Why Shawne Merriman Is the Key to Buffalo Bills' Defensive Success

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Why Shawne Merriman Is the Key to Buffalo Bills' Defensive Success
Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIRE

Bills defensive end Shawne Merriman's career, to this point, has been a lot like lightning: One quick flash, and it was gone. That's especially ironic for a dynamic pass-rusher with the nickname "Lights Out," who got his start wearing a lightning bolt on his head with the San Diego Chargers.

The additions of Mario Williams and Mark Anderson may look like the keys, but Merriman's success in rediscovering that flash of brilliance could be just as pivotal in whether or not the Bills defensive line lives up to the massive hype around it.

Anderson is hot and cold like Hot Pockets fresh out of the microwave; the outside may be steaming and burn the roof of your mouth, but once you bite into the middle, you uncover the truth that lies beneath that sizzling exterior. The Bills would be wise not to ask him to do more than rush the passer.

It's in Merriman's best interest to make sure he's cooked all the way through. And it looks like these past few years have helped him finish that process. Beyond how much better he feels physically, he is on a higher level than he ever was mentally. Per BuffaloBills.com:

I’m a much smarter player and much more technical now. I know a lot more about the game. When you don’t have those physical tools the last three years and being able to blow by a guy or great pass rush ability you start to learn more about the game and you get a little bit more technically sound. And that’s what happened. Now my body is ready to take that on again along with the knowledge I’ve picked up over the last few years. It’s going to be good.

Shawne Merriman is doing everything possible to get back in top shape for the 2012 season.
His last productive season was 2007, when he had 12.5 sacks a year after leading the NFL with 17 sacks and being voted first-team All-Pro. He missed all but one game in 2008, and although he played 14 games in 2009, he had clearly lost some of the explosion that made him so dangerous earlier in his career; he logged just four sacks in '09.

It wasn't much of a surprise when the Chargers waived Merriman. And as one of three teams to put in a waiver claim on the injury-riddled outside linebacker, the Bills won the sweepstakes for his services.

His services, however, haven't served much good for the Bills to this point. He has logged just one sack in a Bills uniform, playing and starting five games in the process.

What will his services be used for in 2012? Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com shares some observations from Bills practice:

In the spring practices, Merriman worked primarily with the second unit defense at right defensive end while Chris Kelsay and Anderson rotated in and out with the first unit based on down and distance. Merriman also lined up with the first team nickel unit at right end.

Stats courtesy Pro Football Focus.

Adding Anderson and Williams didn't figure to play in favor of his role. But the increased importance of a deep group of pass-rushers, along with the increased presence of the passing game in the NFL, means there could be plenty of snaps to go around, even if Merriman isn't one of the starters.

Stats courtesy Pro Football Focus.
Williams has always played a majority of his team's snaps, but Anderson has been rotational throughout his career. He played just 48.5 percent of New England's defensive snaps last year according to Pro Football Focus.

Although Williams is back at full health, he has missed games in each of the past two seasons. The Bills will feel a lot better about their defensive line if they have depth they can count on when called upon—if not for injury insurance, at least for situational insurance and in the instance of exhaustion setting in on some of the top options on the defensive line.

For those reasons, Merriman's spot on the roster seems secure, but in order to make the most of it, he must stay healthy:

As far as [defensive coordinator Dave] Wannstedt is concerned there's still [one] hurdle for Merriman to clear.

"Contact," Wannstedt told Buffalobills.com. "Now he's lining up and he's banging and we're going to bang. We're going to be physical. From a health standpoint he just has to get over that. If he takes that last step with what he's done so far, I'm encouraged. I think we'll get a good year on him."

Rotational pass-rushers have become some of the most valuable players on the roster. But even in a role that is a far cry from what it was as a member of the Chargers, Merriman could make an even bigger impact in a smaller role. However, it's up to him to stay healthy. 

Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates.

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