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Bills/Ravens Tale of the Tape, Part II: Defense

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As I mentioned yesterday, I was able to catch the re-air of the Bills/Ravens contest Monday night on NFL Network. I'd seen the game once live, so this time around I decided to pay closer attention to the nuances of the game. My notes were pretty extensive, so I thought I'd share some of what I saw. Let's talk defense; our offensive review came yesterday.

Pass Rush: Obviously it may have only been a one-time game plan, but the Bills utilized the blitz a lot in this game to make life as difficult as possible for Kyle Boller. It worked - Boller had semi-decent stats (191 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT), but his accuracy was subpar (58%) and Boller missed on several throws late in the game with blitzers in his face. Popular blitzers include Donte Whitner, Angelo Crowell and John DiGiorgio. The team also got a pass-rush boost by playing Anthony Hargrove inside at tackle - his athleticism was a bit much for Baltimore's guards to handle at times. More on the blitz in the pass defense section.

I really like the effort of Buffalo's defensive ends on the pass rush - from what I can see, however, they're just not big enough to succeed. Aaron Schobel attempts to spin or speed past tackles, but he's too light to gain much leverage and is handled easily almost every time. It doesn't help that he's constantly being chipped by tight ends, guards and backs, either. Buffalo needs to find a situational pass rush threat so they don't compromise their pass D by blitzing every pass down.

Run Defense: Tip your hat to John McCargo, Bills fans - this guy is the cream of Buffalo's run-stuffing crop. When you think about the fact that McCargo will be playing in just his 12th professional game this Sunday, it's even more impressive how quickly he's coming along. Big John plays with great leverage - when he latches onto a guard or center, he moves the blocker into the backfield. This often causes a runner to have to pick a different running lane - so even if McCargo isn't making the tackle, he's impacting nearly every run. He's also using his hands consistently well to get off blockers. And, of course, he had that big stuff of Willis McGahee in the backfield - a favorite play to many Bills fans from Sunday's win.

What really makes Buffalo's Run D tick, however, is pursuit. With penetration up front, runners are constantly forced to change directions, and it allows the Bills to use their speed in the front seven. The rest of the defensive line - especially Schobel, Chris Kelsay and Kyle Williams, are fantastic pursuit tacklers - they move down the line well and often catch runners from the side or from behind. Buffalo's linebackers are also adept at holding their lanes, although they need to get more consistent making tackles in the hole. Finally, Whitner is a huge presence here - he is often seen tripping up runners at the line of scrimmage, all while lining up behind the linebackers. He's very fast moving forward - but he still takes the occasional bad angle. One bad angle by Whitner in this contest led to McGahee's 46-yard touchdown run. Inconsistent tackling helped there as well (the accusatory finger is pointing at you, George Wilson).

Pass Defense: This, in my opinion, is still the weak point to the Bills' defensive attack. Yes, this unit continues to make plays, and yes, the individual players seem to be performing admirably. But somehow, the Bills still gave up two fourth-and-long plays (including the Boller touchdown) and had trouble covering from time to time. Terrence McGee is a truly great tackler - in fact, he may be the hardest hitter in the secondary - but I have my doubts as to whether he has a future as this team's #1 corner. I think he's an ideal #2 - he's too much of a playmaker to be anything less than that, and his run support makes him an above-average starter - but we don't have a guy that can consistently eliminate an opponent's top threat. We need a guy with size; a little extra height and bulk would help the team defend some of the slant routes they give up so frequently.

The biggest problem with the pass D continues to be the lack of a pass rush. With our front four virtually unable to generate any heat on their own, the Bills are forced to routinely send 1-3 blitzers. When that happens, the back 5 (four DBs and a LB in most cases) play a Cover-2 shell, with the safeties dropping back and the linebacker taking the middle intermediate portion of the field. That leaves our small corners overmatched, especially when opponents have big receivers. Demetrius Williams, a big receiver for the Ravens, got inside position on a slant when the Bill blitzed, and Derrick Mason caught his touchdown on a very similar play. The blitz makes the opposing QB get rid of the ball quickly, the slant or skinny post is a quick route, and the back five of the Bills have little to no time to react to the throw. It has helped that McGee and Jabari Greer are such great tacklers - the two are literally hitting receivers as soon as they catch the ball.

General Thoughts: A warm congratulations goes out to Bobby April, because he's no longer the only assistant coach pulling his weight on the Buffalo sideline. Perry Fewell is now right there with him - this guy has had great game plans and strategies for three straight weeks, and it's kept Buffalo in all of those games. He's designed elaborate blitz packages, unique looks (ex: no down linemen on most 3rd down passing situations to disguise where blitzes are coming from), and his players are, plain and simple, making plays for him. He is getting maximum production out of unexpected sources - Greer, Wilson and DiGiorgio top that list. Heck, even Ryan Neill - the team's long snapper and a reserve DE - played a screen pass perfectly in this win. These guys aren't the most talented bunch, to be sure, but they're very smart, scrappy, and Fewell's aggressive game-planning is masking some of their flaws. Expect good things out of this group for the rest of the season.