Run and stop the run. It's an old football cliche, and it's cliche because it works. Successful NFL teams, by and large, are able to run the football effectively, and they're able to prevent their opponents from doing so.
The Buffalo Bills can't stop the run this season. Through 12 games, the Bills have surrendered 2,065 rushing yards, or about 172 rushing yards per game. The New York Jets - victors over Buffalo last night - have been particularly effective running against Buffalo, racking up 567 yards (283.5 per game) in two games against the Bills' porous run front this season. The Bills are ranked dead last in the league defending the run, giving up 11 more yards per game than the second-worst team - Oakland.
This season is the fifth of the decade in which the Bills have surrendered more than 2,000 rushing yards in a season. With four games remaining on the schedule, they're on pace to surrender around 2,700 rushing yards in 2009. If the Bills hit that number, they'll have fielded their worst run defense since 1978, when that 5-11 Bills outfit allowed its opponents to rush for a whopping 3,228 yards, or slightly over 200 yards per game.
Before they reach that lofty goal, however, there are some putrid Bills teams of yesteryear that they must first eclipse. The 1985 Buffalo Bills gave up 2,462 rushing yards on the season. They finished 2-14. (Surprise!) The '79 Bills (7-9) gave up 2,481 yards, and the 1983 Bills (8-8) gave up 2,503 yards. With four games left, at the current pace, these Bills are on pace to surpass all of those memorable teams.
Can the run defense be fixed?
Yes, it can. Anything can be fixed. But Buffalo's got a lot of work to do.
For starters, they need to make at least two major personnel changes. Buffalo's starting defensive tackle duo of Marcus Stroud and Kyle Williams are stout in the middle - according to Football Outsiders stats, they were the sixth-best DT duo in the league against the run in 2008 - but they also wear down, and Buffalo's depth players at the position lack the block-shedding abilities of Williams and the sheer power of Stroud. A massive defensive tackle would not only add a run-stuffing dimension to the defensive line rotation, but if he's big enough and can anchor, he also gives the team some schematic flexibility.
(Speaking of scheme - forget about changing it, because there's not a single scheme employed by NFL coaches that isn't equipped to stop the run. I know fans are clamoring for the 3-4, but ask the Cleveland Browns just how proficient they are at stuffing the run. Buffalo doesn't need a scheme change - though obviously they might get it with a new coach - they just need personnel tweaks.)
Paul Posluszny also needs to be moved out of the middle. In any defensive scheme, middle linebackers need to be able to shed blocks, and with all due respect to Poz - a guy I'm not nearly as down on as some folks here - he's not proven himself capable of slipping blocks consistently. Poz was a better player on the outside at Penn State, and that's where he belongs in the NFL, as well. Kawika Mitchell, when he returns, is still a solid fit at weak-side linebacker. That just leaves Posluszny's vacated middle linebacker spot as a major need area for this defense. Someone big, fast and capable of stacking and shedding, if you please, Mr. Future Bills GM Guy. Oh, and while you're at it, please find capable reserves at linebacker as well - we'll need more than one.
A little discipline wouldn't hurt, either. Buffalo has been susceptible to misdirection plays for years now; the Bills' ends and corners need to be more disciplined in their gaps to prevent big chunks of yardage being surrendered.
One last thing. The best friend of any run defense, good or bad, is a competent offense. Playing with leads is never a bad thing, despite Buffalo's best attempts to prove otherwise. Yes, Buffalo needs to fix its defense, but take a look around you - the best teams in the NFL this season have the best offenses. If you think the Bills have major work to do in shoring up their run defense, they've got a decade's worth of awful offensive football to shore up as well.