Buffalo records one of its five sacks in Sunday's win over MIA (BuffaloBills.com)
We have discussed this topic to death: in a Cover-2 zone defensive scheme, getting a consistent pass rush on opposing quarterbacks is of the utmost importance to playing the scheme to its potential. All great Cover-2 defenses feature great sack artists (Indy's Dwight Freeney and Chicago's Tommie Harris come to mind). Up until the last two weeks, the pass rush is an area that the Bills have struggled in, and is the biggest reason that the team ranks at or near the bottom of the league in just about every meaningful statistical category on defense.
Over their past two games, however, things have changed dramatically. After registering just 10 sacks through their first 11 games, the Bills have notched 8 quarterback take-downs in just their last two. What's been the difference? It's arguable; we'll get to that. What's important is that these past two games have both been wins for the Bills, and the pass rush has woken up just in time for the Bills' playoff race.
Catalyst One: Fewell's Blitzes
As the team's highest-paid player in 2007, defensive end Aaron Schobel has disappointed, registering just 4.5 sacks to season, as he's faced constant double teams as Buffalo's best pass rush threat. No other defensive lineman has more than 2 sacks (Chris Kelsay). With the lack of production up front, the Bills have been forced to utilize a different weapon to create the desired pressure on the quarterback: the blitz.
It's working. The Bills have just 18 sacks on the season, but they're spreading the wealth, as 10 defenders have accrued at least .5 sacks to date. That stat alone shows that the Bills have been able to get pressure from whichever defender they choose to blitz. That's held especially true over the past two games, as seven players (Schobel, Kyle Williams, Ryan Denney, Anthony Hargrove, Larry Tripplett, Angelo Crowell and Mario Haggan) have gotten in on the sacking action. It would be nice to get pressure consistently from the front four (something that the team enjoyed in yesterday's win over Miami), but Fewell has done an outstanding job getting pressure on the quarterback from all angles.
Catalyst Two: Young Quarterbacks
We really shouldn't have to sugarcoat this: Buffalo has benefitted from playing three young quarterbacks - Jason Campbell, Cleo Lemon and especially John Beck - in the past two weeks. To boot, neither Washington's or Miami's offensive line is overwhelmingly talented. The numbers, therefore, can be considered a bit inflated - but it's no secret that the Bills have been able to force seven turnovers over the past two games because of said pressure.
Of note: the Bills did not begin dialing up unique blitz packages until their Week 5 loss to the Cowboys. In their first four games, the Bills picked up four sacks - take away the 8 in recent weeks, and the Bills picked up just 6 sacks in their next 7 games after the blitz packages were installed. That's actually a drop-off in sacks per game; it's clear, then, that the blitz packages haven't totally accounted for the recent surge. That legitimizes O-Line and quarterback as a factor in the equation. The situation is very different this coming week in Cleveland.
Can it Continue in Cleveland?
Things will change slightly when the team travels to Cleveland this weekend. The Bills will face yet another young quarterback in Derek Anderson, but there is one fundamental difference: Anderson orchestrates an offense featuring many big, talented weapons and one of the best offensive lines in the game. Buffalo will certainly need to continue to get pressure on the quarterback - Anderson has proven that he can make mistakes under duress in recent weeks - but the task is much taller this week.
The pressure is on Buffalo's front four and on Fewell's blitz packages - other than the Patriots, this Browns offense may be the most difficult matchup for Buffalo's defense all season. With no clear indicator as to how we can expect the pass rush to function on Sunday, anything can happen. What is clear, however, is that this Bills defense - and by extension, the team - is much more effective when they're able to accomplish their pass rush objectives.