Where Does the Blame Lie for the Buffalo Bills' Historically Bad Run Defense?

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Where Does the Blame Lie for the Buffalo Bills' Historically Bad Run Defense?
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

It's Groundhog Day for the Buffalo Bills. Another year, another version of the same awful run defense we've seen for years in Western New York.

Titans running back Chris Johnson scored his first and second touchdowns of the season on consecutive plays. In the span of 7:50 on the game clock, he gave us our answers as to whether the Bills defense, which held the vaunted Arizona Cardinals offense to 16 points, had turned a corner.

Clearly, it hasn't.

Where does the blame lie? First, here are just a few stats of note:

  • KEY STAT: The Bills' current average of 5.95 yards per rush attempt allowed on defense is the most through seven games since the NFL-AFL merger; which is on pace to set the post-merger record.
  • The Bills gave up 150 or more rushing yards for the fifth time this season, and the fourth consecutive game.
  • The 2010 team that ranks 16th on the list in the link above, set the franchise record for rushing yards allowed in a season with 2,714. The Bills are on pace to break that record by allowing a shade under 2,830 rushing yards this season.
  • In terms of yards per rush attempt, the Bills defense has had two of the 11 worst performances in franchise history this season, against the 49ers and Titans.
  • Since the merger, the Bills are more familiar with the feeling of giving up 150 or more rushing yards than any other team in the NFL save for the Cardinals. 

If this season's performances are an indication of what's to come, the Bills will grow even more familiar with that feeling as the season wears on.

Untouched.

With the Bills giving up runs like the ones above on a consistent basis, this run defense isn't improving anytime soon.

Before Sunday, Johnson was under constant scrutiny after having completely fallen off the map 2.5 seasons removed from his 2,006-yard season in 2009. In the Bills run defense, he ran into something that was more like running into nothing at all.

There are a number of reasons for this. Outside of inside linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, the Bills lack talent and athleticism at the second level of their defense. The defensive line isn't helping with their inability to get off blocks or create penetration in the backfield. The coaching staff, however, is making everyone's job harder with predictable play-calling.

The line is often sent on straight rushes and is rarely given any sort of movement or stunts that would help them to get off blocks and make their rushes more difficult to read.

As a result, we see perfectly blocked plays like this, on Johnson's 16-yard touchdown:

The Titans blocked the play perfectly, and the scary part for the Bills is, they didn't have to double-team anyone to do it. No one on the Bills line got any penetration, which allowed Johnson to bounce the run to the outside.

As bad as Johnson's been running the ball and finding open lanes, when it's this easy for him to get into the open field, he's still going to be hard to catch up with because of that blazing speed. Johnson is able to break it outside, his inherent weakness of looking for the big play becoming a strength as gets to the perimeter and breaks up the sideline for the score.

On his very next run, it was even worse for the Bills defense.

Again, the Bills rushed their front four straight into the Titans offensive line without any semblance of a stunt or move that would cause some confusion for the blocking scheme.

Once again, Quinn Johnson sealed the linebacker with a lead block that allowed Johnson to find the hole, but there were only two Bills defenders, both defensive backs, that even had a shot to make the play because the rest of the defense drifted the wrong way.

Eighty-three yards later, the Bills were still trying to get their first finger on him.

Part of the problem falls on a coaching staff that has gone, or has always been, bland. Defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt earned a zinger on Wikipedia for what was deemed a "Vanilla prevent defense" that would make the Bills "the first NFL team to allow an average 50+ points a game." 

Where does the blame lie for the Buffalo Bills' historically bad run defense?

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But it's not just on Wannstedt. It's clear that the Bills weakness at linebacker is a bigger detriment than it was originally believed to be, and that it will continue to be exposed this season.

Linebacker Nick Barnett explained Johnson's big day after the game (via BuffaloBills.com):

Well, we had mistakes. We went in wrong holes, did not box, did not hammer when we were supposed to be inside, just different things. I think he had three really big, explosive plays. And that is what it equated to. We have to clean those mistakes up. Against a back like that you cannot make any mistakes. If you give him any ground he is going to take off running. So we have to clean that up.

But clearly, this run defense has been bad all season and was not borne overnight prior to facing Johnson and the Titans. To overstate the obvious, this has been a running story all season long.

At this rate, the Bills will set the record for yards per rushing attempt allowed in a season. The last team that did so, the 2006 Indianapolis Colts, went on to win the Super Bowl in part because their run defense began to click at the right time.

Unless the Bills find their stride against the run and are able to stop the stride of opposing backs, that's more of a pipe dream than a reason for hope.

 

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. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand.

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