The Buffalo Bills are in the midst of their first organized team activities (OTAs) in preparation for the 2012 NFL season. There are several Bills players on defense that need to step up their games in order for Buffalo to have a successful season.
Despite missing the playoffs last season for the 12th consecutive year—the team finished with a 6-10 record after a hot 5-2 start to the season—the Bills made great strides in terms of production and improvement of the young core they are developing.
The Buffalo Bills selected Louisiana State middle linebacker Kelvin Sheppard in the third round of the 2011 NFL draft. Mainly believed to bring depth to the position after the loss of Paul Posluszny, Sheppard is now the starting middle linebacker for the Bills entering the 2012 season.
With the Bills going back to a 4-3 defensive front, Sheppard will return to his natural Mike linebacker position that he played in the Tigers defense. During his time at LSU, Sheppard racked up an incredible 311 tackles—26 of which were for a loss—4.5 sacks and forced six fumbles.
Defensive Coordinator, Dave Wannstedt has had nothing but praise for the 24-year-old, after he started nine games and recorded 70 tackles as a rookie.
I’ve got all the confidence in the world with Shep being the middle linebacker. To me he’s about what you’re looking for in a 4-3 middle linebacker. He did a great job (last year). He really, I thought, got better and better as the year went on. He became more confident and quicker and now he’s got to play in the box and doesn’t need to play on the edge as much. I think it’s going to fit his skills to a ‘T’. I think he’s going to be a very, very productive player for us.
With the Bills' much improved defensive line, Sheppard will have free range to take on blockers and cover tight ends while roaming the middle of the field.
Buffalo Bills free safety Jairus Byrd is entering the final year of his rookie contract and is expected to play big in 2012. Since entering the league in 2009, Byrd has consistently improved his play in every aspect of the game.
Last season, he recorded 98 tackles, three interceptions, forced three fumbles and defended eight passes, even recording a sack.
WGR 550's Joe Buscaglia calls Byrd the Bills' most important player on defense, stating:
If you've heard me throughout the past season and beyond, I believe Byrd has transformed himself in to a complete NFL safety. His nine interceptions in 2009 was certainly impressive. However, it's his instincts, recognition, tackling and the playmaking ability that showed through as a complete package in 2011. He was the best defensive player for the Bills throughout last season. I also believe he'll be the toughest player to re-sign for Buffalo. They need to start on him early on and not let the situation potentially affect his play throughout the season.
The Bills finally have some serious depth in the secondary. With the now-feared pass rush, opposing quarterbacks will have far less time to deliver passes, meaning more opportunities for big plays by the ball-hawking safety out of Oregon.
The No. 3 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, Marcell Dareus had a solid rookie campaign, to say the least, recording 43 tackles while leading the team in sacks with 5.5.
Last year, the team was utilizing a 3-4 as their base defense, with Dareus playing three-technique, and eventually nose tackle, when fellow linemen Kyle Williams was sidelined for the year with injury.
This year, with the team transitioning to a 4-3 base defense, Dareus will be playing inside, alongside Williams and newly acquired defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson.
Dareus will benefit greatly from those additions and from the scheme change, because opposing offensive lines will have to pick their poison regarding who to double team.
Dareus told BuffaloBills.com that he is trying to shed some weight in order to be more agile in Dave Wannstedt's defense.
I want to be a little lighter this year because I want to be able to fly around the field and run to the ball. I want to be able to play every down. I’m going to be thinning up more in the time between minicamp and training camp. I’m not far off now, but I’ve still got to get down. I’m putting on so much muscle because when you’re lifting hard and you don’t have much more body fat it makes dropping weight hard. But training camp will help with that.
Last offseason, the Buffalo Bills brought in veteran linebacker Nick Barnett, formerly of the Green Bay Packers. A productive 3-4 inside linebacker, Barnett played inside alongside Kelvin Sheppard in 2011. He had a great year, recording 130 tackles, three sacks, three interceptions and a forced fumble.
This year, with the switch to the 4-3 defensive front, Barnett will be playing outside at the weak-side linebacker position, where he will be expected to drop back in coverage and contribute run support.
Barnett doesn't seem phased by the position switch and is confident in the defensive unit as a whole, per BuffaloBills.com:
Well I think we could be as good as the best defense in the NFL if we do what we are supposed to do,” he said. ”I definitely think that we have that potential, we’ve got great pass rushers, great interior linemen, and we’ve got young hungry linebackers. I mean I am getting a little long in the tooth, but I still consider myself young and we also have some good defensive backs that look good. So, we have a lot of potential to be one of the best defenses in the NFL.
You had to know this was coming. The Buffalo Bills haven't had a star defensive end since their early '90s Super Bowl teams with Bruce Smith. When the Bills signed Mario Williams in one of the most surprising free-agent moves of the offseason, the defense was instantly upgraded.
Williams started all 64 games in his first four seasons, but he missed 14 games in the last two years due to injuries. His pass-rushing skills are dominant, as he recorded five sacks in the five games he played last season before being placed on injured reserve.
With Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus inside collapsing the pocket, Williams will have a great chance to reach double-digit sacks and bring a feared pass rush that the Bills have lacked for almost two decades.