I'm not sure if you've heard, but the Buffalo Bills spent A LOT of money on improving the defense during the last two offseasons. I'm also not sure if you've heard that those investments haven't exactly churned out the results that the coaching staff or fan base was expecting.
Obviously, I'm being facetious about those previous two statements. In fact, it is hard to find an article written about Buffalo over the last few weeks that doesn't talk about how disappointing this "improved" defensive unit has been.
Three years ago, Buddy Nix and Chan Gailey came to Buffalo in attempt to change the culture for the floundering franchise. Part of that transformation was a move to the ever-popular 3-4 defense that rewards teams with good cover corners and freakish athletes at linebacker. Because Buffalo had been a 4-3 team, the two new personnel guys were charged with bringing in the players necessary for the switch in scheme.
Two years later, that plan has been discarded and Gailey is on his second defensive coordinator since becoming head coach of the Bills. Dave Wannstedt has run many successful defenses at the NFL level, but the former Bears and Dolphins coach is dedicated to the 4-3 scheme, meaning Buffalo would have to change their drafting and free agency strategies once again.
In 2011, under George Edward's 3-4 hybrid defense, the Bills surrendered the fifth worse run defense average in the league at 139 yards allowed per game. With the additions of Mario Williams, Mark Anderson and a healthy Kyle Williams to sophomore sensation Marcel Dareus, the Bills were hoping to improve in this regard.
And improve they did. For three games.
Since the good start, Buffalo has given up over 200 yards in a game three times and now hold the designation of the worst run defense in the NFL. This season, the Bills are giving up 176 yards on the ground per game. In comparison, the Chicago Bears are giving up 77 yards per game, a difference of 99 yards per game for all you non-math majors out there.
Despite the dismal start, there are a few things to look forward to in the coming months, regardless of how the team ends the year. Buffalo will eventually prove that ditching the 4-3 without the personnel was a bad decision in the first place.
The Eye Test
There are moments when Buffalo looks even worse on defense than people are giving them credit for and there are others when they look like the defense that everyone expected.
So how are we supposed to gauge how good or how bad this defense is if they are constantly switching between Jekyll and Hyde?
As I mentioned previously, Buffalo has had a knack for getting gashed by opposing run games and in turn, it has led to long stretches on the field. However, one thing the team HAS been doing well in the run game is the penetration into the backfield for stops behind the line of scrimmage.
More than a few times per game, one of the big bodies for Buffalo will sneak through the cracks and drop the running back for a few yard loss. For most teams that would create some kind of momentum, but for Buffalo it's often countered by the big plays against them.
The Bills have given up the second longest rush of the year, an 83-yard touchdown to Chris Johnson two weeks ago and lead the NFL in number of runs over 20 yards surrendered, with 12. Neither of those stats is very attractive for a defense.
For every two stops the Bills make close to the line, they are giving up a big run to make the stops irrelevant. If Buffalo can eliminate their susceptibility to give up the big play on the ground, then their rush yards against average will go down rather quickly.
The bye is a good time to figure out how to do that.
They Are Still Young
With all of the offseason acquisitions, it is easy to forget that Buffalo defense is young. The Bills start five players that they have been drafted in the last two years—all of which fit the new scheme being installed by the coaching staff.
Dareus, Kelvin Sheppard and Aaron Williams are all being asked to do things differently this year. None of them have been playing exceptionally well, aside from a few flashes from Dareus. The second year players were expected to perform well with their new responsibilities, but the growing pains for the trio have been greater than expected.
Dareus has also been dealing with the tragic death of his brother, which has appeared to affect his play. He hasn't been nearly as good this season with more help on the defensive line and it has been frustrating to watch.
The other two young players are rookies Nigel Bradham and Stephon Gilmore.
Browsing Buffalo Bills message boards will showcase some of the unrealstic expectations that some fans had for Gilmore in his rookie season. Anything less than Revis Island has been labeled as disappointing, which I don't believe to be fair for the former Gamecock.
Part of those frustrations are because the defense as a whole hasn't performed well, but Gilmore has irresponsibly drawn the ire of too many a fan. What he needs is a full season under his belt and another full offseason before the expectations get too high. I expect a much better second half for the rook.
Bradham is a player that was installed into the starting lineup only three weeks ago. Kirk Morrison and Arthur Moats both struggled to put much of a stamp on the outside linebacker spot, so Wannstedt plugged Bradham in as a potential fix. The results have varied, but his instincts alone are enough to get a little bit excited about him.
A final player that should be starting by the end of the season is safety Da'Norris Searcy. George Wilson has been extremely disappointing in the strong safety spot this year for the Bills and compounded his poor play by dropping a game ending interception against the Titans.
Searcy has seen his playing time increase since Week 3 and at this point in the season it wouldn't hurt to give the former Tarheel a try. A combination of Searcy and a red hot Jairus Byrd, who just turned 26 himself, might be a good switch considering the two's athleticism.
There is no doubt that being optimistic about the current state of the Buffalo defense isn't easy. However, it doesn't hurt to take a look at how things can potentially get better rather than dwell on the $100 million reasons why things look bleak.
For all we know Mario Williams could put up a double digit sack season. Byrd could continue his trend up towards a top ball-hawking safety in the league. Dareus could turn his brutal start right around and the linebackers could finally learn how to cover a tight end.
Sure, none of these things could happen. But hey, we're being optimistic.