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Pitoniak: Time to Give Mario His Due

Reported by Scott Pitoniak
            After Mario Williams signed the most lucrative contract by a defensive player in NFL history two Marches ago, expectations at One Bills Drive soared higher than a blimp over the Ralph. For $100 million, we envisioned the second coming of Bruce Smith. We figured to see a fearsome pass rusher who caused opposing quarterbacks, blockers and offensive coordinators to wake up in the middle of the night bathed in a cold sweat. We expected Williams to be a game-changer.

                But injuries and some strange personal problems hamstrung the two-time Pro Bowl defensive end that the Bills had lured away from the Houston Texans. Although Williams recorded 10.5 sacks, he frequently looked soft out there. There were too many times when he was easily handled one-on-one by mediocre blockers. He whined too much about being held, failed to take matters into his own hands the way Smith had during the Bills glory years.

                When Williams was sidelined with a mysterious foot problem for the first few weeks of camp this summer, it was difficult not to think: “Here, we go again.”

                But through seven games this season, it appears the player we hoped to see has finally arrived.

                Stupor Mario has become Super Mario.

                Sunday afternoon, he came up with three game-changing plays in the fourth quarter to help the Bills come from behind to edge the Miami Dolphins, 23-21, marking the first time in nine tries Buffalo has won a road game against an AFC East opponent.

                Williams had two drive-killing sacks, including one that resulted in the fumble that set up the winning field goal. And then he helped preserve the victory by harassing Ryan Tannehill on the quarterback’s desperation heave that was batted to the ground in the end zone as time expired.

                Williams now has 10 sacks for the 3-4 Bills, meaning he’s on pace to record 22 sacks, which would eclipse by three the team standard established by Smith in 1990. Williams already broke the Bills single-game sack record shared by Smith and Cornelius Bennett when he lassoed Carolina’s Cam Newton 4.5 times in Week Two.

                Sacks can be an overrated stat, but in Super Mario’s case there is a direct correlation between them and the Bills’ fortunes. Buffalo is now 7-5 in games in which he registers at least one sack and 2-9 in games in which he is blanked.

                This victory also was secured by two other dependable performers. It’s obvious that running back Fred Jackson probably shouldn’t even be playing, given the instability of his knee. But we learned long ago that this undrafted Division III player who toiled in pro football’s bush leagues before hooking on with the Bills is as gritty as they come. Steady Freddy finished with just 36 yards on 11 carries and 49 yards on four receptions, but he came up big after Mario Williams’ sack forced a fumble that was recovered by Kyle Williams on the Miami 34-yard line. On a third-and-four play, he picked up 10 yards to the Dolphins 18. That first down enabled the Bills to run down the clock, leaving Miami with fewer than 30 seconds when it got the ball back following the go-ahead score.

                The other dependable performer was Dan Carpenter, who booted three field goals, including the winning three-pointer from 31 yards. It was sweet vindication for Carpenter, who had been cut by the Dolphins this summer after five seasons with the team. Give Bills General Manager Doug Whaley kudos for picking up the veteran kicker after rookie Dustin Hopkins suffered a season-ending groin injury just before the opener.

                All Carpenter has done is convert 15-of-16 field goal attempts, including all three from 50 yards or beyond. And it probably felt even sweeter that the man who knocked him off the Dolphins roster – Caleb Sturgis – wound up missing a makeable field goal earlier in the game that might have provided Miami with the winning points.

GRADES

                OFFENSE: Miami native Thad Lewis had a rough homecoming. He was sacked four times and intercepted once while throwing for just 202 yards. The banged-up Bills running backs mustered just 90 yards on the ground, 59 below their average, but picked up crucial yardage when it counted. Buffalo did convert a respectable 47 percent of its third downs. GRADE: C

                DEFENSE: Although they did yield three touchdown passes by Tannehill, they had two takeaways that resulted in 10 points and another that denied the Dolphins at least three points. Mario Williams had two sacks – one which caused a fumble – and several pressures. Cornerback Nickell Robey put the Bills up 7-0 with his 19-yard interception return for touchdown. The Dolphins converted just 3-of-13 third downs. GRADE: B-plus

                SPECIAL TEAMS: Brian Moorman had another solid game, averaging 45.4 yards and pinning one inside the 20. Carpenter was outstanding, and even made a big play on the final kickoff, slowing down Marcus Thigpen’s on a 44-yard return that nearly cost the Bills the game. GRADE: C-plus.

                OVERALL: After losing in the last seconds to New England and Cincinnati, the Bills scored a late victory against a decent opponent on the road. The defense held Miami to under 300 yards and came up big when it needed to. This was a much-needed win. Unfortunately, the challenges only get harder with a road game next Sunday against a New Orleans Saints team that is coming off a bye, followed by a home game against Kansas City. GRADE: B
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