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Bills' Maybin, Schobel must rejuvenate historically bad pass rush

Back in late April, the Buffalo Bills made Penn State defensive end Aaron Maybin their first round choice in the 2009 NFL Draft.  Considering the age of Buffalo's defensive ends (three are or will be 30 in the near future), the lingering foot injury of star DE Aaron Schobel, and the abysmal production of the Bills' pass rush over the prior two seasons (just 47 sacks in 2007 and 2008 combined), the Bills' decision to select a pass-rushing threat was not only the best possible decision, but probably long overdue.

There's a lot to like about the Bills' rookie pass-rusher, even if he's only got one solid year of college production, and even if there are serious question marks surrounding his ability to play the run consistently at the NFL level while weighing a light 250 pounds.  We here at Buffalo Rumblings ranked Maybin the second-best defender available in the draft back in March, and we can also claim excitement over the fact that Maybin was our choice as Bills GM in the 2009 SB Nation NFL Mock Draft.  We (and when we say "we", we mean the editorial staff here at Rumblings) thought highly of Maybin throughout the pre-draft process, and Buffalo's agreement with our "scouting" just piques our interest further.

Unfortunately for Maybin - and, likely, the Bills and its much-maligned coaching staff - the rookie will be asked to resuscitate a historically awful Bills pass rush along with now-healthy veteran Schobel, himself the recipient of many questions surrounding his possibly-declining skill set.  While a much-improved pass rush is critical to the Bills' on-field fortunes in 2009 - particularly in the AFC East - Maybin and his cohorts won't have to do much to top last season's terrible statistical output.

2008: Buffalo's worst sacking season?
The "sack", a term coined by Rams Hall of Fame DL Deacon Jones, was not an official NFL statistic until the strike-shortened 1982 season.  Throughout the 27 years that Bills players have officially recorded sacks, the team has fielded some prolific sack artists - with Hall of Fame DE Bruce Smith leading the way as not only the franchise leader in sacks, but the NFL's all-time leader in the category as well.

Last season, the Bills' leading sack artists were DE Ryan Denney and LB Kawika Mitchell, who tied to pace the team with four sacks apiece.  The team itself registered just 23 quarterback sacks in its 16-game season.  Ready for the bad news?  Since the beginning of the sack, 2008 was easily Buffalo's worst season harrassing opposing quarterbacks.

You literally have to go all the way back to 1982 to find similarly low production.  In that season, defensive ends Ben Williams and Sherman White led the Bills with - you guessed it - four sacks each.  As a team, the Bills managed only a meager 12 sacks in '82.  The catch?  The Bills played just nine games as the league dealt with a 57-day players' strike.  Sure, Buffalo had double that sack total in 2008, but they had a full season to get there.

More startling perspective
Only six times in team history - and again, that's since 1982 in the case of sack statistics - have the Bills finished with fewer than 30 sacks in a season.  (Is 30 an unreasonable number? That's less than two sacks per game.)  Three of those came in the early-to-mid '80s, when the sack was still a nascent statistical category and Bruce Smith was not yet on the team.  Smith led the Bills in sacks as a rookie with 6.5 (a feat that Schobel matched in 2001), but Buffalo managed only 24 sacks in 1985.  One came in 1994, Buffalo's big let-down season after four straight Super Bowl seasons.  The other two? 2007 and 2008.

The team's 23-sack total was its lowest since the '82 season, and arguably the worst output in team history.  Further, their 24 sacks in 2007 was matched by only the '85 Biils; that 2007 total was the second-lowest in team history - until the '08 Bills beat it out, of course.

2008 was only the seventh time in the last 27 years that the Bills' sack leader was not either Smith or Schobel.  For seven straight years (2001 through 2007), Schobel led the Bills in sacks - a streak snapped when he missed eleven games due to injury and the combination of Mitchell and Denney paced the Bills in the category.  In his 15 seasons in Buffalo, Smith was the Bills' leading sacker in all but two - he missed most of 1991 due to injury (Cornelius Bennett led the team with 9 sacks), and LB Bryce Paup led the team in sacks in 1995 with 17.5; Smith added 10.5.  Add Mitchell and Denney, then, to a somewhat pedestrian group that includes Bennett, Paup, Williams, White, LB Darryl Talley and DE Marcellus Wiley as leading sackers sprinkled among the dominance of Smith and Schobel.

In the past 20 years (we'll shorten this to two decades for the time being), the Bills' leading sack artist has finished with 8 sacks or fewer five times.  Four of those have come in the Schobel era - 2001 (Schobel - 6.5), 2004 (Schobel - 8), 2007 (Schobel - 6.5), and 2008 (Mitchell/Denney - 4).  Smith recorded 7 sacks in his final season in Buffalo (1999).

2009 outlook
There you have it.  In terms of avoiding having their names ranked amongst the franchise's least productive sack artists in a season, Maybin and/or Schobel don't have a lot of work to do in 2009 - mostly because 2008 was so terrible.  Four sacks? Shouldn't be a problem if Maybin can be effective next to a healthy Schobel.  We hope.

The team sack totals are the truly unacceptable stat.  In a division that features all-world QB Tom Brady, the ever-efficient Chad Pennington and, most deliciously, very green rookie Mark Sanchez, pressuring the opposing quarterback is absolutely critical to the Bills fielding a successful team in 2009.  It remains to be seen whether the Bills can increase sack production, or even - perhaps just as importantly - create any sort of non-sack pressure on its opponents next season.  At a bare minimum, however, the Bills won't need to do much to improve on a 2008 season that was the least productive in team history.