What Has Happened to the Buffalo Bills?

Jeremy Pike@JeremyNPikeCorrespondent INovember 30, 2008

I'll admit, I was fooled. Give me some credit though, how could I not have been impressed with a 5-1 start by the Buffalo Bills in my first year as a season ticket holder?

Yet, here we are, in Week 13, and the Bills lost miserably to the San Fransisco 49ers to drop to a 6-6 record. That means after the 5-1 start, the Bills have had a record of 1-5, including three losses to division rivals.

What happened, then?

I think part of the issue is that four of the five teams the Bills lost to run a 3-4 base defensive scheme. The Bills do not have a good center on the roster, and therefore the offensive line struggles to hold up at the point of attack.

The fifth team they lost to has a dominant defensive tackle who attacked the Bills through the center of the line as well. The Bills simply cannot hold up at the point of attack against a dominant defensive tackle in either a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme. That has to be one of the top priorities of the draft.

Melvin Fowler has shown the Bills nothing to be kept past this year. Duke Preston, on the other hand, can be kept as a backup if necessary, but he should not be starting either.

However, it is not simply the offensive line's fault the Bills lost five out of their last six. In the game against the 49ers, the offensive line looked pretty good most of the day, either in pass protection or in the run game, even against a 3-4 defense.

Yes, Losman was sacked multiple times in the second half. However, at least one of those was a coverage sack, and the rest of the time Losman got happy feet. At points, he looked lost back there.

No, a big part of the issue has been the play-calling. Remove the Kansas City Chiefs game from your memory. The play-calling has consistently been suspect. The game that started this skid, the loss to the Miami Dolphins, saw the Bills abandon the run game after their first drive of the second half, AFTER they scored a touchdown on a drive that consisted mostly of runs. 

Honestly, and this is my opinion, I think that Turk Schonert is calling plays like a typical rookie plays his first season. He's shown flashes of being able to call drives, but sometimes he gets rattled and panics.

He needs to stick with the basics. The reason the Bills were able to win games at the beginning of the season was because the play-calling was designed to protect Trent Edwards. It's entirely possible Schonert became overconfident in Edwards' abilities after Edwards played brilliant football in consecutive games to lead the Bills to some thrilling comeback wins.

Is going back to the basics really the way to get the Bills back on track? Well, look at this way. Great teams are built around running the ball and stopping the run. If a team can do that, it's incredibly hard to beat them. It seems that Schonert at points has abandoned the run game too hastily and put too much on Edwards' shoulders. He's a second-year quarterback. He still needs time to develop.

Not all is doom and gloom at One Bills Drive, though. You might not know that if you talked to most Bills fans or spend some time on different message boards, but there are some positives.

First positive: The play of Derek Schouman and Derek Fine. I think that these two have shown that they can play football in the NFL well. I remember watching the 2007 Fiesta Bowl when Derek Schouman was playing for the Boise State Broncos, and he played very well against the Oklahoma Sooners.

Needless to say, I was quite happy to see the Bills draft him. He's a solid blocker and a solid receiver. He's not great at anything, but he's consistent.

Derek Fine has also played well in limited playing time. His first real action came in the Jets game where he had some spectacular catches and caught his first NFL touchdown. Both of these tight ends will stick on the roster for a long time and should make Robert Royal expendable.

Second positive: Leodis McKelvin starting to come around. In the first part of the season, McKelvin was not seeing much playing time. My first real memory of him playing in the regular season was against the St Louis Rams when he put a knockout hit on Dane Looker, forced a fumble, and recovered it.

Then, in the Monday night game against the Cleveland Browns, he finally was able to break a kickoff for a touchdown to keep the game close.

Then he had his breakout game as a cornerback. Two interceptions, one on a well-thrown ball that he made an outstanding athletic play on and returned it for a touchdown to put the Bills ahead.

Against the 49ers, he had some penalties called on him, but at least one was very iffy. He's playing good ball and he's getting better every play, never mind every game.

There are other positives as well, with Marcus Stroud showing flashes of his dominant play throughout the season, along with Kyle Williams benefiting from his presence. Also, when the Bills' defensive backs are fully healthy, they are becoming a scary bunch. Both Jabari Greer and McKelvin have returned interceptions for touchdowns this season.

Next season, or possibly even later this season, once players return from injury, this group of defensive backs have the potential to be dominant.

However, with positives come negatives. Unfortunately for the Bills, the negatives appear to be piling on as of late. The play-calling on the offensive side of the ball has been addressed. However, the man making the calls on the defensive side of the ball has not been perfect either.

Perry Fewell, the Bills' defensive coordinator, has had an up-and-down season with his play-calling. At points, the defense has played dominant football both against the ground game and against the pass. At other times, the defense looked like they couldn't stop a junior varsity team. Part of that has been the fact that the Bills are struggling to get pressure from the front four.

However, Fewell has a couple of linebackers who have shown that they have the ability to get after the quarterback in veteran Kawika Mitchell and second-year man Paul Posluszny.

It has appeared at points that Fewell has been reluctant to blitz. Mitchell's strong suit is in the run game and blitzing against the pass. He is not a fast linebacker and not great in coverage, yet Fewell has dropped him back in coverage more often that blitzed him on obvious passing downs.

Also, Fewell has shown a propensity to stick with some questionable schemes with the defense. He often has the defense playing a zone defense, which requires good pressure from the front four to force the quarterback to make decisions faster than he would like. As previously stated, the Bills are struggling to do exactly that.

It would appear that perhaps the Bills should slip into man coverage a bit more often to maybe allow the defensive line to get pressure and hopefully some coverage sacks.

Fewell also has shown a maddeningly consistent propensity to play his cornerbacks around 10 yards off the line of scrimmage. Yes, this helps to prevent long pass plays in theory. However, the Bills have a very athletic group of cornerbacks who can run with a lot of wide receivers in the league.

That advantage would be even greater if they were allowed to come up more often on the wide receiver and prevent them from getting smoothly into their routes. Less read-and-react and more dictate the flow on defense.

So where does that leave my beloved Buffalo Bills? Struggling mightily and looking for some help. Hopefully the Bills can make something out of this season and gain some self-respect. Then they'll turn the draft and get some more key pieces to the puzzle.

A big strong center would be a good place to start. Also look for them to hopefully look for a good pass rusher at the defensive end position. Among the other major needs would be a strong-side linebacker. Nothing against Keith Ellison, who is a heady player and a very good coverage linebacker, but he is not that big and sometimes struggles against the run.

The Bills could definitely use an upgrade and relegate Ellison to backup duties, which would significantly upgrade their depth.

Also, be on the lookout for the Bills to pursue another defensive tackle who can line up opposite Stroud to dominate the middle of opposing offensive lines. Nothing against Kyle Williams, who plays with a lot of heart. He simply, at points, vanishes from the game. If he shows more consistency through these last four games, then this need gets bumped down to depth and long-term replacement.

All in all, the Buffalo Bills still have a long way to go. We knew that before the start of the season. We simply bought into the 5-1 start, and now look at where we are. Ah, another season in the life of a Buffalo Bills fan.


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