HOUSTON -- Arizona Cardinals offensive tackle Brandon Keith is listed at 6-feet-5, 335 pounds, which means it takes considerable strength to move him once he makes up his mind to stand his ground. Yet in a preseason game against the Texans last year, Keith may as well have been a shower curtain. That's how easily defensive end Mario Williams swiped him aside on his way to the quarterback.
"We have a saying when a guy does that," discloses Texans starter Duane Brown, who on a weekly basis empathizes with his left-tackle counterparts while simultaneously appreciating Williams' gifts. "We call it throwing a guy out the club. Mario just threw him out the club. He took about two steps upfield and just lifted him off his feet. That's a grown man he did that to. As an offensive tackle you take pride in holding your ground, but then you see Mario do something like that and you shake your head. He's done it time and time again, and I'm sure he'll do it some more this year."
Not everyone was so sure heading into last Sunday's season opener against the Colts. To that point there had been angst, if not concern, with whether Williams could effectively transition from playing in a three-point stance as a 4-3 end to standing upright and playing outside linebacker in new coordinator Wade Phillips' 3-4 scheme.
Williams, the franchise's all-time leader in sacks, did not drop a quarterback in the preseason and appeared noticeably uncomfortable at times in practice, occasionally putting his hand on the ground when he should have been upright. Management expressed its belief that the former North Carolina State standout could successfully make the move, however it also put off discussions on a new contract until it could see him in game situations.
Initial result: Two sacks, two quarterback hurries, a tackle for loss, a forced fumble and a forced intentional-grounding call in the Texans' 34-7 demolition of the Peyton Manning-less Colts in Reliant Stadium.
Williams was not dominant per se; both sacks came in one-on-one situations against tight end Dallas Clark, who gets paid to catch passes not stone edge rushers. But he was disciplined and disruptive to the point that he allayed concerns he would struggle with the change.
"The thing about Mario is that he continues to improve in his new role," coach Gary Kubiak said afterward. "It has been a process that every time he's one out, whether it's practice or a preseason game, he seems to do something better every week. He's off to a great start. I'm very encouraged about where Mario can go with this."
Questions about the transition were understandable in part because of Williams' stature. At 6-6, 285 pounds, he has the size and strength to take on offensive linemen and rush the passer, but would he have the agility to drop and cover a tight end or running back in passing situations? Considering he has a 41-inch vertical and this season hurdled a back who tried to cut block when he was rushing the passer, the answer would seem to be obvious.
Still, Phillips knows that Williams' strength is getting upfield. That's why he dropped him into coverage only twice in the 44 snaps that Williams took Sunday. One of his sacks came with his hand down, the other with his hand off the ground. Overall, he played upright on 24 plays and appeared to drop into a three-point stance only when the Texans went to their nickel or dime sub packages. Phillips also moved him around, aligning 31 times on the left and 13 on the right.
Besides a change in position, Williams also has a change in attitude this year. Previously he was known as a perfectionist, which sometimes worked to his disadvantage. He would spend so much time thinking and trying to be precise that he never allowed his athletic ability to take over.
"I had a lot of things happen my first five years, from being drafted No. 1 and trying to focus on football and avoid all the he-said, he-said stuff (about whether the Texans should have selected Reggie Bush instead), to dealing with injuries and nicks and bruises," says Williams, who holds the franchise mark for sacks in a season (14, in 2007) and career (48). "But my attitude now is, You've got to deal with me. This year is all or nothing for me -- not just me, but my team, too. At this point it has to be all out, no thinking, no worries about injuries or nicks and bruises. My mentality is that I can be as good as I want to be, and I want to be great."
He had surgery on both groins in the offseason to correct injury issues and says the only thing slowing him down at the moment is adjusting technique-wise to playing in a two-point stance. He sometimes catches himself taking false steps -- picking up his front foot in a two-point stance before making a move to the quarterback. That can be the half-second difference between sacking the quarterback and simply pressuring him.
"It's something I definitely have to work on," Williams says. "It just comes with practice and reps."
Other than that he's having a ball in Phillips' defense. The Texans are the only NFL team that has never made the playoffs, and part of the reason last year was poor play on defense. Enter Phillips, who is known as the Fix It Man. In his previous seven stints as a defensive coordinator or head coach, his teams went to the playoffs in his first season. And he has had a tremendous impact on players making the transition from college end to NFL outside linebacker (see: Shawne Merriman and DeMarcus Ware, to name a couple).
If Williams takes his place in that line, Texans officials will be forced to hold their breath again. The reason is, Williams' contract is up at the end of the season, and if the club fails to come to terms on an extension before then it would cost Houston just under $22 million to use the franchise tag on him. For now, Williams says he is focused on football. But if he continues to build on his two-sack performance in the opener, his next contract could be more eye-opening than tossing aside a 6-5, 335-pound man with one arm.