Stroud helping to shore up run D early (Photo Source)
The Buffalo Bills spent the early portion of their 2008 off-season attempting to remedy a porous run defense. After finishing 25th in the league in that category in 2007 - surrendering 124.6 yards per game on the ground - the Bills tried to fix the problem by signing beefy linebacker Kawika Mitchell and trading for beefier defensive tackle Marcus Stroud.
So far, the remedy is working wonders.
Though the first-unit defense has only seen a few series' worth of action through two pre-season games, Buffalo's revamped rushing defense has done a great job thwarting two solid rushing attacks in Washington and Pittsburgh. In their pre-season opening loss to the Redskins, Clinton Portis was held to just 18 yards on 7 rushes (though he did score a touchdown against Buffalo's second unit defense). Likewise, the Bills held the duo of Willie Parker and rookie Rashard Mendenhall to 44 yards on 16 carries - though, again, the second unit defense allowed a touchdown, this time to Mendenhall.
The improved stiffness up front has been noticeable. The 2.7 yards per carry average that the first team is currently surrendering is light years better than the 4.4 YPC average they gave up a year ago. It's just the pre-season, but it's been quite the pre-season to date.
Make no mistake about it - the difference has been Stroud. Though only credited with one solitary tackle in his first two (unofficial) games as a Bill, Stroud has faced constant double-teams on run plays - allowing players such as Paul Posluszny, Bryan Scott, Mitchell and even Keith Ellison to make plays near, at or behind the line of scrimmage. In other words, he's doing exactly what he was brought in to do - make his teammates better. It's even more impressive considering the fact that the team has already lost man-hours from LB Angelo Crowell, SS Donte Whitner and CB Terrence McGee.
As impressive as the top unit has been, there are still concerns. Buffalo's reserves have been wildly inconsistent stopping the run; they were shredded by the Redskins, but performed relatively well against the Steelers last night. That inconsistency is a product of youth, and it emphasizes just how crucial Stroud's health is to Buffalo's defensive success this season. Without him, they deteriorate from a consistently tough defense to an inconsistent, sometimes tough defense.
Buffalo's off-season run defense remedy is working wonders so far, and Stroud is already proving that he might just be the most important player to Buffalo's '08 playoff push. This is just one of the few encouraging signs the team has shown this early in the 2008 campaign; the quick improvement, should it be sustained into the regular season, should keep the Bills in games, regardless of how the team's inconsistent offense performs. That's invaluable to this young team.