The defense of the Buffalo Bills was a statistical anomaly in 2009. Despite giving up over 340 yards and 20 points per game, as well as having the league's No. 31-ranked run defense, the Bills were the second-best pass defense in the league. Their 184.2 passing yards allowed per game was bested only by Darrelle Revis and the New York Jets, and the team's 28 interceptions were second only to Green Bay's 30.
That type of production is not likely to be repeated by the Bills in 2010 - and they might not even come close to that type of success.
True, the Bills are deep in the secondary. True, the Bills only face three quarterbacks rated in the Top 10 a year ago (Tom Brady twice, four if Brett Favre plays, and still equal to the three they faced a year ago). True, again, that by and large, the Bills will field exactly the same personnel that made up the No. 2-ranked unit a year ago. But even getting healthy players back, a scheme switch to the 3-4 has brought about new responsibilities for players, and the pass defense has been roughed up in the early going.
In Friday night's pre-season opener, Washington Redskins quarterbacks Donovan McNabb, Rex Grossman and John Beck completed 18 of 33 passes for 225 yards, with three touchdowns, no interceptions, and two sacks allowed (John McCargo, Aaron Maybin). Buffalo's cornerbacks and safeties didn't play poorly (with the possible exception of Reggie Corner, who had a rough outing, to say the least), but vulnerabilities were highlighted in the underbelly of Buffalo's defense.
In particular, Buffalo's new 3-4 linebackers have a lot to learn. We knew this going into the season, particularly at the outside linebacker position, where several defensive ends are now trying to stand up and drop back into coverage. The only player that looks remotely comfortable doing that to this point is Reggie Torbor, whose experience as a 3-4 inside linebacker is helping him transition.
Chris Ellis, currently the second-team SLB (but who started against Washington), didn't look lost on the field, but has already displayed vulnerability to speed on the edge of a defense. If he plays frequently this year, look for teams to test him with speed to the outside. Antonio Coleman, an undrafted rookie free agent from Auburn, has the required athleticism for the position, but is learning entirely new techniques, and was late filling passing lanes on several occasions in D.C., leading to lengthy Redskins completions.
But it doesn't stop at outside linebacker. Arthur Moats, a defensive end at James Madison making the switch to WLB, was torched on several occasions against Washington, reading and reacting to the plays in front of him at a much slower rate than his teammates. Like most of the linebackers learning new responsibilities, Moats did not look instinctive, and far too often appeared to be doing more thinking than playing football. Moats hustles, and as WGR 550's Joe Buscaglia points out, he's something of a playmaker, frequently forcing fumbles during practices and against the Redskins. But he's got a long, long way to go.
This week, we're likely going to see players such as Chris Kelsay, Paul Posluszny and Keith Ellison get their first exposure to their new coverage responsibilities. Kelsay's progress will be particularly intriguing, as he was generally viewed as the biggest passing-game liability in a group full of liabilities at outside linebacker. Posluszny and Ellison are fairly efficient coverage linebackers, which they'll need to be, considering neither Andra Davis nor Kawika Mitchell are proficient in this area.
As we discussed over the weekend, safety Bryan Scott is already playing a linebacker's coverage role in nickel and dime formations. In a defensive scheme that prides itself on being multiple and unpredictable with its pressure packages, having Scott on the field too often in that role is akin to having a seriously obvious tell playing poker. Posluszny and Ellison could take some of those reps away from Scott now that they've returned to the lineup, though it remains to be seen if they'll be more reliable in that capacity.
Buffalo's pass rush is a work in progress, to be very kind. The team has good depth at cornerback, but does not feature a single shut-down-caliber player at the position. Coordinator George Edwards will continue to employ a lot of zone looks, which will put pressure on Buffalo's linebackers - learning new responsibilities - to make efficient drops and read the offense very well. Taking all of that into consideration, it's incredibly unlikely that Buffalo will field anywhere near the second-best pass defense in 2010. Let's just hope it doesn't get so bad that it offsets any gains the team makes in its supposedly-improved run defense.