How can the Buffalo Bills defense evolve to become a respectable unit again? If the Bills have any serious aspirations about breaking their 12-year playoff drought, they have to improve a defense that is currently ranked dead last in the NFL.
After six weeks, the Bills are allowing 429.8 yards of overall offense per game. By contrast, the Dallas Cowboys have the No. 1 defense in the NFL. The Cowboys are only allowing 285 yards per game this season.
The Bills defense has come under heavy fire, as well as close scrutiny, based on allowing more than 550-yards of overall offense in consecutive games.
The blowout losses to the New England Patriots in Week 4 and to the San Francisco 49ers in Week 5 were new lows for the Bills franchise. The last time a defense gave up that much yardage in two-straight games was the New York Yanks team, dating back to 1950.
The loss to San Francisco was especially embarrassing since the Bills gave up more than 300 yards rushing and 300 yards passing. The 49ers set a new franchise record by gaining 621 yards of total offense in the game.
It was the first time in NFL history that a team gained over 300 yards rushing and passing in the same game.
The sad truth is that they had a full training camp and set of OTA's to implement the new defensive scheme that defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt wanted to install.
When you have a defense that is this bad, what can you do to fix it and still be competitive?
Just how bad has the defense really been? In a story by Kerry Byrne of Cold, Hard Football Facts.com, he laid out some rationale on why Buffalo's defense has such a long way to go to improve. According to Byrne's article:
The Buffalo defense is the worst in football in the Relativity Index, which measures how each team performs relative to the quality of their opposition.
The Bills have surrendered 35.2 PPG through Week 5, while their opponents have averaged just 20.7 PPG against teams other than Buffalo. That differential of +14.5 PPG is easily the worst in football.
Let's look at some recent history of the Bills defense, briefly review the moves they made in the 2012 offseason and then conclude with what they can do to evolve into a better unit.
The Bills finished 2011 with an overall defense ranked at No. 26, giving up 371 yards per game. That amounts to 58 less yards per game than they are giving up now.
In 2010, the Bills were ranked No. 24 overall, allowing 361.6 yards per game. Both of those teams were led by defensive coordinator George Edwards, who Buffalo fired at the end of the 2011 season.
Edwards implemented a 3-4 defensive scheme. It took several years to find the right personnel to fit into the system. But the front office felt it wasn't effective enough, as the team finished No. 27 in sacks both years. Tom Brady specifically was killing them, since he had all day to stand in the pocket and find an open receiver.
Buffalo then promoted assistant head coach/linebacker coach Wannstedt to become the new defensive coordinator for 2012. Wannstedt decided that the Bills needed to return to a 4-3 scheme, and so the team identified key targets that would have the defense up and running as soon as possible.
As we all witnessed with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011, you can bring in a few stars from other teams, but it takes time for the unit to mesh together. For defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, that experiment ultimately resulted in him being fired by the Eagles this past week.
You can't blame the Bills organization for lack of effort in trying to upgrade the defense.
In 2011, Buffalo invested the No. 3 overall pick in the draft by selecting Alabama star DT Marcell Dareus. In 2012, the Bills once again used a top-10 draft pick to improve the defense with the selection of South Carolina CB Stephon Gilmore.
The focus on improving the defense didn't stop with drafting Gilmore. The Bills added talented CB Ron Brooks from LSU and promising LBs Nigel Bradham from Florida St. and Tank Carder from TCU.
The Bills made a big splash in the 2012 free-agency market to upgrade their pass rush. Owner Ralph Wilson opened up his vault to sign big deals with DE Mario Williams (six years and $96 million) and DE Mark Anderson (four years and $19.5 million).
The city of Buffalo was agog with the prospects of watching a dominating defensive line in action every Sunday. When training camp opened, head coach Chan Gailey was pleased because there was a high level of competition being waged for jobs on the defensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary.
The veterans that survived the 2012 final cuts (along with their respective years in the NFL) were DE Chris Kelsay, LB Nick Barnett, nickel LB Bryan Scott and CB Terrence McGee (10 years), DT/DE Spencer Johnson (nine), LB Kirk Morrison (eight), DE Mario Williams, DT Kyle Williams, DE Mark Anderson and S George Wilson (seven), CB Leodis McKelvin (five) and S Jairus Byrd and DE Kyle Moore (four).
Veterans that became training camp casualties included DL Dwan Edwards, Shawne Merriman and Kellen Heard.
The defense had quite a number of young players to mix in, especially at linebacker and in the secondary. They included: DT Torell Troup (placed on I.R.), DT Alex Carrington, LB Arthur Moats (three years), DT Marcell Dareus, LB Kelvin Sheppard, CB Aaron Williams, CB Justin Rogers and S Da'Norris Searcy (two years).
The rookies were CB Gilmore, CB Brooks and LB Nigel Bradham. The Bills placed Brooks on I.R. with the designation to return to the roster later on in the season.
Buffalo also kept undrafted rookie free agent S Delano Howell from Stanford. The rookie that didn't survive training camp in a surprise move was LB Tank Carder.
So with all of this talent to work with, could Wannstedt mesh all these players together? How long would it take for them to play a consistent brand of solid defense every week?
For those not familiar, Wannstedt has plenty of NFL experience. He served as defensive coordinator for Dallas in 1989-1992, Miami in 1999 and now for Buffalo in 2012. He also was head coach for Chicago in 1993-1998 and with Miami in 2000-2004.
Wannstedt is a disciple of the 4-3 defensive scheme, relying on a strong front four to do their job. It is imperative that the linemen must beat one-on-one blocks to get to the quarterback to apply pressure. If they don't, the secondary will get exposed.
If the front four is good enough, you have a solid defense. If they aren't, then you get results that Bills fans witnessed against New England and San Francisco.
Buffalo felt that the addition of Mario Williams and Anderson would make for a dynamic defensive line when they were paired with tackles Kyle Williams and Dareus. Plus, the Bills had quality depth in Kelsay, Johnson, Carrington and Moore to keep everybody fresh.
With the defensive line tying up the offensive linemen, the linebackers would be free to penetrate the gap and collapse the running game or the pocket by blowing up plays in the backfield. The secondary would be in position to secure a number of turnovers based on hurried throws and deflections.
In the preseason the Bills named Barnett, Sheppard and Morrison as the starting linebackers. Prior to the start of the season, the Bills announced that Moats had bypassed Morrison and would be the starter. That lasted for five weeks until rookie Bradham overtook Moats for the starting job. Curiously, Morrison, the preseason starter, hasn't been activated for a single game this season.
When Buffalo lost the season opener to the New York Jets 48-28, it was clear that the defense would need more time to jell. Another discovery was that the Bills defense was physically dominated by the Jets' offensive line. Mark Sanchez was never sacked once, and the Jets were allowed to run whatever they wanted to without much interference from the Bills.
After six weeks, a clear pattern has emerged that demonstrates how vital the pressure generated from the defensive line is tied to the team's bottom-line success.
Week 1 at New York Jets: Loss, no sacks, one tackle for loss, no quarterback hits, one turnover.
Week 2 vs. Kansas City: Win, five sacks, six tackles for loss, five quarterback hits, three turnovers.
Week 3 at Cleveland: Win, four sacks, eight tackles for loss, five quarterback hits, two turnovers.
Week 4 vs. New England: Loss, one sack, three tackles for loss, three quarterback hits, two turnovers.
Week 5 at San Francisco: Loss, no sacks, no tackles for loss, three quarterback hits, two turnovers.
Week 6 at Arizona: Win, five sacks, six tackles for loss, seven quarterback hits, two turnovers.
You can call it a coincidence if you want to, but if the Bills register at least four sacks and at least six tackles for a loss, they have won all three games that occurred.
If the Bills come up with less than two sacks or less than three tackles for a loss, they have been defeated all three times.
Of course there are a host of other factors, but it will be interesting to see how much longer this trend will continue to serve as a measurement for potential success.
Another positive is that the Bills defense has created at least two turnovers in five of the six games so far. That is a positive development to build on.
When you consider that Ryan Fitzpatrick has struggled and the offense has not helped by going three-and-out or turning the ball over in the first-three plays on 25 different drives in the first six weeks, the Bills defense doesn't get too many long breaks during a game.
On the update front, this week the Bills decided to bring back free agent DE Shawne Merriman, as Mark Anderson had suffered a knee injury and was expected to be sidelined for a number of games. CB Brooks is now actively practicing with the team as well.
How can the current Bills coaching staff and players evolve into becoming a better unit?
The Bills are doing a nice job this season of making sure their young players get snaps in game action. If a starter goes down, the backup won't be overwhelmed. If a youngster happens to outplay the veteran, the Bills won't hesitate to promote him to the starting role. That happened when Bradham replaced Moats.
Examples of rotating snaps would be CB Williams and CB McGee taking turns, while S Searcy rotates in the secondary as well.
On the defensive line, Moore and Carrington give the starters a breather. It was Carrington that got a hand on the Jay Feeley field goal at the end of regulation that forced overtime. Carrington also combined with Kelsay to knock Arizona QB Kevin Kolb out of the game.
Another way that the Bills defense can evolve is to become less predictable. Wannstedt needs to be willing to switch things up when the game plan isn't working. When New England and San Francisco were moving the ball up and down the field at will, Wannstedt stubbornly stuck with the same alignment that was getting burned every drive.
There was no blitzing from the linebackers or secondary. It was clear that the offensive game plan had identified where the Bills were vulnerable. No major adjustments were made, and the game just continued to get out of hand.
It was interesting to see how well the defense played against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 6. Buffalo spent the entire week in Arizona as they had just played in San Francisco the week before. The Bills were isolated as if they were back at training camp with no distractions from Buffalo. The defense played inspired football and were as focused as they had been all year.
The Bills will have their bye week coming in Week 8, so there is a chance for Wannstedt to regroup and figure out some new wrinkles. The Bills desperately need to win some games against AFC East rivals to have any shot at the playoffs. Four of the remaining nine games will be played in the AFC East.
With an eye towards the future evolution of the defense, the team has a number of 10-year veterans that are nearing the end of the line. Buffalo will have to determine if these guys (Kelsay, Barnett and McGee) are still an asset or if they have become a liability.
The Bills will have some key unrestricted free agents hitting the market in 2013.
They are Byrd, Scott, Johnson, McKelvin, Merriman and Moore. Scott and Byrd are tied for the team lead by creating four turnovers already on the season. Signing both of them to new contracts will be a priority.
Buffalo has been doing a better job of retaining their better players when the initial contract expires. You can credit general manager Buddy Guy for that. In the past year, the Bills have signed contract extensions with Fred Jackson and Stevie Johnson. The Bills need to take that same approach with the defensive standout players as well.
Buffalo has served as the first NFL home for a number of solid defensive players who opted to leave for other teams after their original contract expired. Examples include: Antoine Winfield (Minnesota), Nate Clements (Cincinnati), Donte Whitner (San Francisco), Paul Posluszny (Jacksonville) and Jim Leonhard (Denver).
There is still time in the 2012 season for the Buffalo defense to get their act together. On the surface there is plenty of individual talent, but they have to stick to their assignments and not try to be a star on every play. If they can't turn things around, they could cost Chan Gailey his job.
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