As we approach training camp this weekend, please stop me if you haven’t heard this saying before: “Defense wins championships.”
But since I’m sure you have, the burning question on my mind as we head into training camp is can a team like the Bills win a championship, or even get to the playoffs with an average defense?
I say yes.
But only if you have an offense capable of scoring and shouldering the load, and that is what the 2009 Bills are likely banking on. Because recent history has shown us that you don’t have a top five NFL defense to make the playoffs or even win a championship assuming your offense is competent. Sure it doesn’t hurt having an aggressive defense like the Steelers that blitzes like crazy and creates turnovers every other drive, but take a look at the other team that played in the Super Bowl last year.
The Cardinals defense was abysmal for a vast majority of the 2008 season including multiple games in which they yielded 30+ points.
But then something happened after they backed their way into the playoffs and they played well when it mattered in the postseason and even came within two minutes from winning it all. On the flip side, the Steelers No. 1 overall defense got them to the super bowl, but ironically blew a two-score lead late in the game and their sporadic offense had to bail them out for a world title.
The 2006 Colts are another perfect example of this. Their defense, especially their 32nd ranked run defense, was hideous in 2006 especially in the second half of the season when they went 4-4 after an 8-0 start. But when the playoffs came, they magically went from worst to first and led the Colts to a championship.
The important factor with this example is that the Colts utilized the same exact defense as Buffalo: The cover two aka Tampa two aka "Bend but don’t break.”
So with that said, I do believe the 2009 Buffalo Bills version of the Cover Two (i.e. the ‘Corpse Two’ as I like to call it in reference to the lifeless stiff that runs it) can do enough in 2009 to help the bills get back to the playoffs and possibly beyond assuming the offense holds up their end of the bargain. So for this piece I’ve decided to look at the projected 2009 Bills defensive depth chart.
I will use a 1–10 grading scale in evaluating each position:
1-3: Terrible, 3rd string at best
4: Below Average
6-7: Above Average
8-9: Pro Bowl Caliber
10: Elite (Top 5 at position)
Also if I have a back up graded higher than a starter, it doesn't necessarily mean he's better than the starter, but a very good backup with potential and could start for the Bills or another team.
Projected Depth Chart: Marcus Stroud (starter), Kyle Williams (starter), John McCargo, Spencer Johnson
Stroud is no longer the dominant force he was a few years ago or he’d easily be graded nine or 10. But he’s still a top 15 NFL player at his position and if we had a legit NFL starter next to him he might be even more productive. Regardless, he still commands double teams and has the ability to shut down the running lanes in the middle consistently.
Williams is nothing more than a really good backup playing the role of starter, and last year we suffered as our rush defense declined exponentially as the season went on. But regardless he’s still solid most of the time with a strong work ethic that makes up for his lack of upside. But I do believe he’d be better suited as a third DT in rotation.
Big John is entering a defining year as an NFL player and if he can somehow emerge this summer to steal Williams' starting spot or even split time there than it will do wonders for this front seven. He has definitely been a disappointment and hasn’t come close to matching his college production when he played alongside Mario Williams and Manny Lawson. But overall he’s the most physically gifted DT on the roster behind Stroud.
Johnson has been somewhat of a disappointment after being a highly touted prospect from the Vikings deep defensive line where he was buried on the depth chart behind the Williams boys who are both top 10 DT’s. Maybe he needs more playing time or better coaching as he could be on the bubble this summer.
Overall Unit Grade: 6/10
If Stroud gets hurt in 2009, this unit is in serious trouble assuming McCargo doesn’t break through. But even with a healthy Stroud, we might not have the talent around him to excel against a very tough schedule. If there is an injury in camp or the coaching staff feels that another body is needed, than DeWayne Robertson is a somewhat intriguing name that is still available on the FA market. But overall this unit is slightly above average with questionable depth assuming a healthy Stroud is clogging the middle.
Projected Depth Chart: Aaron Schobel (starter), Chris Kelsay (starter), Aaron Maybin, Ryan Denney, Chris Ellis
If Schobel can return to his 2006 form, or close to it, this unit could be vastly improved in 2009. But at age 31 and coming off a serious injury (not too mention declining production the last few years) it’s highly unlikely that will be the case. I also question whether this guy has any desire whatsoever to play football, and play at a high level anymore.
The ‘high motor’ poster boy of the Dick Jauron era, Kelsay practices hard and has always been a solid run defender, but the high motor doesn’t translate into consistent QB pressure or sacks. And if you ask Kelsay, it’s not his job to get sacks anyway. Go figure and hopefully good riddance after 2009 or even this summer if he don’t show something.
See above description on Kelsay, because Denney is pretty much an exact clone of Kelsay, however he may be marginally better at getting to the QB. Definitely an expendable player if we need to upgrade.
Ellis was a major disappointment as a rookie and there’s talk he might even be cut before his second NFL season begins. But unless he is absolutely brutal, I can’t really envision a scenario in which he doesn’t stick over Copeland Bryan. He’s reportedly had a good offseason, but then again we’ve heard that about everybody on this team.
If I had to grade on potential as a rookie, I’d probably give him a six at this point. Maybin is a very young and raw rookie that probably won’t have much of an impact early on, even though the coaching staff is likely banking on him to do so. And that reason alone concerns me and will add mounting pressure to the bust factor early on.
Overall Unit Grade: 5/10
The Bills really needed and still need to upgrade this position and can easily release Kelsay and/or Denney this summer to make room for help. The free agent defensive end market is pretty much dried up now that Greg Ellis was signed by the Raiders. But if the Raiders were to call offering Derrick Burgess for Roscoe Parrish I’m sure the front office would pull the trigger. In reality that’s likely a Madden fantasy trade though and with or without a healthy Schobel, expect the pass rush to be relatively non existent once again in 2009 unless Bob Sanders is truly a messiah to this coaching staff.
Projected Depth Chart: Kawika Mitchell (starter), Paul Posluszny (starter), Keith Ellison (starter), Alvin Bowen, John DiGiorgio, Nic Harris
Mitchell is by far the Bills best linebacker as of today, but inconsistent play keeps him from achieving an eight or nine ranking. He looked dominant at times and made several key turnovers to help win some games, but there were also times he looked completely lost and nonchalant on the field as WR’s and RB’s blew right past him. He is also our best blitzing backer and it’s too bad he’s not utilized more in that area.
Paul "Poz" Posluszny
Poz is quite possibly the most overrated player in the team. And even though he was voted as the 2008 defensive MVP, it’s easy to rack up tackles when you play a conservative defense that allows extended drives by the opposition between the 20s. He’s still young enough to improve, but as of right now he’s nothing more than average at best and needs to make more impact plays going forward.
We tried to replace this waste of roster space this offseason, but as of right now he’s the default starter heading into 2009. Below average, undersized, unathletic. But then again these are the qualities that Jauron and Fewell seem to covet for their cover two scheme. It’s a minor miracle that Ellison has even lasted in the NFL this long, so I’m thinking he has some good dirt on Jauron. Perhaps he has a photo of him showing emotion.
A promising young player (assuming he’s fully recovered) that will be essentially a rookie in 2009 after missing his entire reason and most of training camp to injury last year. But even with those setbacks he could easily unseat Ellison this summer.
John "The Digi" DiGiorgio
He is quite possibly the most overlooked and underrated player on the entire team. The Digi was a force at middle linebacker in 2007 after Poz got hurt just three games into his rookie season. But for some reason he was relegated to the bench last year and got hurt on a special teams play (another area he also excels). I’m still baffled as to why he’s not being mentioned as a possible candidate to replace Ellison on the outside, or even start in the middle.
He was a great player in college, but has an uphill climb transitioning to the pros and learning a new position. But then again if he has a good camp I’m sure he could easily beat out the incumbent as well.
Overall Unit Grade: 5/10
Everybody in the football world knew that an upgrade was needed at OLB, and even though the front office tried to do just that during the offseason, we failed and are now hanging our hopes on a pure rookie or second year player coming off an injury to fill the void. Even though Pisa Tinoisamoa was an above average LB, Bills fans looked at him as a Lance Briggs type of upgrade considering what we current have. Therefore I’m hoping the front office will add another veteran in the coming weeks because just like with the DE position, there’s a lot of dead weight at LB that can be cut to make room for help. Also don’t be surprised if undrafted rookie free agent Ashlee Palmer finds a spot on the roster after an impressive mini camp. And Marcus Buggs is another name in the mix as well.
Projected Depth Chart: Leodis McKelvin (starter), Terrance McGee (starter), Reggie Corner, Drayton Florence, Ashton Youboty, Ellis Lankster
This first draft pick of the Brandon era, McKelvin is already one of the leagues most dangerous return men. He came along nicely last year as a defender and the highlight of the season for him was the KC game when he had two interceptions. I do believe McKelvin is ready to take his game to the next level as an elite defender in 2009.
McGee is a rock solid veteran who can still get it done and is entering a contract year so you know he’ll be looking to get paid considering his age and the ridiculous contracts that have been handed out to free agent defensive backs the last few years. Buffalo has history of letting stud defensive back's walk, so if this is his last year here hopefully it’s a good one.
A surprising fourth round pick last year, Corner showed what he is capable of as a rookie and may be ready to make a quantum leap in year two based on offseason reports. Maybe I’m being a generous homer with this one, but I do believe he is going to be a key part of the nickel defense and possibly more in 2009.
Youboty finally put it all together last year and then an injury derailed his rise to prominence. If he’s healthy this summer, than we should see a very intense three way battle for the nickel corner job. If he’s not 100 percent healthy, than unfortunately he probably gets cut because of the numbers game.
The comparisons to Will James have already started, but I do believe that Florence sticks and makes the team unless he’s absolutely brutal in preseason and camp. Despite a down year in Jacksonville, he was once a rising star in San Diego and made some clutch turnovers for them during their 14-2 campaign in 2006.
Seventh round pick Ellis Lankster made a lot of noise at OTA’s and mini camp and probably makes the team if we decide to keep six defensive backs or if one of the other guys like Youboty or Florence struggles. Either way it will be hard to stash him on the practice squad and prevent another team from claiming him if his play this spring carries over to training camp.
Overall Unit Grade: 8/10
I truly believe McKelvin is going to improve significantly in his second year as he assumes a full time starting role alongside McGee and that is reason enough to give this unit a very high overall grade. Jauron loves defensive backs and it appears that we are very deep and look to be well equipped to handle any injuries at the position. But then again we though that heading into 2008 as well didn’t we? But on thing is certain, this unit will never reach their true potential unless we can generate pressure on the QB. Because no matter how good your back four is, if your front seven can’t generate pressure even the best corners in the league are going to get beat from time to time.
Projected Depth Chart: Donte Whitner (starter), Bryan Scott (starter), Jairus Byrd, George Wilson
At age 23, Whitner is still young enough to be considered a prospect therefore there’s room for improvement. But so far he has been a major disappointment for the most part in terms of making impact plays at the safety position. And there’s several times when he’s blown his assignment and allowed a huge run or pass play that’s killed us.
Scott is an underrated player that should man the fort until Byrd gradually takes playing time away from him. Either way he’s a capable starter and great bench option for depth. But at this point in time I do believe he is the best safety on the roster until proven otherwise.
He missed OTA’s and mini camp because of college academic obligations, but there’s more than enough talent here to assume that won’t be an issue this summer in terms of hindering his development. A ball hawk in college, he should be a full time starter in Buffalo by the start of the 2010 season at the latest if he pans out.
Wilson is a savvy veteran that can contribute at safety in addition to being a special teams captain extraordinaire. But the latter is certainly the reason he sticks on this team in 2009.
Overall Unit Grade: 6/10
Ko Simpson and John Wendling are probably the odd men out this year with the addition of Byrd and the fact we probably keep six wide receivers and six defensive backs on the roster. But no matter who ultimately starts and rotates in during the course of the season, this unit needs to create turnovers in 2009, especially if the front seven can must a semblance of a pass rush. All eyes will be on Whitner whether he lines up at strong or free safety and it’s time for him to walk the words he talks.
Overall Defense Grade: 6/10
Despite injuries to key players, the lack of pass rush, inconsistent rush defense, and inability to stop extended drives, this unit managed to overachieve rank 14th overall in terms of yards allowed last year which was the epitome of the word average. The red zone defense was also rock solid for the most part and made up for some big plays allowed between the 20s. But that was then, and this is now.
At least on paper, the 2009 schedule will feature some very powerful offenses that are a far cry from what the 2008 slate offered. And oh by the way, Tom Brady is back and the last time we saw him he dropped 50+ points on Jauron’s defense on a Sunday night game that turned into a complete debacle just a few minutes into the first quarter.
Therefore the pass rush must improve, because if it does it should allow a very talented secondary to make game changing plays. Also the addition of defensive line coach Bob Sanders could be the key in turning the whole thing around and he does have a very impressive resume that brings optimism to Buffalo.
Believe it or not, there has even been whispers regarding the Bills utilizing a hybrid 3-4 front at times to stimulate the pass rush, but I’m not going to hold my breath on that one for a number of reasons. For this unit to reach their full potential in 2009, the expectation is that the offense will start off games strong and not play from behind in most cases.
After all, the cover two is a defense specifically designed to play with a lead and that is why teams like the Bucs, Bears, and Colts had tremendous success with it in years past.
Stay tuned for my 2009 Buffalo Bills offense preview…..