In the Flesh, on Tape: Mario Williams in the 3-4

I’ve seen arguments pro and con about playing Mario Williams as an outside linebacker in the 3-4 front.  I figured I would go beyond conjecture and look at his Texans play as outside linebacker.

Wade Phillips made the decision to stand Williams up and work him on the edge in Houston’s 3-4.  He produced five sacks in the Texans first five contests, forced an interception against Miami when he hit Chad Henne’s arm on follow-through and forced a fumble in the opener against the Colts.

I still regard Williams as a long-shot free agent prospect for Dallas, but good sources (Aaron Wilson is a solid source) say they hear Dallas linked to him.  This may be the only window for imagining Williams in Cowboys white, so I’m doing my due diligence.

Williams Would Fit

Williams played two roles in the Texans front.  He was the weakside OLB in the base 3-4 when the Texans deployed it on 1st and 2nd downs.  He also played left end whenever the Texans used a four-man line in front of their nickel and dime packages.

Phillips asked his outside linebackers to do what Demarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer did in Dallas.  One played on the strong side and one played on the weak.  The two would look at the formations and Spencer would take the tight ends side and Ware the open side.  Teams would often flop their tight ends to put him across from Ware, but Phillips rushed five men as often as he did four, so Ware still rushed.

The benefits of this package if you’re the Cowboys is that you’re almost always creating a favorable matchup opposite the opponent’s tight end for a Pro Bowl caliber rusher.  Last year, teams put their tight ends opposite Ware as often as they can, to chip him and give the offensive tackle an edge in blocking number 94.   If a team tried motioning the tight end to Williams’ side, they leave Ware one-on-one.  If they motion him to Ware’s side, Williams gets to go one-on-one.

You might be concerned that teams would pull Ware into coverage a lot more and try to limit the amount of times he rushes, but I didn’t see this as an issue in Houston’s 3-4.  Phillips rushed both Williams and SOLB Connor Barwin most of the time on early-down passes, regardless of the formations they faced.  I imagine Rob Ryan would do the same if he got both guys on his team.   LaMarr Woodley has averaged 11.0 sacks a season rushing off the strong side for Pittsburgh.  He’s not easily schemed out of games by tight end or running  back coverage responsibility.  He’s an effective rusher so Dick LeBeau rushes him.

I did not see Williams taken out of his game by motion or formation.  The Steelers tried using two tight ends and flexed the one on Williams’ side into the slot on some occasions, but Williams would walk off the tight end and get a free run off the edge;  with the TE in space, Williams got a better angle, a walking start on his takeoff and no worries about being chipped.  Here you can see him creeping towards the line off the left slot:

I believe it could work, because in the three games I viewed closely, against the Dolphins, Saints and Steelers, the opposing offensive coordinators did not make working Mario Williams into coverage a priority in the passing game.  And how often have you seen or heard of an offensive coordinator designing his passing game plan around a running back?  Mike Martz did it with Marshall Faulk, but nobody tried covering Faulk with a power outside backer.  You might have some key plays for a back, if you’re a Sean Payton and you’ve got a Darren Sproles in your arsenal, but you don’t enter a game counting on matching up a back on a linebacker 8-10 times and getting 120 yards of offense that way.

Houston’s opponents wanted to attack down the field and used a lot of spread sets.  This gave Houston an advantage against four and five man patterns, because tight ends were rarely on the field and because the backs these teams used had to stay in much of the time to help block.  This meant more four-man routes and less pressure on the Texans back sixes and sevens.

When Phillips knew spread sets were coming, he put Williams in his familiar 4-3 role on the left side.  He’s long-armed and abused the right tackles he faced.  When he got one on the down-slide, like Miami’s Marc Colombo, Williams regularly got into the quarterback’s face.

Having seen Williams in a 3-4, I believe Rob Ryan could make it work.  He’s got fast inside linebackers who can cover.  He has a strong safety who can cover pretty well when he’s healthy.  In his pipe dreams, I’m sure Ryan would like a Williams and a good, penetrating DE, giving him a good rusher everywhere across his front five.

Williams’ contract demands will likely keep this in the pipe dream category, but what a dream.

Rafael Vela

Rafael Vela

Senior Analyst Cowboys at Sports Talk Line
Started covering Dallas Cowboys @ in '95 and '96. Two more stops along the way and here I am. Senior Analyst for
Rafael Vela

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  • Stsinaz

    It can still happen. Jerry doesnt care how much it is. Sign williams and carr then draft decastro.

  • Msneyd

    If we can sign Mario, I say go to a 4-3 base. Ratliff’s most natural position is probably the 3 technique in a 4-3 anyway. So you go with Williams-Ratliff-Brent/Lissemore-Ware across the front with Hatcher as your backup end and 3 technique. Coleman and his 1million plus would be gone, as would Spears. Maybe you could even trade Spears for some functional interior O-Line help.
    Then you have Carter and Lee with outstanding potential for weak-side and middle lb respectively. I would finish it off with going for Hightower (possibly after a small drop-down from 14), with Butler backing up). That would give you a pretty incredible front 7.
    If you can still fit in Carr with Mario, great, if not, get someone serviceable like Porter, and use a 2nd or 3rd on another CB.
    On O-line aim for Nagy at centre, with Arkin and Kosier at the guards, with Kowalski and Costa (if he can ever develop and anchor) in the mix as well. Then use the other 2nd or 3rd on the interior O-line, and pick up some leftover vets later on. They invested picks and a lot of playing time in the youth movement last year, so there is a real argument with trying to see it through, especially with Callahan on board. You invest time in young players so that they can get better; if you still see potential in any of them, you got to see it through.
    I would probably go TE or back to O-Line/CB in the 4th and 5th. 
    Church/Elam type vet at the other safety spot.
    Those are my thoughts, Ratliff as a 4-3 tackle, Carter as a 4-3 WOLB, and Hightower as a 4-3 SOLB would all be pretty spectacular.

  • Miguel

    We hear a lot of different opinions on the cowboys cap. One guy was saying the boyz could get as much as 40 mil, some others that they can get max to 20 mil minus Anthony 8,8 mil. what is the correct aproach on that?  Correct numbers may get us a good look at what the team can get in FA.Also, of that remaining cap, how much money has to be reserved to draft´s signings?And finaly, whats the word on the kind of deal that may get Williams in a cowboys jersey?
    Thanks Raf…!!!!!

  • wait wait wait wait wait

    An OLB that can rush the passer opposite Ware would help our defense?

    Nah, that must be more liberal press sabermetrics trickery you’re employing Raf.  Full speed ahead with operation pay Almost Anthony $8.8  million!!!

  • BVandy

    To any and all capologists out there: I seem to recall some discussion about 20% maximum contract escalators.  Did that ever get worked into the negotiations?  If so, it would be impossible to pay somebody like Mario league minimum, even with a huge signing bonus as you couldn’t escalate enough to cover the terms of the contract.  Let me know.


  • Taylor

    As I posted earlier, JJ is a great salesman and promoter.  I don’t know how deep his pockets are, but boy, would Mario be something.  We’re more than one guy away from contender, but he could cover up some weaknesses.  

  • Cowboys4Life

    My only worry is that if we get Mario we won’t be able to get a premier CB or a center in free agency.   With what we would be paying him we might be able to pick up Brandon Carr, Myers/Wells and perhaps even some safety help.

  • fiverings37


  • Lee1936

    If we get Mario, that would surely preclude getting FA CB Finnegan or Carr. Then Dre K would really look great at pick 1/14!

  • Chris

    If the Cowboys can’t sign Williams, I wonder if Kamerion Wimbley, who is likely to be released by the Raiders, would be considered an upgrade over Spencer. His numbers would indicate he’s a better pass rusher.

    • Bluefin

       Anthony Spencer is not a pass rusher, so it would be a given.

      Looking at Pro Football Focus, Spencer rushed 293 times from the defense’s left side last season with a meager 3 sacks to show for it.

      Meanwhile, Demarcus Ware only rushed 120 times from the left side and notched 8 sacks, which was second in the NFL (3 players had 9).

      Dallas only played against one RT who ended the season with an above average grade, Philly’s Todd Herremans (+2.4, 26th place).

      That’s 14 games against below average RTs (and we’re talking bad players).

      Ware dominated these bums as expected, his Pass Rushing Productivity (sacks + .75xhits + .75xhurries divided by pass rush snaps = PRP) against RTs was 16.7, behind only two players who logged far fewer snaps.

      Spencer (9.2) was 11th out of the 20 ranked players.

      Spencer rushed against some of the worst players in the NFL almost every week and failed to stand out even when playing for a new contract.

      Spencer didn’t even dominate against the run the way he should have when you consider the opposition.

      Dallas has got to get Spencer off the field on passing downs in the event he returns, he isn’t a pressure player.

      $8.8 million is a tad pricey for a run player.

      • truecowboyfan

         Good analysis. But unfair to compare Spencer with Demarcus Ware.

  • AustonianAggie

    Some lesser known Colts I’m interested in: Melvin Bullit, because he’s an ok safety, and Dallas Clark, to really bring our Two TE Offense to life

  • Lee1936

    There is no substitute for talent.

  • Mike G

    Raf I know you have seen me post this everyday for weeks now, the Cowboys need to sign Mario. Very seldom does a player of his caliber in his prime become available, he makes the entire defense better. Overpaying for a corner in free Agency does not have the impact on a defense that Mario Williams would have. Go get him Jerrry!!!!!

  • sidarc

    Off topic but the Giants released Brandon Jacobs. Put a smile on my face. He’s seemed to be the biggest talker (taking it to a disrespectful level at times) and most minimally productive player on their team for a while.

  • Kjd811

    If it came down to these 2 options which makes us better: Super Mario and maybe a serviceable Corner type in FA,// or Brandon Carr, Meyers, Wells or Grubbs for the O-line and an upgrade at FS like Dwight Lowrey from Jax?

    Its debatable but I would be happy going either way.

    If we don’t get Mario we need to add a pass rushing DE in the draft-Cox Brockers.

    • Cowboys4Life

      If we get Mario we might still go after Cox or Brockers. 

      • joey2zs

        Did you just say Cox Brockers?  How do you know my friends from high school and college?

  • sidarc

    The VaGiants took down 2 offensive juggernauts on their way to claiming the Lombardi trophy by sending waves of good pass rushers at the opposing teams QB. Before their pass rush came on, their secondary was getting toasted. It’s fact, not conjecture, that a QB is not as effective when you move him off his spot, it’s been that way since the birth of the passing game and it’s the same today. As I said yesterday, I was not on board with going after Williams, but as someone else pointed out, an elite pass rusher comes available (which almost never happens), you go get him, worry about the rest later.

    • greatwhitenorth

      You make a good argument, and if they do manage to sign Mario, I’m sure the vast majority of fans will be saying the exact same thing a week from now.  I don’t think it will happen, but if it does then I’m all for it.

      • joey2zs

        Wouldn’t the equivalent argument be for bolstering the O Line and roasting the Giants’ secondary?  DeCastro and a Center.

        • sidarc

          What would this have to do with drafting Decastro?

    • truecowboyfan

       One problem: Mario Williams projected contracted could be bigger than Justin Tuck, Osi Umenioyra and Jason Pierre Paul COMBINED!

    • Taylor

      If you consider Ratliff, we could have three guys that demand a double team.

  • My thinking on this pipe dream is that Williams and Ware would significantly balance the 3-4 set and make SOLB/WOLB distinctions a bit less relevant.  As is, we’re somewhat limited by our 3-4 balance due to the fact that Ware is a far, far superior pass rusher than Spencer.  You might throw Ware into coverage every once and blue moon.  But, employing this strategy on a consistent basis is a colossal waste of resources.  Yet, with Williams in the mix, you no longer have to worry about a massive  drop in functional resources when you alter the base roles.  Both Ware and Williams can rush the passer.  Both can stop the run.  Ware may be a better coverage backer, but this difference won’t be enough to tip the scales like it is with Spencer.  You’ve got true presnap balance with a Ware/Williams combo.  And, this is one of the primary reasons why adding Williams is such a mouth-watering proposition.  Achieving the perception of presnap balance is the goal almost every defensive coordinator (and Madden video game players) and especially a huge plus point for Ryan’s defense.  One of the fatal flaws in Ryan’s Cowboy’s defense is the fact that you can count on Ware to rush the passer.  When you add predictable element to a defense that strives to be unpredictable, you’re not functioning at optimal levels.  Williams would change all of that.  But, before I start salivating over this wonderful proposition, I keep having to remind myself that the most likely pairing of Ware and Williams is on Madden, and not in the NFL.  But, until next Tuesday, we can all dream.

    • Also, for those who worry about how signing Wiliams would impact the future, I present this generalized prognosis:

      1. For 2013 league year, the cap will be based off of actual profit numbers instead of an arbitrary number.

      2. Here is the big kicker for the 2013 league year.

      3.  So, if the cap is to exponentially increase in 2013, then the only cap we need to concern oursevles with is 2012. 

      4. Going along with the increased 2013 cap, teams can (and will) lump disproportinate salary increases into 2013 and beyond.  Team are already starting to renegotiate current contracts to accomplish more 2012 cap flexibility.  The only variable here is the willingness of any given player to take less today for more tomorrow.  There’s no way to predict/project that.

      So, in summary, the only thing we really need to concern ourselves with is clearing the 2012 cap hurdle.  Players are certainly aware of the massive increases.  And, they are also acutely aware of the salary floor that will be implemented in 2013.  2013 is set to be an unprecedented salary increase year in the NFL.  You tell me, if you belong to the perceived non-elite free agent group today, would you be more willing to sign a 1-2 year deal?  Signing Williams may not be as restrictive to the future as one might ordinarily suspect it to be.  The big question is how much cap room can we clear for 2012?  That’s the burning question for me…

      • Raja

        Thank you for the link – It says ‘..The agreements will take effect after the 2013 football season…’ – so we may still have constraints next season too. 

        If the extra money that every capologist (professional and amateur alike) is counting on is only these new deals then I suspect we may be in for a disappointment – the total NFL take increases by 1.16 billion.  Players get 47% of that – each team’s cap increases by about $17 million starting in 2014.  However, benefits cost will factor into this as well.  That is a permanent increase though, till these contracts end in 2022. 

        I said disappointment because the cap used to increase by high single digits every year between 2006 and 2010 and so, it is just a little extra when you consider health care costs are going to take a huge chunk of this $17 million increase.

        • Lee1936

          The new contract is an increase of over 50%, from an average $1.94 billion to $3.1 billion per year.  Even in pro sports, a 50% raise is impressive.

      • Let me take a stab at it.  It’s based on RUMOR I saw, all caps intended, but it went like this:

        The Falcons would make Williams a 7-year, $105 M offer, with cap hits of 10M in years one and two.  That’s consistent with what you’ve put up here.

        Now, Anthony Spencer for one year at 8.8M or Mario Williams for the same year at 10?    Yeah, I’m trying to keep from getting carried away with this, but if this is anywhere close to Atlanta’s thinking… that’s not impossible.  

        Still say it’s unlikely, even highly unlikely, but it’s not impossible.  

        • Blake

           If 7y/$105m would get the job done, (and I think it would be close, that would make him the highest paid non-quarterback in the league not named Larry Fitzgerald) the cap hit in 2012 could be even lower than that.  Say a $35m signing bonus and the league minimum the first year, now he only hits for about $6m.  I can’t imagine a guy balking at small game checks when he just but $35 million in the bank. 

          The back loaded deal might force you in to ten or fifteen million dollars in dead money at the end of the contract, but with smart spending between now and then, that shouldn’t be too much of a concern.

          With a deal structured like that, there’s no reason they can’t go after Carr too.

        • Milkshaker

          This has been my thinking as well. 

          If there’s a difference of “only” $1m to $2m in cap allocation this year between Spencer and Williams, there’s no issue. 

          The real issues would be, does Mario want to play in a 3-4 (he does have a choice) and what’s Ware’s reaction. Can a team have $30m of its cap in 2 OLBs?

          Similar view regarding Carr. Newman’s cap savings when cut will be (I estimate) around 70% of Carr’s 1st year contract.

          Our 2 biggest proposed signings are basically covered by people currently occupying cap space.

      • Nightspook

        “Less today for more tomorrow” …. Where you can do that arranging base salaries, generaly how cap space is cleared is to convert either a roster bonus or part of this years salary to a signing bonus.  Ergo if you had 5mil of your salary for this year converted to a signing bonus then you get the 5 M anyhow, but for the purpose of capology the 5M is spread out over the remaining life of the contract. 

      • fivetwos

        The cap figure for Williams for 2012 can be as low as the signing bonus divided by the length of the deal plus the minimum salary for that player.

        So…if they sign Williams to a six-year deal that includes a 24M check from Jerry and the minimum salary in 2012 (700K in his case), the cap hit would be only 4.7M.

        The dead money issue goes away after this season as well as the above mentioned cap increases.

        Dallas can afford him.

        We’re talking about an ELITE pass rusher in his prime that instantly turns this defense into one that gives us a chance.

        With today’s rules, you can’t win by trying to cover for longer, you need to get to the passer.

        It took a unique set of circumstances for a player like this to even sniff the market.

  • AustonianAggie

    Yeah that is quite a dream.  It would be a tragedy to get this guy while not fixing our secondary though.

    • fivetwos

      You don’t think signing this guy makes the secondary better?

      • AustonianAggie

         not if the WR is lined up on Newman

        • Nightspook

          Touche’!  lol …. or … we can still be better and Newman will still get burned…. It was getting so bad my kid was asking for Newman and Eggs for breakfast!

          • joey2zs

            boooo!   bring your A game!

    • AustonianAggie

       if we signed this guy, I would forgive trading our whole draft for two established sufficent CBs

    • Nightspook

      One could argue that getting this guy “IS” fixing your secondary!  Or at least giving it a big helping hand.  🙂  Don’t know if anyone remembers Everson Walls, but when asked he always gave credit for his success to playing behind Two Tall Jones.  Works for me!

  • Cowboy KRS

    Brandon Carr a Must!!!!!!

  • fivetwos

    Dallas has both the cap room and an owner willing to commit to a large signing bonus.

    They have as good of a chance, if not better than most, to sign him.