Stroud & Co. must be stout on Sunday (buffalobills.com)
In 2007, stopping the run was the Achilles' heel of the Buffalo Bills. Despite its best efforts to claw their way back into the playoff race, Buffalo's inability to shut down the run (along with inconsistent quarterback play) ultimately dashed those dreams last season. Opponents ended the season averaging 4.4 yards per rush against the Bills, and the team's final record was 7-9.
2008, however, has started off a bit differently. The Bills have won two straight games, and with a win this coming Sunday against the Oakland Raiders are poised to start a season 3-0 for the first time since 1992. Ed. note: I was seven years old. Buffalo spent their off-season attempting to upgrade their run defense, and thus far it's paid off: the Bills are giving up just 3.8 yards per rush, and their 91.5 rush yards allowed per game is much lower than the 124.6 they gave up in 2007.
This unit has been tested, too; they passed the test of shutting down Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor in Jacksonville in last week's big road win. The unit is legitimate. But they face another unique challenge this Sunday in the formidable Raiders rushing duo of Darren McFadden and Michael Bush.
Raiders one-dimensional, yet still explosive
To underestimate this duo simply because of the team they play for (to say the Raiders are "dysfunctional" is an understatement) would be a grievous error. Just look at the numbers: in his first two professional games, McFadden has compiled 210 yards on just 30 carries. Yes, folks, that's seven yards per rush - double the 3.6-yard average that Buffalo's own Marshawn Lynch has established to date. Bush did not register a carry in Week 1, but when Justin Fargas went down with a groin injury in Week 2 (he won't play in Buffalo), Bush responded with 90 yards, a 5.6 yard-per-carry average and a touchdown of his own.
McFadden and Bush - Raiders draft picks in '08 and '07 respectively - were highly touted backs coming out of college for a reason. McFadden has a chance to transform into one of the league's most explosive offensive weapons; he's on that path already. Bush has recovered from a devastating knee injury he sustained in his final college season nicely; at 245 pounds, he's got a Jerome Bettis quality to him. Now they have an opportunity to establish themselves as one of - if not the - most talented rushing duos in the league.
Keep in mind, also, that these two backs have put forth these eye-popping numbers with no help from their quarterback, JaMarcus Russell, and the passing game. Russell's QB rating on the year is a respectable 84.9, but most of the solid stats he accrued in the team's opening-week loss to Denver (180 yards, two scores, no picks) came in garbage time as Denver was icing a 41-14 victory. Last week in a 23-8 win over the Chiefs, Russell completed 6 of 17 passes for a paltry 55 yards. To say the Raiders are one-dimensional is an understatement.
Oakland's likely Sunday rushing strategy
The Bills are a well-coached football team, and their strategy on Sunday to beat the Raiders is a simple one: stop the run and force Russell to beat you. If Russell is forced to throw the ball at least 25 times, the Raiders are toast - it's as simple as that. The problem, obviously, is making that happen on the field. Don't expect the Raiders to attack Buffalo's defensive line with the run. The Bills boast an excellent defensive tackle rotation with four solid run-stoppers in Marcus Stroud, Kyle Williams, Spencer Johnson and John McCargo. The Raiders aren't likely to attack that group, especially with MLB Paul Posluszny backing them up.
In their first two games, the Raiders have spent the majority of their time attacking the edges of opposing defenses. What's more, they've rarely attacked defensive ends in the run game to this point. Just 24.6% of their run plays have attacked the interior line to date; the majority of their runs have come to the outside. 45.8% of their rushes attack left end/left tackle, while the remaining 30.5% are to right end/right tackle. The Raiders have athletic backs and an athletic line, and they've put them to use thus far.
So the onus on stopping the run won't be on the tackles and the middle linebacker; it will be on the outside linebackers and the defensive backs. Considering the Bills missed a dozen tackles (seven in the offensive backfield) in their win over Jacksonville, this is a bit concerning. Aligned on the right side of the defense (the side that Oakland has attacked most frequently by far), LB Keith Ellison is sure to be a target. Players such as Kawika Mitchell, Terrence McGee, Ashton Youboty, Jabari Greer, Ko Simpson and Donte Whitner will be heavily involved in stopping the run this week, based on the Raiders' tendencies. Considering the talents of the Raiders' two backs (not to mention the size of them), great tackling from Buffalo's back seven is a must in this matchup.
How to beat the Raiders
Buffalo is going to load the box with defenders. Considering the fact that Russell has struggled and the Raiders' receiving corps hasn't been at all helpful to their young quarterback, don't be surprised to see as many as nine Bills defenders in the box for the majority of Sunday. They're going to dare Russell to beat them, because the chances of the young quarterback doing it in Buffalo are slim.
The other way to neutralize Oakland's running game is to get off to a fast start. It's not exactly rocket science, but if the Bills get out to an early lead, the Raiders - a young team with a young coaching staff - will try to get back into it quickly. Go for the jugular early, and the jugular will expose itself quickly. The easiest way to dispose of the Raiders is to go for the quick kill, and as football is the ultimate team sport, Buffalo's offense could end up being the key to its run defense on Sunday.
But don't underestimate the importance of shutting down McFadden and Bush. They took over and dominated an NFL game by themselves last week. I don't care if it was "just the Chiefs", as I've heard all week. It was an incredible showing, and the Bills are quite right to not take the tandem lightly. Quickly snuffing out this duo should lead to a Bills victory, but by no means will it be an easy task.