Fact: the Bills and their shoddy defense could not stop the run last season. We have talked about it for months here; we've even debated who was to blame. I've been a proponent of better play from the defensive tackles (i.e. the return of John McCargo) as a sure-fire resolution to these run game woes. But lately, my opinion has changed (swayed, perhaps, by the compelling arguments made by Kurupt, a frequent poster here at Rumblings). What do I think will be the key to a more successful season defending the run? Nothing more than improved play from the strongside linebacker spot, which Angelo Crowell inherits from the departed Takeo Spikes.
While he was healthy last year (he missed the final four games with a leg injury that landed him on injured reserve), Crowell was arguably Buffalo's best linebacker. Despite missing this time, Crowell finished third on the team with 83 tackles - this gives you a small glimpse at how valuable he is to this defense.
All of that production came from the weak side, however, as the strong side was manned by Takeo Spikes. By design in this defense, the strong side linebacker is responsible for taking on the blocking tight end in the run game (hence "strong" side). In order to do this, successful strong side 'backers must be adept at shedding these blockers - and Takeo Spikes was not. For whatever reason, blockers ate him up; even when he was unblocked, he often missed the tackle. The 25-year-old Crowell plays the game with similar leverage as Spikes, but has a bit more potential on the strong side. He uses his hands better to shed blocks and is a far more sound tackler. The aging Spikes was a liability in the run game; Crowell seems poised to be a better run-clogging linebacker almost immediately.
Elevating Others' Play
If Crowell is able to elevate the level of play from the strong side linebacker position, it will open things up for (likely) fellow starters Paul Posluszny and Keith Ellison. If Crowell is able to effectively shed blocks from opposing tight ends in the run game, opponents will send more blockers Crowell's way. And why wouldn't they? If you had to choose which LB to block, wouldn't you pick the proven vet over the rookie and the second-year sixth-round pick? Take even just one blocker away from the middle and weak side slots and we should see an increase in the level of play at those positions. This is something that Spikes could not help Fletcher and Crowell with last season - and as a result, the run defense suffered.
With defensive tackle Darwin Walker unlikely to ever don a Bills uniform, the team will see no turnover at a position that many feel is the defense's weakest. Therefore, it's safe to assume that the level of play from DT will at least be as mediocre as it was last year; it's unlikely the group will perform worse. Our defensive ends (with the possible exception of Aaron Schobel) are tough against the run. Our safeties are improving against the run, and all four of our top cornerbacks have above-average tackling ability. The key then, in my mind, is the linebackers - and it is looking like this year's three starters are better-suited to man their positions than last year's trio.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again - there are going to be growing pains in the linebacking corps. But having Crowell, a developing young leader on this defense, manning perhaps the most important LB position this team has is a start. He should have been there last year, in my estimation, but he wasn't. Crowell can play - he can penetrate, he can shed blocks, and he can lay the lumber. I am confident that we'll notice a difference in the run game with him manning the strong side full-time. He is, in my mind, the key to the Bills' run defense this season.