If you were to ask any fan of the Buffalo Bills what their biggest worry was heading into the 2009 season, you'll likely get a split decision between third-year quarterback Trent Edwards, a revamped offensive line, and a slightly re-tooled, working-up-from-non-existent pass rush. We posed that exact question to y'all roughly three weeks ago, and the results were overwhelming: 52% of Buffalo Rumblings readers are chewing their fingernails hardest when pondering a Bills offensive line that will feature new starters at all five positions.
Those insecurities have been reinforced in recent days as we have discussed the importance of new LT Langston Walker and imported C Geoff Hangartner. Plenty of folks are still neurotically fretting about the fact that the team traded a mega-talent like left tackle Jason Peters, now an Eagle. Buffalo has a lot of promise offensively, but most Bills fans are savvy enough to understand that potential doesn't mean squat entering this season - this line needs to gel quickly, potential or not, or all of that assembled talent will be squandered.
There's been a lot of change up front for the Bills. That change is scary enough. To pull the overhaul off successfully, however, Buffalo's coaches need to be prepared to bite the bullet and make more changes; this time, they need to come philosophically and schematically. (All statistics referenced after the jump courtesy Football Outsiders.)
Things changed dramatically for Buffalo's offense when it transitioned coordinators between 2007 and 2008. Steve Fairchild's Bills offense utilized max protections frequently and threw more screen passes than any other NFL team while the Bills took on two of the league's toughest divisions, the AFC North and the NFC East, during the 2007 season. Fairchild left after the year, replaced by his quarterbacks coach, Turk Schonert. Last season, Schonert's Bills used max protection less than every other NFL team but one (Kansas City) and barely averaged one screen pass per game, one of the league's lowest.
The reason? Opponents' defensive philosphies. While the Bills roared out to a 5-1 start, defenses continued to blitz second-year QB Trent Edwards in an effort to keep him rattled; Edwards, however, destroyed the blitz (his QB rating through the first six games was 98.8). From that point on, teams backed off, and they did so in a big way. Buffalo's offense faced the highest percentage of three-man rushes (12% of offensive plays) in the NFL. Teams sent six or more pass rushers Buffalo's way on 6.2% of plays, a very low percentage that ranked the Bills No. 27 in the league. (Even still, Buffalo surrendered 38 sacks on the year. That should tell you something.)
Clearly, the results of playing against predominant coverage schemes were detrimental to players like Edwards and WR Lee Evans. It had an effect on Schonert's play-calling, as well; the aforementioned dramatic drop-off in screen throws can be directly attributed to the change in defensive philosophy as well. The same holds true for his willingness to put Jason Peters on an island and avoid max protection.
What needs (or needed) to change?
We'll quickly cover the changes that have already been made. Buffalo needed a playmaker at receiver, and went out and got an excellent one in WR Terrell Owens. As a point of reference, each of Buffalo's division rivals have seen huge offensive spikes in DVOA when adding a veteran difference-maker (Chad Pennington in Miami, Randy Moss in New England and Brett Favre in New York). If Owens can provide even a portion of the spike that Pennington or Moss did for their new teams, the Bills are already in business.
The other change, obviously, was the offensive line. Buffalo was a lowly No. 24 in the NFL in power rushing situations in 2008; it's nowhere near a surprise, therefore, that the biggest part of the O-Line revamp came directly up the middle. The idea behind the additions of Hangartner and rookie guards Eric Wood and Andy Levitre was a more consistent presence at the point of attack. Y'all already know about those and have discussed them ad nauseam.
From this point, Buffalo needs to find a way to effect philosophical change. With Walker and Brad Butler moving out to tackle, Schonert needs to take a feather out of Fairchild's hat (never thought I'd say that) and be more willing to use his skill players to keep Edwards upright. That can't happen unless teams see a reason to commit fewer defenders to coverage, which won't happen unless the arrival of Owens (and a more consistent rushing attack) allows the Bills to chew up big yardage underneath. So many folks want to point to just Edwards, or just Schonert, or just the offensive line as the focal point of Buffalo's offensive issues; we too often overlook the fact that the unit as a cohesive whole needs to make things happen.
It starts, however, with coaching - and the Bills have taken care of business to this point. Up next for Schonert is helping his line, finding ways to make plays, and getting his offense to a point where they don't have to settle for dink-and-dunk and can actually make plays downfield. The players ultimately need to execute, clearly, but the responsibility first and foremost lies with Schonert. If he can find a way to tip the scales back far enough so that the Bills see more variety from opposing defenses and have opportunities to exploit opposing secondaries with their dynamic WR duo, that'll be a start. From there, with just a little consistency up front, the offense should be able to find a way to make it work and finally, mercifully, score some points. (Here's a tip, Turk: dictate. Use that no-huddle offense. Don't take what the defense gives you. Make the defense play the schemes you want them to play. You've got the talent. Make it happen, cap'n.)