The official halfway point, after game eight and during the bye week, would have been a natural point for assessing the performance of a unit. I couldn’t wait that long, however, so let’s talk Buffalo Bills defense.
The general consensus around town would grade Jim Schwartz and the Bills defense fairly high. There have been vast improvements made when compared to the last few seasons, and many feel the Buffalo defensive unit is performing at a playoff level. Truth be told, the defense would look like gold even if it performed at an average level due to the dysfunction on the offensive side of the ball.
But all in all, the defense has been very good and has kept the Bills alive in several games. I predicted significant improvement back in July when many worried about the losses of Kiko Alonso, Jairus Byrd and Mike Pettine. So far, that prediction has been on point.
Now, it is time for this unit to be even better. Some issues have arisen in the last couple of games, which is why I found it necessary to assess the defense a week early.
At no point, other than maybe the second half against New England, has the Buffalo defense been ugly. So it would be unfair to include that as a label. With that, we’ll play a little game of great, good and bad.
GREAT – Rush defense
The rush defense has to be No. 1 on this list, and it won’t take much analysis to figure out why. Often ranked near the bottom of the NFL, the Bills haven’t finished better than 22nd against the run in nine years. Through seven games in 2014, they are fourth. Not only are they fourth, they are allowing nearly 50 less yards per game on the ground when compared to last season. Jim Schwartz has done what Perry Fewell, George Edwards, Dave Wannstedt and Mike Pettine all could not – he has put a scheme in place that plugs the holes.
There are several areas to which the improvement can be attributed, but I’ll highlight the elimination of breakdowns. Better players (like Brandon Spikes) are being put in better situations. No longer are we seeing those 1-on-1 situations out in space like we did with the Bobby Rainey run in Tampa Bay last November.
Here’s a look at where the Bills have ranked in rush defense during the last decade along with the average number of ground yards surrendered per game.
2005 – 31st (137.8)
2006 – 28th (140.9)
2007 – 25th (124.6)
2008 – 22nd (121.6)
2009 – 30th (156.3)
2010 – 32nd (169.6)
2011 – 28th (139.0)
2012 – 31st (145.8)
2013 – 28th (128.9)
2014 – 4th (80.4)
GREAT – Individual performances of Dareus and Hughes
Marcell Dareus and Jerry Hughes have simply been outstanding.
Dareus, with seven sacks, continues to be disruptive and continues to beat double-teams. He has gotten better each year since being selected No. 3 overall in the 2011 Draft, and the time has come to label him an elite player at his position.
Hughes, with 5.5 sacks, has done an outstanding job in his edge-rusher role opposite of Mario Williams. In games against Detroit and Minnesota, Hughes has flat out taken over. If General Manager Doug Whaley is indeed evaluated at the end of this season, he will certainly hang his hat on the type of trade that brought Hughes to Buffalo. It was an absolute steal.
Ironically, both Dareus and Hughes provide the most pressing contract situations for the Bills front office. I’ll make it simple for Terry Pegula and Co. – pay these men.
GOOD – Individual performances of M. Williams and Brown
Identical to Hughes, Mario Williams has 5.5 sacks this season. Somehow though, it has been a quiet 5.5 sacks. Williams will never truly meet the expectations that came along with the record contract he inked back in 2012, but that is because those expectations are unrealistic. Outside of the Minnesota game, Williams has had his best season in a Buffalo uniform. While the sack numbers are not gaudy, he has done a fine job in setting the edge and providing an important piece to the run defense puzzle.
Preston Brown has been a nice surprise. He had his struggles in coverage early on, but he has gotten consistently better. Against Minnesota, Brown was given a majority of the snaps on the weak side, and he responded with possibly his finest effort as a young pro. While it is way too early to make a definitive call on Brown, the decision to select him in the third round appears to be a good one.
GOOD – Takeaways
The Bills rank seventh in the league at 1.7 turnovers forced per game. With nine games remaining, that’s just one spot off of last year’s ranking in which the team forced 1.9 per game. One of the major concerns when Pettine left town was that the turnover numbers would suffer. So far, that’s not been the case. Not only have the Bills forced turnovers at a fine rate, they have done it in crucial spots.
BAD – Lack of attack on obvious passing downs
Anyone who knows me knows that my biggest pet peeve in the game of football is dropping seven or eight into coverage when the opponent is faced with third or fourth and long. One of my favorite pieces of the Pettine coached defense was the aggressiveness in those spots. Basically, it is smelling blood and attacking. On several instances recently, the Bills went with their base rush package and were burnt badly. It happened time and time again in the Patriots game, including the final drive when Tom Brady coverted on 3rd-and-16 late in the fourth quarter with a pass to Rob Gronkowski. It also happened against a bad Minnesota team. Remember 3rd-and-10 from the Buffalo 21 early in the fourth quarter? The Bills front four was unable to “get home”, and Teddy Bridgewater connected with Jarius Wright for a 14-yard pass. Luckily, the rookie QB took a bad sack one play later which eventually led to the Vikings settling for a field goal.
I get that your margin for error in the secondary is greater when there are less players in coverage. But good teams, like New England, have the kind of offensive line that can stand up well to a basic pass rush. No matter how many men you have in coverage, someone is groing to break free eventually if the quarterback is given too much time.
Schwartz’s defense is reliant on the four-man rush, but sometimes you need to bring a little extra heat. I like doing that when I know the opponent needs time to throw.
BAD – Redzone defense
The Bills are middle of the pack (16th) in allowing the opposition to score touchdowns from within the redzone. While the percentages have fluctuated over the years, this Buffalo defense has allowed opponent redzone touchdowns nearly 10% more than 2013. That is a number slightly skewed by the San Diego and New England games, but it’s also a number that needs to come down.
This game is all about scoring more points than the opponent. Being able to bend without breaking can go a long way in making a good defense a great one.
All told, this defense is pretty darn good. No unit in the NFL is perfect, but this one has the potential to be special if it can clean up in some areas. The coaching and the players are in the place, and it will take more from everyone for the Bills to make a run at the playoffs.