Pro Bowl bound Bills: Why three Bills players were selected, and possibly an argument for a fourth.
Ask any Bills fan this year how the season went, and the typical reaction, after the usual derogatory commentary and epithets, is one of profound disappointment. How could a fairly well-paid bunch, certainly by Ralph Wilson’s standards, fail so badly?
Certainly, the coaching staff was a dismal failure. Some people point to Chan Gailey, and rightfully so, but especially troubling was the defensive side of the ball, yielding 435 points, 5806 total yards (ranking 22nd, but including a once-again woeful 31st ranking against the run) and countless failures on 3rd down. It’s not like this is anything new, Buffalo has been poorly ranked against the run for many years. It has many people almost longing for the defenses of Gregg Williams, complete with bullhorn and blocking sled, even if one risks fines and suspensions for encouraging the decapitation of opponents. Clearly, Dave Wannstedt’s bland defense, relying on one-on-one matchups from a basic 4-3 lineup, blitzing less than 20% of the time, was a prime culprit. Mario Williams, especially pre-surgery, looked eminently blockable and the rest of the defense looked like it wasn’t sure where it was going, or for that matter, why.
Despite this less-than-memorable effort, there were some bright spots; Mario Williams looked like his usual self after wrist surgery, which begs the question: why wasn’t it done during pre-season? Nigel Bradham looks like a keeper at SAM linebacker, developing perhaps earlier than anyone thought. Stephon Gilmore fit in immediately as a cornerback. I think it can be safely argued that the Bills were less than the sum of their parts. That said, there were parts that clearly had great seasons, and the best were Jairus Byrd and Kyle Williams. They were both deservingly named to the Pro Bowl after injuries or Super Bowl presence called them to service. I’ll discuss CJ Spiller later.
First of all, Jairus Byrd should have started the Pro Bowl to begin with. He is, along with Eric Weddle, the most complete Defensive back in the AFC. Byrd will replace Super Bowl-bound Ed Reed, but I think Byrd should have had the nod. The Pro Bowl is somewhat a house of lords, with hereditary titles until such time as the player retires or is benched (and in the latter case, Jeff Saturday still made it!), so Reed’s inclusion on a Pro Bowl roster is more a result of the nature of the Pro Bowl than a slight on Byrd.
Byrd stops the run, he defends the pass, and he can blitz. He has extraordinary field vision. An errant pass near him is likely picked. The Bills ranked 10th in passing defense, and while this is somewhat diminished by the run performance (or lack thereof), it does not diminish the work of Byrd. 76 tackles in the open field has him among the better players at his Free Safety position. George Wilson posted 104 tackles from strong safety, and when you have a great deal of your tackles from the safety position, it’s generally because the front 7 didn’t disrupt and tackle enough. Toss in 39 from Da’Norris Searcy, add 93 more by Gilmore and Aaron Williams, and you get my point: the Bills tackled a lot of people… downfield. By comparison, Kelvin Sheppard had 80 tackles at MIKE, Nick Barnett had 112, and Bradham 57 after establishing himself. Byrd had centerfield responsibilities, was the last line of defense, a sure tackler, the top of any bracket coverage, and had supreme ball skills. In other words, few defensive backs had so much asked of them, and probably no one delivered as well as Byrd did. His selection as a Pro Bowler wasn’t just well-deserved statistically, Byrd’s become a leader, a locker room presence, and on the field, he makes people better. Buffalo could franchise him, but would be well served by signing him to a long term deal as he enters his prime.
If one googles the term “Kyle Williams, NFL Player”, one winds up with the fumble prone return man for the 49ers on the vast majority of searches. That’s a shame, because the best Kyle Williams in the league is a man who recovers fumbles or sets others up to cause them. Kyle Williams is replacing Haloti Ngata, who is also headed to the Super Bowl. Ngata is a different player, a force in the middle who gains sacks by collapsing the pocket with his 340 pounds of pure power. Williams uses his speed and slashing ability, and both had similar statistics.
Kyle Williams’ statistics weren’t otherworldly, but few people in the NFL who know defensive tackles underestimate or disrespect a guy whose motor knows only high gear. 46 tackles and 5 sacks look “very good” for an interior lineman. By way of comparison, former Bill Dwan Edwards, with Carolina and in a similar DT position had more tackles (52) and more sacks (6). So, what makes Kyle Williams a coaches and players’ favorite (or least favorite, if you’re this week’s opponent), as a defensive tackle? Steelers website “Behind the Steel Curtain” writer Neal Coolong said that “Kyle Williams had perhaps the most impressive play-to-play performance I’ve ever seen for a defensive tackle.” That’s high praise considering the source. In 2010, then-ESPN writer and now Buffalo News reporter Tim Graham wrote that “versatility has been Williams’ greatest asset”. In 2010, when Williams first went to the Pro Bowl, he was a 3-4 Nose tackle on a struggling team, but also played some DE. This year, he could be the 3 technique (shading the guard’s outer shoulder) or the 1 technique (between guard and center), as the situation required. This sort of versatility and capacity to make plays, even when others have poor seasons around you, is exactly why Kyle Williams, Pro Bowler, is a completely deserved honor.
Former Steelers’ coach Bill Cowher once said, according to a variety of sources, that in a particular desperate situation, his team should “leave no bullets in the gun.” If Bills Nation had one consistent complaint, it was that not only did the Bills not fire all of their bullets, it’s that the best weapon was consistently left in the holster. That weapon was CJ Spiller, who replaces the stellar Ray Rice, also of the Ravens.
All of us who watched, or listened, were left to wonder: What If Gailey had used Spiller just a bit more? We would see CJ Spiller splice a defense, like he did the Jets’ safeties on the way to the end of the year victory off a a middle screen. Or we’d see him bounce off tackles, busting up Jacksonville for a 44 yard touchdown. At 6.0 yards per carry, 1200+ yards, we were left longing for more, only to hear that he was “winded.” Too many times, Tashard Choice was the choice on third downs. Don’t get me wrong, I get using Choice as a 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust guy. He’s 10 pounds heavier and has a respectable 4.1 yards per carry average. Spiller shouldn’t take a lot of damage or risk himself on a play where his skills and elusiveness don’t have much use. However, on too many 3rd downs, Gailey seemed to overthink the matter, having Fitzpatrick throw too often or leaving Spiller on the bench. Spiller was and is the Bills’ best weapon, and will be for the next 5 years. Simply speaking, he’s electric in the open field, hard to hit, has real speed to hit the hole, and has learned to wait for his blocks to develop. On third downs, or any down for that matter, taking CJ Spiller out is akin to an army taking its best tank off the field and saying “hey, we’ll just use our humvees”.
I don’t know what will happen with Doug Marrone’s offense. I don’t know if Ryan Fitzpatrick will be around or not. The Bills should re-sign Andy Levitre, who is a powerful reason CJ Spiller averaged 6 yards per carry, and has his own Pro Bowl argument. No disrespect to Fred Jackson, but at his age, returning from injury, he’s clearly a number two back to Spiller. What I do know is that CJ Spiller better be the Bills’ feature back if they want to rebound from this moribund decade, and Marrone’s first and best decision is to find a way to use Spiller to break the backs of opposing defenders. No less than SI’s Peter King named him one of his two most underappreciated players. To quote “Don’t you think he ought to get the ball more in the future?” The Answer to that Mr. King, is a resounding yes.
Statistical Sources, courtesy NFL.com. Other sources include ESPN.com and SI.com.