Buffalo Bills Experiencing a Culture Change?

manuelWith Sunday’s Buffalo Bills preseason opener in the books, I noticed an ever-present theme: speed and aggressiveness in all three phases of the game. And I noticed this consistently on almost every play. Maybe it was just the fact that it was the first preseason game and the first chance to battle against someone wearing a different jersey. Maybe it was the fact that with a new head coach and a new GM in town, players wanted to make a good first impression. Whether it remains throughout the preseason and carries on into the regular season remains to be seen.

On offense, the Bills no-huddle attack moved at a break-neck speed. They ripped off 85 plays in this game with an average of 5.3 per play; only the Eagles had more plays (86) after the first week of preseason action. In fact, they were moving so fast that the cameras missed the snap on more than a few occasions. But more than the number of plays, I wanted to dive in a little deeper and give you an idea of just how fast they were moving.

While re-watching the game, I focused on only the offensive plays (i.e. I did not count the third down failed conversions that resulted in a punt) and dismissed the plays that ended with a timeout (whether on the field due to an injury or a team timeout) or a flag, but still kept track of plays where the clock stopped due to ball-carriers running out of bounds or an incomplete pass.

Essentially, I counted plays that would not afford the defense extra time in between plays.

It took the Bills offense approximately 16-18 seconds from the time the previous play ended to the ball being snapped the next play. That pace will tire out defenses all year long. What’s more impressive is that the Bills maintained this pace all throughout the game. If the Bills maintain this style throughout the season, they will wear out opponents in second halves of games. This forces defensive coordinators to limit substitutions or use timeouts early in the half, and it gives the defense very little time to get a read on the next offensive play.

The no-huddle will also allow EJ Manuel and the young quarterbacks to control the game and hide their flaws, because the defense is mostly reeling and can’t adjust in time to exploit a mistake. An added bonus is that the Bills defense gets to practice against this all year long. With the Patriots running at a similar pace, and more teams using some form of no-huddle or hurry up attack, the Bills defense will be in a better position to defend after having to deal with this all week long throughout the season.

Speaking of the defense, Dave Wannstedt and Mike Pettine could not differ more in their defensive philosophy. Last year, the Bills played gap control defense and allowed the play to develop, especially against the run, and barely sent more than four rushers against the pass. If preseason game one is any indication, there will be a lot more varied looks, blitzes, and aggressive play-calling on defense this year. The Bills know if they are ever to make it to the playoffs, they need to able to pressure the opposing quarterback (read: Tom Brady).

I like that the defense is dictating the line of scrimmage instead of allowing the offense to do so. It’s just one game, but any Bills fan who has endured bottom of the league defenses for the past two regimes has to be excited after what happened in Indianapolis on Sunday. I never saw the defense line up the same way two plays in a row. I saw a defensive unit that looked consistently aggressive, and even when the ball was advanced I saw an urgency to attack the ball carrier.

With the attacking nature, the Bills defense might leave their back seven in man coverage a lot which might result in big plays on occasion if the pressure doesn’t get there. But the change in philosophy is notable and, in my opinion, welcomed. The same can be said about the special teams where rookie Marquise Goodwin had a 53 yard kickoff return followed by a 107 yard kickoff return touchdown. When asked after the game about bringing out the kickoff out of the endzone, Goodwin replied “Until the off returner Frank (Summers) keeps me in, I’m going to bring it out every time.”

Goodwin’s speed was evident on each of his returns. Not only is he fast (4.27 40), but he’s exceptionally smooth and elusive making him a dangerous weapon in the return game. On the second kickoff return, you could see the play developing and him hitting the hole exactly where he needed to with eye-popping speed but with great body control. With C.J. Spiller and fellow wideout T.J. Graham, the Bills offense will have plenty of speed to burn.

Whether there has truly been a culture change in Buffalo remains to be seen. But I will take an aggressive football team over a passive one any day, especially if it is coupled with football intelligence. The coaching staff showed good clock management and decision making throughout the game. The Bills have to find a way to stay aggressive but keep it controlled and avoid the big plays or penalties on defense or the negative plays on offense. There’s still a lot of work to do, but it seemed like they were finally ready to turn the page.