Schobel, front four not making plays (buffalobills.com)
One of the Buffalo Bills' biggest problems defensively in 2007 was their inability to consistently get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Bills finished the 2007 season with just 24 sacks as a team, and as a result, they fielded one of the league's worst defenses (statistically) last season. The defense did enough for the Bills to scratch and claw their way to a 7-9 record, but it was clear that without an improved pass rush, the Bills weren't going to get much better.
So the team spent the off-season getting tougher up front, and the impact was immediate - the Bills registered five sacks in a season-opening win over the Seahawks. All was well - newcomers Marcus Stroud and Kawika Mitchell registered three of those sacks, and the Bills' defense dominated, holding the Seahawks to just 10 points. Four games later, however, the Bills have added only five more sacks to that season-opening total, and the team's pass rush woes are resurfacing.
The stat that tells all
Last season, in picking up 24 sacks in total, Buffalo's leading sacker was, unsurprisingly, defensive end Aaron Schobel, whose 6.5 sacks made up what was, statistically, one of his worst seasons as a professional. The more concerning stat was that it took 12 Bills defenders to get to that 24-sack total. While it's not necessarily bad news that the Bills had twelve defenders register sacks, it does smack of the need to blitz often. Behind Schobel, no Bill had more than 2.5 sacks last season.
Nothing has changed in 2008, save the fact that the blitz is a bit more diverse and potent. The Bills have registered 10 sacks, and it's taken nine defenders to do so. Stroud leads the team with the two he piled up on opening day; Mitchell, Schobel, Chris Kelsay, Ryan Denney, Spencer Johnson, Kyle Williams, Ashton Youboty and Donte Whitner have all added one sack each to that total. It's the same deal - defensive coordinator Perry Fewell has been forced to utilize the blitz to get pressure, and while it worked early, opponents are starting to figure it out.
Quick strike offenses
Part of the Bills' issue with getting to the quarterback has been the offensive strategy of its opponents. With Buffalo employing a Cover 2 zone scheme, teams have relied on quick routes and a "possession passing game", for lack of a better term, more and more as the season has progressed. Arizona executed this attack to perfection; quarterback Kurt Warner didn't even average six yards per attempt (250 yards on 42 throws), but he completed 78 percent of his passes, moved the chains and didn't take a sack. The Cardinals basically ran the ball down Buffalo's throat via the short passing game.
It's a bit unfair to expect the Bills to put up astronomical sack numbers when opponents are running this type of offense. As it is, the Bills rank near the middle of the pack in sacks this season. Until the Bills figure out how to slow down this type of attack - a minor alteration to the coverage scheme should do it - don't expect the Bills to start adding significant numbers to their sack total. It's just not realistic.
Inconsistency starts up front
The blitz is utilized so often in today's NFL that teams are becoming increasingly proficient at picking up extra rushers. Buffalo's blitz packages are working about as well as we can honestly expect them to - the Bills aren't registering a lot of sacks, but we've seen guys such as Mitchell, Paul Posluszny and Whitner put big hits on quarterbacks this season. That's the sign of an effective blitz package.
The problem, then, has to lie with the guys on the line of scrimmage. This post isn't designed to knock Schobel and Kelsay; they're good football players. They're guys that could play on any team simply because of their energy levels (although perhaps not at their current respective salaries). They belong on the field. But there's a dimension missing, particularly on the edges, and that dimension is athleticism.
Rookie Chris Ellis - a third-round pick out of Virginia Tech - was expected to provide that athleticism this season. After an underwhelming pre-season, Ellis has yet to be active for his first NFL game. Schobel and Kelsay aren't phenomenal athletes; they're effort rushers. Those guys can work well in this league if they're complemented. Right now, Ryan Denney and Copeland Bryan aren't doing the complementing. We're still not even sure if Ellis can provide that spark if he ever gets the chance to play.
Basically, what it comes down to is this: the Bills' pass rush is what it is. Currently, it is a problem. As long as the team stays healthy, it has the opportunity to have some big games and be moderately proficient for the rest of this season. But Bills fans need to start dealing with the reality of the situation: Buffalo isn't an elite pass-rushing team, and the defense is going to struggle at times because of it. Understand it's going to be intermittently problematic moving forward. This Bills defense is good enough to take the Bills to the playoffs, but it's not elite - and it's not elite because it lacks an athlete at defensive end.
That's the only missing piece, folks. Perhaps Ellis is the answer; I'm not convinced. We just need to deal with the reality of the situation; anticipate the problem areas, and you'll have no reason to complain about them as the season wears on. The Bills have the ability to overcome their pass rush woes, especially when considering the schedule the team faces. But log this in your off-season observation book, and try not to break it out until the off-season arrives (whether that's the first or third week of January remains to be seen): the Bills need to address this area with a top-notch athlete in the very near future.