I've been trying very, very hard not to play the role of Negative Nancy this week. Alas, when your team is coming off of a 46-point blowout loss, it's hard to find much to get excited about. So I'm going to pick on another Buffalo Bill this morning - linebacker Keith Ellison.
After a rookie year in which Ellison, a sixth-round pick, amassed 65 tackles in a backup role (play good enough for the coaching staff to feel comfortable naming him the replacement to Takeo Spikes), the second-year weak-side linebacker is struggling to make an impact defensively for the Bills. Ellison, who battled back from a high ankle sprain he suffered in the pre-season, has only appeared in six of Buffalo's ten games this season. Yet in his time on the field, Ellison has been virtually invisible.
Production Dropping Fast for #56
In six appearances this season, Ellison has amassed just 16 tackles. That is insanely low tackle production for a linebacker - especially a linebacker in the Cover-2 scheme, where the weak-side 'backer is asked to cover in space (and make tackles there) more often than not. To put his lack of production in perspective, rookie Paul Posluszny - out since the middle of the Week 3 loss to New England - has 25 tackles this season. CB Jerametrius Butler, signed mid-season, has 13 tackles in 6 games. So does Ashton Youboty - in five.
Ellison's tackle numbers look particularly bleak when compared to the other two starting linebackers, Angelo Crowell (87) and John DiGiorgio (73). Those two guys rank 1-2 on the Bills in tackles; Ellison ranks 14th. Even bleaker: Crowell and DiGiorgio have combined for 2 sacks, 2 interceptions and a fumble recovery. Ellison has none of the above - a contrast from his sack and interception last season. Tackling is down, yes, but more importantly for Buffalo's defense, playmaking is down from Ellison as well.
Can't Make the Position Switch Argument
My initial reaction was to give Ellison the benefit of the doubt - "Oh, he was hurt, and he was playing strong-side last season, so maybe that's why his numbers are down." Turns out that's not true - barring further injury, Ellison is on pace to play 12 games and amass 32 tackles on the weak side. Last season, Crowell played weak-side (Spikes and Ellison were the strong-side guys), and in 12 games, Crowell put up 84 tackles. That's 7 tackles per game for Crowell on that side to under 3 for Ellison.
So were Ellison's numbers inflated because he played strong-side last season (the position Crowell is currently playing)? That point may be moot, because Ellison actually split time between the positions last year, filling in first for Spikes on the strong side, then for Crowell on the weak side. Ellison made four starts on the weak side last year and picked up 32 of his 65 tackles in those four games. His production, therefore, was about equal no matter where he played last year.
The Bottom Line
To be fair, it's probably wrong to be harsh on a Cover-2 linebacker that's still probably slowed down by the high ankle sprain. But at the most basic of levels, Ellison is by far the weakest link of Buffalo's linebacking corps. (I won't say Buffalo's front seven, just because we all love bashing our pass rush so much.)
The question now becomes this: with the defense still re-building, do the Bills give Ellison another starting shot next season with Posluszny returning? Or do they spend the off-season working DiGiorgio on the weak side, giving the middle spot back to Posluszny? Or vice versa? It may be too early to begin thinking about that, because Ellison still has six games to prove that he can, indeed, be an impact defender for this team.
He's just got a lot of proving to do in a short amount of time.