Jets' Austin Howard faces major test in Bills' Mario Williams
The crowd circled in an instant, enveloping Austin Howard in a throng of microphones and television cameras.
Inquisitive minds needed to know one thing: How does the Jets' right tackle plan to stop sack machine Mario Williams?
Despite all the Wildcat plays the Jets and Bills have drawn up for one another, Sunday's final score might just come down to which lineman does his job best.
In one corner, there's the 6-7, 333-pound Howard, whose athleticism and physicality helped issue Wayne Hunter a one-way ticket to St. Louis 12 days ago.
Then there is Williams (6-6, 292), one of the most dominant pass-rushers in the NFL. Though he played in only 18 games the past two seasons with the Houston Texans, the six-year, $100-million contract the Bills offered him in March was evidence of how dangerous he is. And it shows how much faith Buffalo has that he'll wreak havoc in the AFC East.
This game is a critical first step for a Jets offense that has unwavering confidence despite producing only one touchdown in four preseason games. With so many questions heading into 2012 -- Can Mark Sanchez lead them to the postseason? Will Tim Tebow and the Wildcat be effective? Is Shonn Greene poised to have a breakout year? -- the Jets can't afford to fall to a division opponent at home.
So Howard knows the stakes are high -- not only for the Jets but for him.
"Regardless of who it is, this is the biggest opportunity of my life," said Howard, 25, who started one other game (opposite the Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware in the Eagles' 2010 regular-season finale). "And now I have an opportunity to start with the Jets Week 1 -- not Week 17."
He and his linemates have talked about the immense challenge that awaits him at MetLife Stadium. But the Jets, who tout three Pro Bowlers on their offensive line, have faith Howard will hold his own against Williams and any other member of the Bills' much-improved defensive line.
To help the offense prepare for Williams, the Jets had the 6-4, 240-pound Aaron Maybin simulate the two-time Pro Bowler in practice. The speedy outside linebacker joked that he lost about eight pounds going full speed and "giving 100 percent on every play," just as Williams does.
But after going head-to-head with his offensive line, Maybin -- the Bills' first-round pick in 2009 -- had a playful warning for Williams. "I don't think he's going to have a good day on Sunday because they're going to be showing him a lot of attention," he said, chuckling. "With each day, they get meaner, they get nastier and they get better."
Rex Ryan also expressed confidence in his offensive line, saying the unit "is about as good as it gets.''
"And it's going to need to be," he quickly added. "Those front four get after your quarterback in a similar fashion to how the Giants play their front four. It's certainly going to be a challenge for us."
The Jets' offensive line was in a state of flux in the offseason, but that's no excuse now, Matt Slauson said. Asked about the unit's chemistry heading into the regular season, the left guard said matter-of-factly: "We don't have a choice but to make it work."
Starting with Howard.
"He's got a lot of potential," Slauson said, "and now it's time for him to show the world."