This week the Buffalo Bills will begin exhibition play when they go to Washington to see what the Redskins team looks like under new coach Mike Shanahan. Shanahan is same guy that spurned the Bills' offer to coach them instead. Shanahan gets to face Chan Gailey in his debut as coach of the Bills.
Last week we covered the offense in this article. Now we will cover the defense unit and detail what Bills fans should expect to see over the course of the next few weeks of pre-season games.
The defensive secondary, in my mind, is on a par with the running back unit as being the two main areas of strength for the Bills. The secondary has a combination of experience, playmakers, and depth. Consider the following accomplishments from the Bills secondary during the 2009 season:
Second in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game (184) trailing only the N.Y. Jets; Second in the NFL in interceptions (28) trailing only the Green Bay Packers (30); Tied for second in the NFL for fewest TD Passes allowed with 14; Third in the NFL in percentage of passes completed against trailing only Green Bay and N.Y. Jets
Some skeptics will look at these bullet points and say why did any Bills opponent have to worry about throwing the ball when they could run it at will?
As impressive as the pass defense was, here is how bad the rush defense was:
Who will be the Bills biggest surprise on defense in 2010?
Bottom three in number of rush attempts allowed; Bottom three in rushing yards allowed; Bottom three in average rush attempts per game; Dead last in first downs allowed via the rush
That was then, and this is now. Can the rush and pass defense become equally strong in the new season?
Bills Defense Overview
A whole lot has happened since the Bills 2009 season ended. The Bills defense had to endure more snaps than any other team in the league. The offense couldn't stay on the field, and the defense lost one starter after another due to injuries as the season wore on.
There was a need for a radical change to occur, and that change came first with the hiring of head coach Chan Gailey, who then hired George Edwards to come in and be the defense coordinator. Edwards is the guy that is in charge of orchestrating the team's change from a 4-3 scheme to the 3-4 alignment.
Buddy Nix and the rest of his front office team brought in veterans Dwan Edwards, Andra Davis and Reggie Torbor to add some 3-4 experience to the returning squad. In addition, the team has lost Aaron Schobel for good, so needs to replace their sack leader. They drafted some key pieces to help with the conversion; adding Torell Troup, Alex Carrington, Danny Batten and Arthur Moats.
The team also brought in highly touted Auburn linebacker Antonio Coleman who somehow went undrafted to try to make the team.
There has been some degree of turnover in this past year—gone are Ryan Denney, Ashlee Palmer, Nic Harris, Chris Draft, John Wendling, and Marcus Buggs. But some other key veterans were brought back—namely George Wilson and Bryan Scott.
So, how will all of these changes pan out in 2010? That is part of what the pre-season games will reveal. Can the Bills employ a better defense this year, (many will say it can't get any worse), and stay healthy enough to be able to turn in to a top 15 or a top 10 unit?
Taking a Look at The Bills Defense For First Exhibition Game
One of the main challenges of the defensive line in the 3-4 is to have a group of immovable behemoths that can tie up the offensive linemen, which in turn frees up the linebackers to make plays at the line of scrimmage or for a loss. The Bills expect to line up Marcus Stroud and Dwan Edwards at the ends, and use a combination of Kyle Williams and rookie Torell Troup at the nose tackle.
Another rookie, Alex Carrington, is someone that will see time this year and is expected to generate heat on the quarterback from the end slot. Other contributors on the line are veterans John McCargo and Spencer Johnson, who turned in a better 2009 season.
Rounding out this unit in training camp are Rashaad Duncan and Lonnie Harvey, with one of these two hoping to get one of the final roster spots or possibly make the practice squad.
This is the one unit that has undergone the most change out of the three. There are a number of reasons for that statement, so let's spell them out.
There have been many position changes. You have ex-defensive lineman like Aaron Maybin, Chris Kelsay, and Chris Ellis making the transition from linemen to linebacker. Kawika Mitchell is moving from outside linebacker to inside linebacker. Andra Davis is used to making defensive play calling duties, as is Paul Posluszny, so somebody will have to yield those duties.
For the players being asked to change position, this is something that is not expected to occur overnight. There will be a learning curve and some bumps in the road due to blown coverage assignments and being caught out of position. Having experienced players like Davis, Edwards and Torbor to help coach on the field will be a big help to the rest of the team.
The biggest battle for a starting role will be between Kawika Mitchell and Andra Davis. One will start on the inside along with Paul Posluszny. Mitchell is returning from his season ending injury and may be asked to come in on passing downs to help generate pass rush.
Outside linebacker starters should be Chris Kelsay and either Reggie Torbor or Aaron Maybin. Maybin is looking to make a major impact this year, after a rookie year that saw his production limited from holding out over training camp and then finding himself over-matched as a defensive lineman.
Other linebackers that will be involved in the pre-season mix include rookies Danny Batten, Arthur Moats and Antonio Coleman, along with veterans Chris Ellis and Keith Ellison. From this group Danny Batten has come up with a shoulder injury which may result in the Bills moving him to the PUP list. Chris Ellis has come on with a very strong training camp and Keith Ellison is trying to save his roster spot.
Arthur Moats and Antonio Coleman are examples of some new blood in the linebacking corps, and if they make the team look for them to be playmaker types in the new defense. The Bills also added Donovan Woods recently, but he may be viewed as more of a special teams type than as a regular linebacker.
Defensive Secondary Hybrid Players
Before we analyze the secondary, I want to make sure we mention two players on defense that are kind of wild cards. Wild cards in the sense that they are a mix between linebacker and safety. They are Jon Corto and Bryan Scott.
Scott rotated last season between safety and linebacker due to the overwhelming number of injuries to the starting linebackers. Corto is trying to make the team and felt moving to the secondary was the better option. Corto could also be a special teams factor. We don't know what kind of injuries will hit again this year, so having these guys available that can help out in numerous roles gives the team greater flexibility.
Regarding the current secondary, there is quality battles all over. Drayton Florence and Leodis McKelvin are fighting for one starting cornerback role, while Donte Whitner is fighting with Bryan Scott and George Wilson for a starting safety role. The other starters in the secondary will be Jairus Byrd, the Bills surprising rookie safety who came on like a storm last year, and cornerback Terrence McGee.
Because of the talent demonstrated by all the personnel mentioned above, the Bills will have to feel pretty good about anyone needing to step in for an injured starter. Great depth in the secondary, on a par with any other elite NFL secondary.
In nickel and dime coverage scenarios you will see other experienced secondary personnel come in like Reggie Corner, Ashton Youboty, Cary Harris and Ellis Lankster.
Other rookies or newcomers trying to crack the roster or land on the practice squad include John Destin, Dominique Harris and Lydell Sargeant.
That concludes the defensive unit primer. Expect to see all of these guys hitting the field over the next couple of exhibition games as they try to impress the new coaching staff.