PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- In my experience, there's plenty you can't discern about a team from passing through its training camp for just a day or so, taking in only a practice or two and a quick pulse reading as you tour around the league each summer. It's almost a snap judgment, as it were.
But there are exceptions, of course, and some truths do reveal themselves rather conspicuously during a visit, no matter how short and sweet. Like this news flash that comes direct from my stay in Buffalo's camp last Sunday: This new-look Bills defensive line, it's pretty good. With a darn good shot to reach the status of dominant at some point this season. I really think so, and so does Mario Williams, the Bills' new $100 million pass rushing defensive end. Just ask him.
"I feel like we could be as good as anybody,'' Williams said, minutes after a Sunday night full-pads session under the lights at St. John Fisher College in suburban Rochester. "That's just how I see it. We're going to bring everything we got. Put it that way. Just us four alone. I'm not talking about any others. Us four alone. When we hit the field running, we're going to go full speed.''
Williams isn't known as a big talker, but I love that the offseason's biggest free-agent signing outside of Peyton Manning is eager to back up his big words, and ready to roll with fellow linemen Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Mark Anderson, the expected starting foursome in Buffalo's transition to a 4-3 defensive formation. If the long-awaited return to the playoffs finally unfolds in Orchard Park this season, look for Mario Williams and Co. to lead the way. He likes what he sees coming together, and it didn't take him long to lay it all on the (D)-line.
"I knew it was a great group of guys and that there was a lot of talent on the defensive line, but I can feel an aura, I can feel a presence around us,'' Mario Williams said. "We believe in each other already, even though it's only been a few months that we've worked together. We have fun together. Things are just jelling. If we come out here and stay healthy, and we're running and gunning, the sky's going to be the limit.''
Optimism is everywhere in Bills camp. But nowhere is it more well-founded than on the defensive front, where Buffalo spent so lavishly to acquire a pair of proven pass rushers in Williams and Anderson, adding them as bookends around the defensive tackle duo of the underrated Kyle Williams and the emerging 2011 first-round pick Dareus.
The Bills made no secret of their intentions this offseason: To finally get over the hump and back into the playoffs for the first time since 1999 (the league's longest active postseason drought), Buffalo needed to get better on defense. Getting better on defense meant more pass rush, and more pass rush would require targeting the likes of Williams, the former Texans star and first overall pick in 2006, and Anderson, who quietly put together a strong 10-sack season for AFC champion New England in 2011.
The thinking in Buffalo goes that if the four guys up front are special enough this season, they'll dictate what happens to the back seven on defense, and by extension the rest of the team.
"When the decision was made to convert to the 4-3, we knew for us to have any chance to make this work schematically, the priority was, whether through the draft or free agency, to add defensive linemen,'' said new Bills defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt, the respected former Bears, Dolphins and Pitt head coach who joined Buffalo's staff this offseason in one of the Bills' lesser-heralded but potentially pivotal additions. "This is a scheme, whether it was Dallas or Miami, anywhere I've been, where it's on the D-line. It starts there. As far as they go is really about as far as we go. And with the commitment from [Bills general manager] Buddy [Nix], and [Bills head coach] Chan [Gailey], and obviously [Bills owner] Mr. [Ralph] Wilson to go get a couple quality defensive linemen, that gives us a chance.''
The Bills defensive line didn't have much of a chance last season, with only two clubs producing fewer than Buffalo's team total of 29 sacks. The Bills were led by rookie Dareus' 5.5 sacks, and while his first year in the league was a bright spot in Buffalo's disappointing 6-10 season, he had little help up front in the team's 3-4 formation. Kyle Williams missed all but five games due to a foot injury and only outside linebacker Chris Kelsay (who is back at his accustomed defensive end in the 4-3) contributed much in the way of pass pressure, finishing just behind Dareus with five sacks.
But now, opponents that game plan to try to minimize Mario Williams' impact from left end might find that they're giving short shrift to Anderson's speed-rush skills at right end, or don't have enough manpower devoted to the pocket-collapsing talents of Dareus and Kyle Williams, who get to play side by side in the 4-3 tackle slots. It could make for a steady orchestra of pass pressure in Buffalo this season, and that should make the Bills' pass coverage better, especially with the addition of gifted first-round cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who already looks like a seasoned veteran in locking down a starting job.
When he first arrived in Buffalo, Mario Williams made it clear he didn't consider himself the savior who was going to lead the Bills out of the NFL wilderness. But lately, he has come around to embrace the label a bit more, understanding that the Bills, after 12 frustrating playoff-less seasons, needed someone or something to rally around. A flag-planting moment of sorts, where the franchise draws a line and says "No more.''
"Maybe that is why I'm here,'' Williams said. "Maybe that was the point of [my signing]. I've heard people putting that [savior label] in the papers and I've had fans tell me that. But at the end of the day, I know these guys beside me are just as good as I am. And they're hungry. We don't want to come out here and not win. We want to come out here and have an identity. After watching some of their games last year, I told guys we need to set an identity, and make a name for the Bills defensive line and the Bills defense.
"Once you get that consistency and keep rolling, then things fall into place. Then offenses say 'We've got to scheme for this or that.' We get them worrying. We've got to put fear [in them] out there on the field.''
The plan in Buffalo isn't solely dependent on Mario Williams and Anderson rolling up monster sack totals at defensive end. Williams had five in five games last season in Houston, switching to outside linebacker in coordinator Wade Phillips' new 3-4 defense, but then suffered a season-ending torn pectoral muscle in what turned out to be the Texans' first-ever playoff season. The Bills plan to play at least eight defensive linemen, and love the depth they've created by adding Williams and Anderson.
Ends Kelsay (12 starts in 2011) and Spencer Johnson (11 starts) saw tons of playing time last season, as did veteran defensive tackle Dwan Edwards (13 starts). Also in the mix on the defensive line is one Shawne Merriman, the former star pass rusher in San Diego who is being converted from outside linebacker to defensive end, with the hope that he can at last stay healthy and be turned loose in certain situations to provide edge pass pressure. Merriman's health is a big if, of course, but Wannstedt is hopeful so far.
"These other guys, you can't slight them,'' Wannstedt said. "Johnson, Kelsay, Edwards were all starters last year and they could play for a lot of teams. And who knows what Shawne is going to do? So far he's been fantastic. I wouldn't have bet this in a million years after where he's been and injury situations. I would have been the first one to say his career's probably over. And now he's changing positions back to defensive end. But we're going to go eight deep, and the way offenses are going now, our depth is going to give us a chance. With the hurry-up offenses and the spread offenses now, teams are running more plays than they have in the past, and I think depth at that position is key.''
The Bills think D-line depth is critical to being able to finish teams off in the fourth quarter and late in the season, something that was beyond them in 2011, when their hope-inspiring 5-2 start went down the drain in a flash, thanks to a string of injuries to key players and no ability to stop the bleeding once a seven-game losing streak began. In a league where the key to making the playoffs is avoiding three-game losing streaks, the Bills have been the masters of the midseason collapse. They're banking of their high-profile offseason being the turning point.
"I've always said these guys that win March and April probably don't get to hang around long,'' said Nix, of the Bills' headline-filled offseason. "But I think the guys in our locker room are excited. You've got to expect to do good to have a chance, and the first couple years here we only hoped we'd be able to play close to teams. We didn't always expect to. We had good players, we just didn't have enough at every position. At this point, we expect to win. That's my mindset and I think that's our team's mindset. It's time.''
For a guy who didn't initially want the pressure of a franchise turnaround placed on his shoulders, Mario Williams is getting used to the weight of expectations in Buffalo. If the Bills make it back to the land of NFL relevancy in 2012, chances are he will be the face of it. It started with his record-breaking signing, and it's largely up to him and his fellow defensive linemen to set the tone of the season.
"We need to come in and change this thing, and give something back to [the fans],'' he said. "We owe them that. We owe them winning seasons, we owe getting to the playoffs, we owe getting to the big game. That's how I see it. There's real excitement.''
For a change. In Buffalo this year, the real excitement starts up front.