In 2007, the Buffalo Bills ranked 25th defensively in rush yards, surrendering on average 124.6 per game, a 16-yard per game improvement from 2006. The pass defense ranked even worse at 29th overall, giving up 238.4 yards per game, a significant decline from their 2006 rank of 7th overall. Even with the large drop in pass defense numbers, the revamped Bills defensive line holds the key to turning around the fortunes of Buffalo’s defense.
The 2007 season saw a major influx of young and untested players thrust into starting defensive positions, first with the departures through free agency and trade of defensive stalwarts like cornerback Nate Clements, and linebackers London Fletcher-Baker and Takeo Spikes, as well as through a rash of injuries that struck the team at the start of the season and continued throughout.
Starting safety Ko Simpson and cornerback Jason Webster were lost in the first game for the entire season, starting linebacker Paul Posluszny went down in game three for the year, and defensive linemen Ryan Denney and Chris Kelsay, who rotated at the left defensive end position, were injured for significant portions of the season. Six other defensive players ended up on injured reserve during the 2007 season, causing a ripple effect that thinned the reserves and special teams.
During the free agency period of the 2008 off-season the Bills addressed various weakness on defense, with the signings of defensive tackle Spencer Johnson from Minnesota, linebacker Kawika Mitchell from the New York Giants, and cornerback William James from Philadelphia, as well a trade for defensive tackle Marcus Stroud from Jacksonville. To turn around the defensive numbers, Stroud and Johnson need to be difference makers.
After a Pro-Bowl 2006 season, right defensive end Aaron Schobel saw his number decline in 2007. Whether that was do in part thanks to more attention in pass protection from offensive coordinators or the criticism that Schobel lacks an every down mentality is up for debate.
Overall the Bills went from 38 sacks in 2005 and 40 sacks in 2006 to only 26 in 2007, ranking them in the bottom five of the league. On average, the Bills managed a sack on only 4.7% of passing downs. With a league average of 6.4%, the Bills ranked 31st.
With Stroud projected to start at right defensive tackle, Johnson will most likely rotate with John McCargo at the left defensive tackle spot. Although none provide the space-filling girth that former Bills’ Pat Williams or Ted Washington provided in years past, they should take up enough space to help patch up the porous rush defense. With Schobel solidly entrenched at the left defensive end spot, that leaves the right end position in need of an upgrade.
Although Kelsay and Denney have proven themselves to be solid NFL players, their numbers have been less than impressive:
Chris Kelsay: 78 games, 195 total tackles, 15 total sacks, 2 forced fumbles
Ryan Denney: 79 games, 169 total tackles, 17.5 total sacks, 3 forced fumbles
Compared to Schobel, who has a combined 431 tackles, 67 total sacks and 8 forced fumbles in 112 games, and the weakness at left end is even more glaring.
While the Bills are desperate for help at wide receiver and cornerback, the suggested depth of talent at those two positions in this year’s draft allows for the potential of using the Bills 2nd or multiple 3rdround picks on those positions, and instead focusing the first pick on a pass-rushing end to play opposite Schobel.
Although the Bills have used draft day trades to move up and grab defensive players in recent drafts, the likelihood of moving into one of the top spots to pick Virginia’s Chris Long or Ohio State’s Vernon Gholston is highly unlikely.
Two players worth consideration at the #11 pick would be Florida’s Derrick Harvey and Tennessee’s Phillip Merling. Both possess good size (6-4, 270 lb range), but both have knocks against them: Harveybetter suited for the 3-4 defense, Merling lacks the speed of a dominant edge rusher.
Both player’s stock varies wildly depending on the mock draft and time of day, but both are expected to be gone by pick number twenty.
It’s highly unlikely the Bills will be able to make a trade for an established pass rushing end to play opposite Schobel, or pick up an impact player at the position after the August training camp roster cuts.
While the acquisitions of Stroud and Johnson should make significant contributions to shoring up the Bills run defense, getting consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks still remains an elusive proposition.
Statistics from NFL.com, ESPN.com and Footballoutsiders.com