If the Buffalo Bills are going to make a push for one of the two AFC wild card spots over the final six games of the season, a defense that has received a near total make over during the Buddy Nix/Chan Gailey regime must come through.
While the Bills are still a long shot to earn one of those two coveted wild card berths, the defense appears to be getting better at a time when the team faces essentially must win games the rest of the way.
I know what you’re thinking. The way the defense looked in the first five games of the season, it would be almost impossible for them not to show improvement. It could simply be a case of going from historically bad to mediocre.
To refresh your memory, Buffalo gave up a franchise record 621 yards in a 45-3 loss at San Francisco. That came one week after they were gouged for 580 yards in a 52-28 smoking at the hands of New England.
In the game against the 49ers, the Bills became the first team in NFL history to give up 300 yards passing and 300 yards rushing in the same game. Buffalo was also the first team to give up at least 550 yards in back to back games since 1950 when there was a team called the Cincinnati Reds that played football.
Through the first five games of the season, as the Bills went 2-3, the defense gave up an average of 36 points a game. It has dropped over the last five games to 23 points a game although the Bills have the same record, 2-3, to show for their work.
Actually the numbers are down across the board when you compare the last five games to the first five of the season. From rushing yards a game(171 to 134), to passing yards(277 to 190), and completion percentage(63% to 58%).
There’s a slight improvement with 3rd down defense(from 47% to 44%) but its still nowhere near good enough. Sacks are up slightly from a total of 10 through the San Francisco game to 13 over the last five contests. The only stat that is worse is takeaways( 9 down to 6).
Of all the statistics I looked at, the one that really jumps off the page to me are the big pass plays, which the NFL considers are plays that total 20 yards or more. The Bills were getting torched in the first five games giving up 21 big pass plays. The number has dropped significantly to just eight in the last five including none in the win over Miami, the defense’s best overall performance of the year.
I think that change and the overall improvement of the defense are due in large part to the play of the line. The Bills defense is built to succeed or fail based on the play of the guys up front.
Almost to a man, that group was under achieving(except for Kyle Williams) with big ticket free agent Mario Williams leading the way. Marcell Dareus wasn’t taking the next step after a strong rookie season. Mark Anderson, the smaller ticket off season signing to bolster Dave Wannstedt’s group, really didn’t show much before going down with an injury in the September 30th game with New England.
Now we’re seeing production across the board from that group and you can add in Kyle Moore who has been the most consistent linemen when it comes to generating pass rush during his snaps.
Mario Williams has been more effective since coming back from the bye week surgery on his wrist. He’ll probably never live up to a $100 million contract but in the last three games, Williams has 14 tackles, 3 for loss, 2 sacks and 2 quarterback hits.
Dareus, who had a very strong game against Miami, has been more consistent stopping runs up the middle. But he’s also been able to generate some pass rush pressure and tip passes at the line of scrimmage.
Even Shawne Merriman made some plays in the win over the Dolphins.
Back to that stat about the drop in big pass plays allowed. Is the pass rush making the secondary look better or is the secondary doing a better job of covering receivers, giving the pass rush more time to get to the quarterback? It’s probably a combination of the two.
But I think there are two significant changes with the cornerbacks that have benefitted the defense. I don’t like to see anyone get hurt but lets face it, the play of Aaron Williams was killing the Bills. The most torched cornerback in the league was giving up big play after big play and had given up more touchdowns than any other corner in the league when he went down in the Houston game.
The Bills wanted Terrence McGee to step into the starting spot but his injured knee wouldn’t hold up and he has since been placed on injured reserve. In stepped former first round pick Leodis McKelvin who won the nickel job in training camp and promptly lost it in the season opener. McKelvin, who has the ability but seems to be lacking when it comes to ball skills, is playing like he did in the pre-season and has been an upgrade in coverage.
Williams injury also led to the Bills changing their philosophy of having their corners play halves of the field. Since the Houston game, rookie Stephon Gilmore has been matched up against the opponents best receiver regardless of where that player lines up. Gilmore had some rough patches in his first few games as all rookie corners do but has played more consistently with the added responsibility. His matchup with Reggie Wayne, who is already over the 1,000 yard mark for the season, is one of the keys to Sunday’s game. Gilmore is still looking for his first NFL interception.
Safety Jairus Byrd is one of the best playmakers, not just on defense, on the entire team. His interceptions against the Dolphins and Arizona were big reasons why the Bills won those games. Byrd, who will be a free agent after the season, is second on the team in tackles and he leads the team in interceptions, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries. During his Friday segment on WGR, Bills General Manager Buddy Nix said he wouldn’t want to swap Byrd with any other safety in the NFL.
The defense still has a ways to go as far as their rankings in the NFL. They are 30th in points, 31st against the run, 31st on third down and dead last in the red zone. But they could take advantage of a favorable schedule the rest of the way that sees them play some of the worst offenses in the league. Here are the opponents and where they rank in terms of points scored:
St. Louis 28th
NY Jets 24th
Here are the quarterbacks they will face and where they currently stand in terms of qb ratings:
Henne not rated
To this point of the season, the defense has been the Bills achilles. It was supposed to be an improved group that would give the offense a chance to fail without costing them games. Its taken a while but it appears the defense may be ready to do just that.