During OTAs, Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick described Mario Williams as a “‘Madden character you create where you sit there and up-up the strength, and the guy keeps growing.’” But after the first four games of 2012, Fitz has to believe Super Mario looks more like that stray player turning in circles all alone as part of a game glitch.
Williams was supposed to be instrumental in the Bills’ switch back to a 4-3 base defense. And while it’s still early in the season and the big guy isn’t the only reason for the Bills struggles on defense, fans—and the organization—have reason for concern.
It’s been quite an up-and-down start to the season for Buffalo. On the one hand, the team is 2-2. On the other hand, those two losses were bad ones to division opponents.
And the Bills defense had a lot to do with both the wins and losses thus far.
Let’s break down the development of the Bills’ new 4-3 defense through the first four weeks of the season.
Inconsistent Pressure from the Front Four
The first thing that sticks out when evaluating the Bills’ new 4-3 scheme is their inconsistency generating pressure with the front four.
Buffalo lured pass-rushers Mario Williams and Mark Anderson in free agency this offseason to shore up the pass rush, which finished tied for 27th in the league with 29 sacks in 2011.
More particularly, though, is the fact that they addressed the pass defense so aggressively as a way to improve within the division. Over the past four seasons, the Bills are just 4-23 against AFC East competition (4-25 counting 2012 so far). That alone should tell fans all they need to know about why this team has had such a hard time reaching the postseason.
The inconsistent pressure, then, becomes even more glaring when we evaluate Buffalo’s two divisional games thus far.
Buffalo has 10 sacks through four games. Not bad. But consider that only one—one—of those 10 sacks has come against a division opponent: In Week 4, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus combined for a half sack each on Tom Brady. The front four was frustratingly absent altogether against the Jets in the opener.
That’s not good, folks.
That one sack came from the interior, which says everything there is to say about how ineffective the edge rush was against the Jets and Patriots as well. Together, Mark Anderson and Mario Williams have 2.5 sacks, all of which came against the Browns in Week 3.
Yes, the line created more pressure against the Chiefs and Browns in Weeks 2 and 3, respectively, but Buffalo sorely needs to generate this same kind of pressure against division opponents. If not, it will be another year on the longest current playoff drought in the league.
Lack of Pressure Exposes Linebackers
Unfortunately, Buffalo’s struggles on defense only begin with an inconsistent pass rush up front; the result of this problem has exposed a weak linebacking corps that has had trouble doing just about everything through the first four games.
Week 4’s matchup with New England was perhaps the most disheartening, as not only was the line being pushed off the ball, but also the linebackers were missing tackles all over the field. This kind of sloppy play at the second level is never going to cut it in the Bills’ 4-3.
New England also dictated Buffalo’s fronts in this game, and the Bills refused to swap their nickel sets for base sets. Consequently, linebackers Kelvin Sheppard and Arthur Moats rarely saw the field, as Bryan Scott worked with Nick Barnett as the two nickel backers.
As a whole, the unit needs to cover better and get back to fundamentals. Barnett has been effective overall (minus a bad showing against the Pats), but none of these guys is an elite game changer.
Where does most of the blame fall for the Bills' defensive struggles?
It’s no secret that the defensive line and the linebackers need to work together. With stronger play up front, the linebackers’ jobs will be a bit easier—which is exactly how this team was built heading into the season. Unfortunately, the D-line’s inconsistent performances have made the linebacker position a liability.
Bills beat writer Joe Buscaglia of WGR 550 Buffalo reported head coach Chan Gailey’s thoughts on the matter: “‘We have to create more penetration, get the linebackers more downhill and things like that. That’s the one thing you can do to create a difference.’”
The Bills certainly need to create a difference on defense, so perhaps that will start with some changes to the linebackers and their assignments.
Evaluating Blitzes and Schemes
On that note, Buffalo continues to look fairly vanilla in its blitz schemes. Kelvin Sheppard recorded a sack against the Chiefs in Week 2, but other than that, the remaining nine sacks belong to the defensive line.
Thus far, the Bills have been very conservative in terms of sending people at the quarterback. And that shouldn’t be a surprise.
When the Bills named Dave Wannstedt as defensive coordinator, signed two big-name pass-rushers in free agency and addressed the secondary in the draft, it was evident exactly what their plan was: With Wanny’s experience in the 4-3, he and the Bills wanted to create as much pressure as possible with just their front four.
With what was presumed to be an elite defensive line, Buffalo would be enabled to limit blitzing defensive backs and linebackers and still put pressure on the quarterback. The bonus is that there would be more coverage downfield.
The problem, of course, is that this hasn’t gone according to plan just yet.
It doesn’t help that the secondary has struggled at times, including rookie Stephon Gilmore. Blitzing linebackers and calling complex coverages means the team has to have confidence in its secondary, and clearly that’s not the case right now.
However, there’s no reason to believe the defensive backs won’t continue to gel together with each passing week.
The question is, can the front four become more consistent at getting its own pressure on opposing passers?
The Bills will have a chance to redeem themselves against a tough opponent this week in the 49ers after giving up 45 second-half points against New England in Week 4. It will be no easy task, but coming away with a win in San Francisco will go a long way toward convincing the Bills and their fans that they can turn this thing around.