable attire for The Man of Steel.

At 6-6, 288 pounds, Williams has a vertical leap of 41 inches and can bench press more than 300 pounds, so he doesn't really need anything to boost his image. Still, Williams' performance this season has been tinged by a touch of kryptonite in his left shoulder.

Because of the injury, his sack numbers are down, but don't think that's been much consolation to opposing quarterbacks. You can be certain they know Williams is on the field.

"He is playing extremely hard," defensive coordinator Frank Bush said. "He's had a lot of close misses. He's playing really well. He's had some injuries that have kind of set him back."

When it comes to injuries, Williams doesn't talk about them. He just plays through them.

"It's one of those things you bite down and keep your mouth closed and go out there and forget about it," Williams said. "That's what I try to do. Hopefully, the team continues to win and we get to the playoffs."

Williams has been playing with the same determination as always, and yet there are so many instances that he sees on tape where he missed getting the sack by an inch here, a second there. That's enough to make a quarterback's heart flutter, like a bullet intended for him zinging past his ear.

"I always make a tape of the guys after games," defensive line coach Bill Kollar said. "He's got a real impressive tape right now. If you are rushing the passer well and you're getting around them and getting hits, (sacks) are going to end up coming."

Williams, who led the team with 4.0 sacks through nine games, is on the same page as his position coach. He doesn't want to scare quarterbacks. He wants them on the ground, looking up at his tattoo and the big No. 90 on his jersey.

"We've got to get those inches," Williams said.

Kollar, in his first season with the Texans, has been helping Williams to make up that precious distance.

"He's put pressure on quarterbacks all year, but like any player, you get frustrated when you are just inches away from making it or you're there just as he throws it," Kollar said.

Williams played his rookie season with a foot injury that limited him to 4.5 sacks. That would have been good for most rookies, but so much more was expected of Williams, the Texans' top pick over Vince Young and Reggie Bush.

Williams played through pain and controversy that first year and then gave fans what they expected in 2007. He finished with 14 sacks, 59 total tackles and was an alternate in the Pro Bowl. He had two fewer sacks last season, but his 12 still led AFC defensive ends and he was a starter in the 2009 Pro Bowl.

So, once again, the bar was set into the stratosphere for Super Mario. The shoulder injury has slowed him somewhat, but he's battled through just as he did in 2006, staying on the field and fighting. Williams has started 58 consecutive games, the longest active streak for an NFL defensive end.

Defensive end Antonio Smith, who played for the Cardinals last season, admired what he saw from afar. The chance to play with Williams was a factor in his decision to sign with the Texans in the offseason.

{QUOTE}"Before I got here, I thought he was a great pass rusher, he played with great passion," Smith said. "I like players that play like that, that play with their heart and give it all to the game."

Bush has watched Williams' evolution through injury and health.

"I think even with the shoulder, there are still some things he can do," he said. "He's still effective in the passing game. He's had a sack or two even with the shoulder injury. With the foot injury, that was a little different. He couldn't run and do some of the things he needed to do.

"So we're happy with where he is and we appreciate the fact that he'll play injured. He shows up every week and hasn't missed practice time."

The Texans and Williams have traveled a long road together, through losses and controversy. Williams arrived without his Superman cape, but fans expected him to perform like a super hero. The Texans were coming off the worst season in franchise history, and Gary Kubiak was a rookie head coach.

"When I first got here, losing was almost accepted," Williams said. "They'd had a 2-14 record before I came. Now, it's like night and day. We're out there and it hurts to even win a close game that we feel we should have taken care of. You can see it among the guys; you can feel the atmosphere. It means a lot more now."

As defensive line coach of the Bills last season, Kollar saw Williams as a prototype defensive end with a rare combination of power, speed and athleticism.

"Obviously, he's a big guy with a ton of talent that plays pretty hard and has a lot of upside to him," Kollar said. "What I saw was he did a little too much speed rushing and going around the guys instead of running over offensive tackles. That's something we've been working on all year, to get him a better feel of that. He's gotten better. It's messed him up a little with that shoulder dinged up, but he's definitely getting better at it.

"He works hard. He wants to get better. He wants to be as good as he can be."

Williams had a sack on Peyton Manning Nov. 8 in Indianapolis when the Texans came within a missed field goal of forcing overtime before losing. That gave Williams four sacks in his last three games against Manning, but the heartbreaking loss also kept the Texans winless in team history at Indianapolis.

"We had a chance to go in there and make a difference and do something we haven't done before," Williams said. "For us to be right there at the door, it hurts. It's just another of those things we have to overcome and take care of."

Williams doesn't consider himself a vocal leader, although he is the most accomplished player on the Texans' defensive line.
"I try to play ball," he said. "I don't hoot and holler. I know by me going out there and making things happen, it picks everyone up. That's what I try to do, make plays."

Linebacker DeMeco Ryans is a team captain and handles the leadership responsibilities. He's glad to have Williams on his side.

"It's comforting to know when he wants to turn it on and dominate, he has that ability," Ryans said. "I think it's his speed and power that give him the ability to come off the line fast and drive the tackle into the quarterback.

"It's good having a guy like that in front of you."

Smith says that Williams plays so hard, he is bound to produce numbers eventually.

"He plays with passion whether he's hurt or not, just showing emotion out there and not just being out there to be out there," Smith said. "He is putting it on the line to make his team better. That's something I got to see about him first hand when I got here."

Kollar is waiting for the volcano to erupt.

"He's had a lot of pressures," Kollar said. "It just takes one game where all of a sudden, it falls your way and you could have three or four sacks."

What else would you expect from The Man of Steel?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Michael A. Lutz worked for The Associated Press for 38 years covering news and sports in Louisville, Ky., Dallas and Houston. Most of that time was spent in Houston covering the Oilers, Astros, Texans and other college and pro teams.

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