Buffalo Bills 2009 To-Do List: Defense

By PFC Bills Writer Jay Kommuru

Fix Pass Rush

The Buffalo Bills front office surely had this exact item written on their personal to-do list this offseason.  The Bills were horrendous in rushing the passer last year.  They finished with 24 sacks for the season, good enough (or maybe the appropriate words are “bad enough”) for 28th in the league.  The Bills run a version of Cover-2 defense which calls for quite a bit of “off-coverage” from their corners.  The linebackers also don’t blitz much, playing a lot in coverage. Essentially the brunt of the work in terms of rushing the passer has to come from the defensive line in this scheme. With Schobel hurt last year, and Kelsay unproductive, the Bills had nowhere else to turn to produce a pass rush. As an opposing QB, playing against the Bills last year meant loads of time in the pocket to go through your reads and find an open guy. So it is a blatant understatement when I note that the Bills needed to fix their pass rush this off-season.
The Bills couldn’t get their pick in fast enough in April when they selected Aaron Maybin 11th overall in the NFL draft. Maybin is a raw but extremely talented player. He has the quickest first step of any of the other rookie defensive linemen this year. However, he is also quite undersized to be an every down player in the NFL. While he has put some weight on, his likely role will still be a situational pass-rusher in 2009. He may even play some OLB in certain situations.

The biggest impact this year will be from the returning two-time Pro Bowler, Aaron Schobel, who is rejuvenated more than ever.  The Bills missed Schobel sorely last season as he has been quite productive as a starter (53 sacks since 2003 – 5th highest in that span).  Having him back this year was essentially like having an extra first-round pick in the draft.  However, the team will have to be somewhat cautious as he is returning from an injury and is on the wrong side of 30, which is exactly where Maybin can fit in.  The projected starters will be Schobel and most likely Kelsay, but look for defensive coordinator Perry Fewell to rotate Ryan Denney and Aaron Maybin in quite a bit to generate a constant pass-rush. Maybin has an outside shot at taking Kelsay’s job, but his lack of size (as mentioned above) will likely be his biggest roadblock. If Schobel can return to his pro-bowl form, and Maybin adds a few sacks of his own, the Bills could end up in the top half of the league in sacks.

Create more turnovers

You’ve heard the cagey Dick Jauron explain this to the media several times: “If you win the turnover game, you will most likely win the game”. Ok so it wasn’t an exact quote, but you’ve surely heard a variation of that from almost every coach in the NFL. The problem, however, is that it is easier said than done. The Bills ended up with a grand total of 10 interceptions last year (27th in the league). The number is horrendous for a team that uses heavy zone based schemes and allows the defenders to keep the ball in front of them, presumably putting them in a better position to make a break on it when it comes their way. So why exactly did the Bills suffer last year to create turnovers in the passing game? Well the answer should be clear if you read #1 on the to-do list – Fix the pass-rush.

Regardless of the scheme you run on defense, the best way to create turnovers is to get constant pressure on the passer. The pressure does not necessarily have to translate into sacks, but forcing the QB to make hurried and inaccurate throws is the easiest way to get interceptions. Of course getting in the QB’s face also creates more fumble opportunities, just ask the latest UFLer and former Bills first round draft pick J.P. Losman. Fewell has to mix in more blitzes into the defensive scheme and it should be easier with all three starting LBs returning this year. While the MLB in this defense primarily drops back in coverage, Poz is more than capable of putting the heat on the QB. I am still unpleasantly surprised and confused that Fewell does not use the “creep” more often. For those of you that are unaware, he has used this defense in the past a few times each year where the linebackers and defensive linemen mostly all stand up and crowd the line of scrimmage which puts the pressure on the opposing offensive line and QB     to determine which of the 7 are coming after the QB, and which are dropping back in coverage. It is the closest thing to making the QB feel as uncomfortable as he would be facing a 3-4 defense.

It is pretty clear based on the uncharacteristic off-season acquisition of one Terrell Owens, and Jauron and his coaching staff being on thin ice, that this is a year where the Bills must make the playoffs or else. Look for Fewell to mix it up more, use the “creep”, more blitzes and unconventional coverage schemes, or he is likely to lose his job at the end of the season.  2nd round draft pick – Jairus Byrd – will certainly factor into the safety rotation.  Byrd has extraordinary ball skills, and while he is not very fast, he’s got great instincts for a safety. My prediction is that the Bills will stick with Whitner and Scott at FS and SS on most running downs respectively, and switch Whitner over to SS and plug in Byrd at FS on passing downs. Scott is a solid starter and a polished tackler in the box against the run, but does not bring much to the table in terms of coverage skills. This rotation would make the most sense. FS Ko Simpson is the odd man out, and the Bills have already tried to trade him once this offseason. I would not be surprised if they tried again.

With Greer lost in free agency, McKelvin will likely man one of the starting spots along with McGee. The Bills have a very deep, although somewhat young, defensive backfield. The most logical choice for nickel-back is Drayton Florence. However, he was a disappointment last year in Jacksonville, and Youboty, Corner, and rookie Ellis Lankster will be chomping at the bit to steal playing time. Corner and Lankster are my dark-horse favorites to land the 3rd and 4th spot on the depth chart. Both have excellent ball skills and seem to have picked up the scheme quite well.  It seems that MLB Paul Posluszny was always just one step away from making a pick last year, and hopefully that adjustment process will stay on course and will translate into more turnovers from him. Poz is a tackling machine, but his coverage skills are still developing.  His role in this defense should give him ample opportunities to track down the football.  The Bills need much better production from their safeties and linebackers if they want to put T.O. on the field more often.

Don’t bend

“Bend, but don’t break” – this has been the Bills’ mantra since Perry Fewell took over the defense.  But one of the biggest knocks on these Bills for the past three seasons has been their inability to stop opposing offenses from marching up and down the field at will.  In 2008, more than half of the Bills’ opponents scored on their opening offensive possession – 9 to be exact. 6 of those scoring drives resulted in touchdowns, while the remaining 3 resulted in field goals. For a defense that did not create much pass rush or turnovers last year, it is not a comforting fact to know that the opposing team is going to be leading in the game after their first possession in more than 50% of the games played.  The ultimate factor is however whether this trend of allowing the opposing offense to score on their opening drive resulted in an overall detriment to their record – and the answer is a resounding YES. Of the 9 games in question, the Bills were able to bounce back and muster up a win in only 3, while suffering a defeat in the remaining 6.  Some of the games were quite low-scoring affairs, including a 3-10 loss to the 49ers in week 13.

Apart from the statistics from last season outlined above, one must also look at the players on the Buffalo defense and the scheme they play in. Fewell and co. target players that are a bit undersized but can fly to the ball.  Asides from Marcus Stroud, they don’t really have any thumpers on that starting defense.  The quality they clearly covet is speed, which also means that they are willing to sacrifice size and/or strength to a certain degree. There are several defenses around the NFL built in a similar manner – most notably the Indianapolis Colts.  However, in all cases, the success of a defense like this one depends on how quickly they are able to get off the field. The longer the defense stays on the field, the more likely they are to miss tackles, pass assignments, and give up scores.  That statement is really applicable to any defense. However, it becomes especially true for a defense filled with small but fast players who get overpowered by big offensive linemen.  It becomes hard for a defense like the Bills to defend against a power running team without moving one of their safeties into the box – which of course exposes them in the passing game.

Taking the statistics above, and the style of play that the Buffalo defensive staff implements, it is clear that getting a 3 and out on the first defensive possession is imperative in 2009. A rejuvenated pass-rush and more turnovers will directly help their cause.  Fewell needs to make sure that they don’t walk out onto the field flat – especially on their first possession. If the defense goes out there and is on their heels the entire first drive, not only do the Bills end up with a deficit, the opposing QB has now gotten into a rhythm with his receivers and any attempts to change it up and send blitzes ends up being too little too late. The Bills defense needs to be aggressive from the moment they set foot on to the field. They need to confuse the opposing QB from the get-go instead of playing prevent defense and allowing the opposing offense to pick them apart. Fewell needs to get creative from the beginning of the game, not at halftime. With essentially their entire starting unit returning intact this year, this task will certainly get easier.  In-game communication will hopefully be much improved in 2009, with Poz having had one more year in the system. The biggest adjustment will obviously have to come from Fewell, who will need to change his philosophy somewhat.  “Bend but don’t break” may sound good, but the Bills cannot afford to bend in 2009 if they want to make the playoffs.

Don’t break

All clever play on words aside, the 2009 Bills need to seriously avoid injuries.  They are renting the services of a certain playmaking WR for just one year. Jauron and his staff are one mediocre season away from losing their jobs.  The fan base is getting extremely impatient with the consistently mediocre 7-9 seasons along with all the rumors about Toronto.  The worst thing that can happen to the Bills is another year riddled full of injuries.

Avoiding injuries really comes down to the offseason training, especially training camp.  Showing up healthy in week 1 should be one of their main goals in 2009.  Injuries during the regular season are largely unavoidable, however Jauron needs to run a tough camp and get this team ready for physical play come pre-season.  It seems every year the head coach decides to go soft during training camp and then when the real things start with full pads a plethora of players end up hurt. I’m not suggesting that Jauron needs to run camp like a high-school 3-a-day, but the Bills have been somewhat soft coming out of the gates the past few years and if there is one sport where you cannot afford to be soft on the field it’s football.

The training staff needs to make sure that the players come into training camp in good shape, and the rust needs to be shaken off by the time the season rolls around. The Bills cannot afford to start slow this year.