It appears season three for the Buffalo Bills under the leadership of General Manager Buddy Nix and Head Coach Chan Gailey will end the same way as the first two seasons with the two men in charge.
For that matter, it will likely end the same way the ten seasons ended before Nix and Gailey took over, with the Bills watching the playoffs on TV.
But Bills fans should be able to take some solace in the fact that the roster and talent level on the team is better, even though it is not reflected where it matters most, the won-loss record.
At 5-7 going into the final quarter of the season, the record is exactly where it was last season at this point of the schedule. But there are a number of areas in which the team has improved in terms of personnel on the field.
Let’s start with the player who generated a great deal of off season buzz and a greater deal of in season scrutiny and criticism, Mario Williams. I’m not sure how one can live up to a $100 million contract other than win multiple Super Bowls but over the last month Williams has been playing at a level I expected when he signed the largest NFL contract ever for a defensive player.
Maybe it was the weight of the contract or adjusting to a new team or the wrist injury or perhaps a combination of all three. All I know is Williams has looked like a different player since the bye week when he had a minor procedure on the injured wrist.
Super Mario was a Super Dud through most of the first seven games of the season going through many games without being noticed. He had 16 tackles in those 7 games and 3.5 sacks.
Over the last 5 games, Williams has 18 tackles and 6 sacks. His sack total of 9.5 leads the Bills and is tied for 8th best in the NFL. He is a half sack out of 5th place and 1 sack from 4th. Williams is tied for the team lead in tackles for loss( 10) with Kyle Williams and quarterback knockdowns(13.5) with Kyle Williams as well. His 5.5 QB hurries are 2nd behind Kyle Moore, who has 6.
Williams is making key plays and his production is one reason why the defense as a group has shown considerable improvement after the first month of the season.
Against Jacksonville, he had a sack, forced fumble and fumble recovery on the same play that set up the Bills offense in Jags territory just before halftime. It led to a field goal that allowed the Bills to expand their lead.
The previous week in Indianapolis, Williams came up with a key sack of Andrew Luck on a 3rd and 3 in the fourth quarter with the Bills down 20-13. It forced the Colts to punt the ball away but the Bills offense couldn’t capitalize.
The defensive line is also better off than they were a year ago thanks to Kyle Moore whose play has been a revelation. Signed as a free agent in 2011, the former USC Trojan provided a boost to the Bills pass rush.
Moore was just a depth guy coming out of camp and was inactive for the first 4 games of the season. He didn’t record a single tackle over his first 3 games played but was able to generate some pressure on the pass rush. Over the last 5 games, Moore has seen an increase in his snaps and has 3 sacks to go along with 11 tackles. Moore will be an unrestricted free agent but has certainly played well enough for the Bills to re-sign him and perhaps let veteran Chris Kelsay go.
Another newcomer whose game is rounding into shape is rookie cornerback Stephon Gilmore. The first month plus was a struggle as you might expect for a corner who starts from day one. Gilmore, who showed aggressiveness and strong coverage skills in the pre-season, looked tentative and gave up a number of big plays including touchdowns in the opener at the Jets and the blowout in San Francisco.
Since then, the teams first round draft pick has looked like a veteran and has shown the ability to be a solid cover corner, drawing the assignment of facing the opponents best receiver on a fairly regular basis.
In last week’s win over Jacksonville, Gilmore was lined up a number of times opposite Jags first round pick Justin Blackmon, who recently had a 236 yard day against the vaunted Houston Texans defense. Chad Henne threw 6 passes at Gilmore over the course of the game, completing 2 for 18 yards. 3 of the 6 were for Blackmon and only 1 was caught for a 9 yard gain.
According to Pro Football Focus, Gilmore allowed a catch of at least 20 yards in 4 of the first 5 games of the season and has allowed nothing longer than 18 yards since then.
According to Stats Pass, Gilmore has been targeted 70 times this season and has given up 3 touchdowns. The University of South Carolina product is one of 20 defenders to have been targeted 70 or more times and the 3 TD’s allowed are tied for the 3rd fewest. His 14 passes defended is 7th best in the NFL.
On the offensive side of the ball there was only one new starter this season but it appears the Bills can cross off left tackle on their list of needs. The 2nd round pick out of Georgia, who some draft experts suggested was better suited to play guard, has helped solidify what was an improving Bills offensive line.
Glenn has been equally adept at run blocking and pass protection. According to stats from the Bills coaches, Glenn has given up 2 sacks(1 solo and 2 half sacks). According to NFL stats, the Bills rank first with an average of 7.72 yards per carry on rushes to the left tackle position(22 plays).
There are some returnees who have taken a step up in their play too. C.J. Spiller has earned rave reviews around the league as he continues to lead the NFL in yards per carry. He’s 10th in rushing yards but only 24th in carries. Imagine where he’d rank if the Bills gave him the ball more often. Spiller is 7th in the league in total yards from scrimmage but his 7.3 yards per play leads all running backs and his 10.3 yards per catch figure is tops among all running backs too.
Safety Jairus Byrd is having a Pro Bowl season and has become a consistent playmaker. (insert your skeptical comment about this happening in a contract year for him). Byrd leads the Bills in interceptions(5), and forced fumbles(3), is tied for first in fumble recoveries(2), 2nd in tackles and tied for 2nd in passes defended(6).
According to Pro Football Focus, Byrd had an interception on one of every 11 balls thrown his way in his first 3 seasons. This season its one for every 3 balls that comes his way. Byrd’s picks helped the Bills beat Arizona and Miami.
Leodis McKelvin has turned into one of the best returners in the NFL. He leads the league in punt returns with a 20.4 yard average and 2 touchdowns. He’s 7th in kick returns with a 28.3 yard average. McKelvin will also be a free agent after the season.
Second year Bill Marcell Dareus is showing signs of improvement. Dareus, who had to deal with the tragic shooting death of his brother earlier this season, has 14 tackles and 1.5 sacks in his last 4 games after recording just 16 tackles and 2 sacks in the first 8 games.