Coming out of the tunnel during the team's introductions, he's at it again, getting himself and his teammates fired up with an array of head butts and head slaps that would send a normal person to the hospital -- though there probably isn't much a doctor can do if you've been decapitated.

He stays calm long enough to head midfield for the coin toss. Cincinnati wins the toss and elects to get the ball first, which means the chess match between Williams and the Bengals' front five is about to begin.


"Growing up, I always looked at the next level," he says. "When I was in high school, I thought about playing in college. When I was in college, I thought about playing in the NFL. My junior year in college, I thought, Why not? The possibilities are endless."

Why not, indeed. When you weigh almost 300 pounds and have a 41-inch vertical leap, the question why not doesn't have many answers. Neither does the question the Bengals ask: How do you stop Mario Williams? It seems, for the moment, that their strategy is to fire as many players at him as they can.

"They try to throw so much at me," he says. "But I'll see a certain formation, and I'll know what's about to happen. I'll know if I'm going to get chipped or if I'm going to have 2-3 guys coming at me. You just have to prepare for it."

The first series is a three-and-out for the Bengals, but when Texans return man Jacoby Jones takes the punt to the house for a touchdown, Williams finds himself right back on the field.

"At the beginning of the game, I'll try different moves on each guy and try to test where his weaknesses are," he says.

Like a poker player, he bull rushes Levi Jones on a pass play to see how he'll react. On the next down, he sticks him like he's going to bull rush but then spins. Each time, he logs Jones' reaction, hoping to find his tell.

"Sometimes I know something is going to work," he says, laughing. "I'll see the formation and how he's standing and I'll just know. Then I'll get excited and mess it up."

That excitement is apparent when, on back-to-back plays, he stutter-steps right, swims left, blasts through the line and arrives at Fitzpatrick a split second after he releases the ball. Three defensive series. Three hurries. Blood is in the water.


"In college we lifted weights all the time," Williams says. "It was like being a bodybuilder. In the pros, you get as strong as you can at a weight you can maintain throughout the season. We do it by working the core and doing more bodyweight exercises."

Having a stronger core means you have better balance, and having balance is what allows a player to absorb a hit from a running back while maintaining his trajectory toward the quarterback.

"We work really hard on firing our muscles," he says. "Our workouts are explosive. We do a lot of exercises in our lower-body routine."

According to the workout regimen given to us by the Texans' strength and conditioning staff, "a lot" is an understatement. There are 22 exercises on the list, the most impressive of which is the XPLoad Leg Press, where Williams performs a whopping 580 pounds for 12 reps. But he has to if he wants to have a prayer of getting around someone like Jones on Sundays. With 13:00 to go in the second quarter, it almost happens.

It's second-and-10 and the Bengals have possession midfield. The moment the ball is snapped, Williams jab-steps right, violently changes direction and shoves Jones to muscle by. He roars toward the quarterback but is pushed just enough by Jones that he misses Fitzpatrick by mere inches. On the very next play, he lines up just off tackle and splits the lineman right as Fitzpatrick drops back. He jukes the running back and comes full bore at the quarterback, who at 6'2" looks like he's about to be swallowed by a tidal wave. At the last second he throws the ball away, robbing Williams of a sack. Still, the play forces Cincinnati to punt.

"Getting a sack is like getting a touchdown," Williams says, getting animated just talking about it. "The crowd goes crazy. It's like you can breathe easy for a minute -- it's a breath of fresh air."

The Texans then go on a 15-play, 91-yard touchdown drive that eats up 9:22 on the clock, taking the game to near halftime and keeping Williams off the field. Sometimes a good offense can be frustrating.

>> For exclusive video of M&F's shoot with Mario, click here.

>> For web-exclusive images of our shoot with Mario, click here.