Have the Buffalo Bills Done Enough to Get over the Hump in 2014?

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Have the Buffalo Bills Done Enough to Get over the Hump in 2014?
Gary Wiepert/Associated Press

The Buffalo Bills' regime is in its second year, but their time may already be running out. 

Quarterback EJ Manuel has yet to prove his worth as a young NFL quarterback and will need to stay healthy and take a significant step forward in 2014 to quiet the critics. Head coach Doug Marrone is hoping to justify his jump to the NFL by giving Buffalo its first winning football team since 2004. General manager Doug Whaley is putting his fingerprints on the team with 15 draft picks in the past 13 months. 

All three have much to prove, and they may only have one more chance to prove it, with the clock already ticking on the sale of the franchise after the passing of founder Ralph Wilson. A new ownership group doesn't necessarily mean the end of the Bills as we know them, but in order for the status quo to be maintained in the front office, they must break the status quo on the field. 

A fifth consecutive 6-10 season will not do the trick.

Compartmentalized, the Bills' offseason has been under-the-radar. In the bigger picture, they're going all-in. In the end, the Bills' turnaround is going to come down to whether Manuel makes the necessary steps forward as a quarterback. 

That's especially true since the Bills' offseason edict was to surround Manuel with more weapons.

During the 2014 NFL draft, the Bills used four of their seven picks on offense, including their first two, and traded for a running back. It's all in an effort to give Manuel the best possible chance to succeed.

"We are committed. I want you to believe me when I say that," Whaley said of building around Manuel, according to Jay Skurski of The Buffalo News. "I always tell you guys that I'll never say never because I don't want to paint myself in a corner, but when I do say something, I do it and I mean it and I try to fulfill it."

They had one of the league's two best rushing attacks from a volume perspective (2,307 yards), but were a modest 14th from an efficiency perspective (4.2 YPA), so the Bills responded by loading up with the NFL's largest group of offensive linemen

The offensive line will serve a much greater purpose than simply giving the Bills a more efficient running game. Bills quarterbacks were sacked on 8.4 percent of dropbacks in 2013, the fifth-highest percentage in the NFL. Manuel, specifically, was hit on 16.3 percent of his dropbacks (league average was 14.6 percent). 

Last year, Manuel had three separate knee injuries, two of which occurred on seemingly innocuous hits in the pocket. The margin for error is small; the Bills can't afford to let too much pressure get to Manuel. The Bills aren't likely to field their best offense with someone else at quarterback; Manuel played in just 10 games last year, missing the other six due to injuries. 

Not only will a clean pocket ensure that Manuel has as much time as possible to read the defense, but it will also ensure that the Bills have their best quarterback on the field for all 16 games.

Scoring offense, playoff teams
Team Points Points/game NFL rank
Denver Broncos 606 37.88 1
New England Patriots 444 27.75 3
Philadelphia Eagles 442 27.63 4
Cincinnati Bengals 430 26.88 6
Kansas City Chiefs 430 26.88 7
Green Bay Packers 417 26.06 8
Seattle Seahawks 417 26.06 9
New Orleans Saints 414 25.88 10
San Francisco 49ers 406 25.38 11
San Diego Chargers 396 24.75 12
Indianapolis Colts 391 24.44 15
Carolina Panthers 366 22.88 18
Buffalo Bills 339 21.19 22

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Overall, the Bills are going to have to be more efficient if they want to get over the hump and into the playoffs. Last year's playoff teams scored 26.9 points per game. The Bills, with 21.2 points per game, were well shy of that mark. 

The Bills finished with the 26th-ranked red-zone offense in the NFL in percentage of visits resulting in touchdowns, so it's no surprise that they answered by forging the NFL's tallest group of wide receivers. Most of that height is comprised at the bottom of the depth chart: Caleb Holley (6'4"), Ramses Barden (6'6"), Chris Summers (6'5"), Cordell Roberson (6'4") and Kevin Elliot (6'3"). Nonetheless, the Bills have clearly created a competition, where the winner(s) will be the new red-zone target(s) for the offense. 

They traded away Stevie Johnson but also moved up to grab Sammy Watkins and sent a sixth-round pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for wide receiver Mike Williams. With Watkins, Williams and 2013 second-round pick Robert Woods, the Bills have assembled a promising trio of starting wide receivers.

The focus has been on offense, with sweeping changes on that side of the ball, but their defense may be defined by one change.

They lost defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to the Cleveland Browns, so they snared Jim Schwartz after he was let go by the Detroit Lions. It's a curious decision, considering the Bills' defensive patterns over the past few years.

They were too vanilla on defense under Dave Wannstedt in 2012, but Pettine spiced things up with an exotic defensive style that kept opponents guessing. Now, the pendulum has swung again, and the Bills will be returning to a similar line-up-and-go style of defense.

Defensive blitz numbers
Defense Total passing downs Blitz No blitz Blitz %
2012 Buffalo BIlls 583 102 481 17.5
2013 Buffalo Bills 613 238 375 38.8
2013 Detroit Lions 615 114 501 18.5

Source: ProFootballFocus.com

Schwartz is much closer to Wannstedt than Pettine as a defensive coordinator. 

The new scheme should work just fine if the Bills' defensive line continues to create stifling pressure on opposing quarterbacks (three linemen with 10 or more sacks, 41 sacks total between four starters), but things could go haywire in a hurry if their success was more a product of Pettine's defensive genius.

They were consistently getting pressure from the front four in 2013, but they still yielded 23 passes of 30 yards or more (ninth-highest total in the NFL) and 14 passes that gained 40 yards or more (fifth-highest total in the NFL). 

Losing safety Jairus Byrd as a free agent could be costly, but the Bills decided long ago that the ceiling of value at the safety position was lower than other positions, such as defensive end and cornerback. Once they invested in safety Aaron Williams, they had hit that ceiling.

Their most aggressive moves on defense, however, have been at linebacker. Last year, Kiko Alonso and Manny Lawson were the only two truly dependable linebackers on the roster. The Bills responded by scooping middle linebacker Brandon Spikes from the New England Patriots and strong-side linebacker Keith Rivers from the New York Giants as free agents.

If the Bills move Alonso to the weak side, as they have suggested, their linebacking corps has been dramatically upgraded

The Bills have put in motion an interesting strategy of loading up on corners who excel playing in the slot. Corey Graham is a smart signing of a player who can fill a multitude of roles for the defense, either as a deep safety or a slot cornerback. Grouping Graham with Leodis McKelvin and Nickell Robey, the Bills will have enough corners to answer the bell against any combination of receivers the New England Patriots put on the field. 

And really, that's what it's all about. The easiest path to the playoffs is winning the division. The Patriots have had a stranglehold on the AFC East for each of the past five years and 11 of the past 13 years. In order to even get a sniff of the division title, the Bills are probably going to have to beat the Patriots at least once. 

Patriots vs. Bills, previous six contests
Season Week End of third quarter Final score
2011 3 Patriots 24, Bills 17 Bills 34, Patriots 31
2011 17 Patriots 28, Bills 21 Patriots 49, Bills 21
2012 4 Patriots 21, Bills 21 Patriots 52, Bills 28
2012 10 Patriots 31, Bills 24 Patriots 37, Bills 31
2013 1 Bills 21, Patriots 17 Patriots 23, Bills 21
2013 17 Patriots 16, Bills 10 Patriots 34, Bills 20

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

They've been close on so many occasions, but they just need to finish the job. Last year, it was a series of clutch catches by slot receiver Danny Amendola that helped the Patriots come out of Buffalo with a narrow victory.

Even if the Bills want to make the playoffs as a wild card, they still can't afford to be swept by the Patriots for a third straight year.

AFC WIld Card race, two in four out
Team Record Division record
Kansas City Chiefs 11-5 2-4
San Diego Chargers 9-7 4-2
Pittsburgh Steelers 8-8 4-2
New York Jets 8-8 3-3
Baltimore Ravens 8-8 3-3
Miami Dolphins 8-8 2-4

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

The Kansas City Chiefs made the playoffs in spite of their 2-4 division record because they dominated the early part of their schedule.

On the back end of the playoffs, the San Diego Chargers were able to sneak into the playoffs largely because of their 4-2 division record. The Pittsburgh Steelers were square on the doorstep of the playoffs for the same reason. 

A winning record in the division isn't a sure ticket to the playoffs, but it's the surest place to start.

All offseason, the Bills have made every move necessary to address the holes in their roster. Manuel is the lynchpin to their success, and if he goes off with a big season, the Bills could explode into the playoff scene for the first time since 1999.

 

Erik Frenz is also a Patriots correspondent for Boston.com. 

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