The stats this season are not very impressive for the defensive linemen of the Buffalo Bills. In five games, the Bills have amassed just four sacks, 3.5 of them coming from defensive linemen. The unit's leading tackler, end and captain Chris Kelsay, ranks just seventh on the team with 22 tackles. That places him one spot behind Paul Posluszny, who has been on IR for the past two weeks. The pass rush has been inconsistent, there is a severe lack of explosion among the group, and the unit is the front line of what is still the league's 31st ranked defensive unit (just ahead of the Cleveland Browns).
Why, then, am I about to praise this group? Simple: they deserve credit for the Bills' strong defensive outings the past two weeks at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Believe it or not, this group of statless wonders have been playing very good football - and have been the catalysts of a defense that, despite its lack of statistical prowess, may be turning a corner.
Run Defense Stiffening Up
Why have the Bills had defensive success against the Jets and the Cowboys over their last two games? Well, some may argue that they haven't; in those two games the Bills gave up a total of 732 yards, 39 points and have won only one of those two home games, against the inferior opponent. Don't let those numbers deceive you. Don't let any stats deceive you in regards to the Bills defense - they're playing well enough to win football games right now, and it starts with the run defense.
Facing three above-average running backs in the Jones brothers (Thomas of the Jets, Julius of the Cowboys) and the up-and-coming Marion Barber III, Buffalo's run defense has been very stout against those backs. Opponents have run just 41 times in those two games, picking up just 136 yards (3.3 yards per carry) and one score, by way of the Jets' Leon Washington. One can make the argument that opponents are simply trying to beat the Bills through the air (Chad Pennington and Tony Romo attempted 89 passes in those two games), but that argument is wrong: teams are passing because the Bills are forcing them to be one-dimensional.
The success of the run D, from personal observation, has started with John McCargo. Don't get me wrong - everyone is playing well against the run, especially linebacker John DiGiorgio and strong safety Donte Whitner - but McCargo is the engine of that effort right now. His DT cohorts, Larry Tripplett and Kyle Williams predominantly, have been stellar as well, but no one has been as consistently disruptive as Big John. Again, the stats don't tell the whole story - he has just nine tackles and one sack on the year. But he's got very good hands, which allow him to consistently shed blocks and, at a bare minimum, change the direction of a given run play. He's the man behind the tackle stats of Angelo Crowell (41), Whitner (39) and DiGiorgio (34), the team's three leading tacklers. If John continues to play this way, don't be surprised to see him sneak a few starts and a few more big plays in this season.
One Dimension = Turnovers
Here's the stat that really matters: in three home games, against some stellar offenses in Denver, the Jets and Dallas, the Bills have forced nine turnovers. Those big plays have been the reason behind the team surrendering just 54 points (18 per game) at home. The problem, of course, is that the offense is mustering just eight points per game at The Ralph this season, but that discussion is for another thread; this defense is playing well enough at home to win every game we play.
The turnovers are a direct result of teams becoming one-dimensional. Jay Cutler was forced to throw at us, even after Travis Henry ran all over the defense, because he was behind. The same is true of Pennington and Romo, but they also had no ground game to speak of. One-dimensionality has helped the Bills get more consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks - just look at the play of Aaron Schobel and Kelsay on Monday Night, where for three quarters they bothered Romo enough to force five picks and a fumble recovery. In Perry Fewell's Cover-2 scheme, pass rush, as we've discussed numerous times, is essential. When the run game is eliminated, our defensive ends can attack - and that's exactly what we've seen the last two games. When Anthony Hargrove gets back into playing shape and Ryan Denney returns to health, these four ends could once again wreak havoc in opposing backfields.
What Needs to Change?
Despite the success of the defense in terms of its recent run prowess and its ability to create turnovers, problems still exist. That's obvious when your defense is still ranked second-to-last in the league. I'm not willing to make excuses for that stat, but I think there are a few valid arguments to be made, specifically the big one: we're still playing a base defense due to the massive amount of injury turnover the unit has experienced.
Health, not level of play, is what needs to change for this defense. With the team entering a bye week, the timing could not be better for what may turn out to be a defensive turnaround in the coming weeks. The team is expected to get DE Ryan Denney, LB Coy Wire, CB Ashton Youboty and S Jim Leonhard back either for the Baltimore game or soon thereafter. Having that talent and experience back at Fewell's disposal will not only help from depth purposes, but will also allow Fewell to be a bit more flexible in his game planning. Having experienced depth - a result of the injuries - will allow Fewell to design more elaborate blitz packages and throw a few more wrinkles into his planning. That doesn't necessarily "fix" the defense, obviously, but it will allow our young defenders to continue to make plays.
The formula is simple: stop the run. Force the pass. Make plays, force turnovers and get after the quarterback. It's worked for two weeks. A lot of credit goes to the young defenders who have made exciting plays over the last two games. As the unit gets healthier, we may see this unit continue to improve. That will get the defense to exactly where it needs to be - they won't be elite, but they'll be more than good enough to win football games.