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.