The Buffalo Bills are coming off of a lackluster performance in a 31-21 road pre-season loss to the Green Bay Packers. While I still maintain that this isn't happening, there was plenty to be concerned about for the Bills in all three phases of the game.
As it's the pre-season, and the games are still pretend, I only watched enough of the game back on DVR to get through the starters. I'll skim the second half later today (to publish Tuesday) to take a look at some younger players. Talking points from Buffalo's defensive effort are after the jump; we've already looked at the offense.
Defense didn't have it easy
I'm not big on making excuses. When I say, therefore, that the Bills defense wasn't treated fairly on Saturday night, I'm saying it fully aware of the fact that Bills defenders are paid to stop opponents from gaining yards and scoring points. They didn't do a very good job of it in Green Bay. They didn't get very much help, either - Buffalo's offense was so abysmal that of a whopping seven first-half possessions, the Packers started four of them in Bills territory (all coming off of turnovers).
It also didn't help that Green Bay's offense - very potent and severely underrated just a year ago - is absolutely loaded. They've got a tough, physical, young offensive line, and a solid running back in Ryan Grant. More importantly, they've got a hell of a young quarterback in Aaron Rodgers, and they're four deep in quality receivers with two more athletic tight ends. This is a unique offense in the NFL - they can beat you in virtually any fashion. Let's not underestimate the importance of that fact. Again, I'm not making excuses - the defense was bad - but they were put in extraordinarily disadvantageous situations.
Cute offenses could tear us apart
Just as they have in years past, the Bills have struggled with misdirection and play-action plays throughout the pre-season. The most glaring example was on the Rodgers-to-Greg Jennings touchdown strike (on a drive that began at the Bills' 5-yard line). Rodgers took the snap from under center, did essentially half a play-action fake (never extending his arm), then whipped around and fired a strike to Jennings on a quick slant. CB Leodis McKelvin didn't have a chance on the play, but the half-fake was enough to keep LB Kawika Mitchell out of the throwing lane, as he tried to sneak forward on the run fake.
The linebackers are the major issue on fakes and misdirection, at least to my eyes. Paul Posluszny generally reads fakes well and reacts strongly, but Mitchell and Keith Ellison often get caught in the wash or standing like statues as they try to reverse direction quickly. They're not superb athletes. Offensive coordinators have figured that out.
Green Bay ran a lot of cutback runs Saturday night, too, exposing another potential weakness - backside contain in run defense. The defensive line generally does a great job of preventing a push; the Packers countered by moving them sideways. They'd design a run to the right (or left), have their linemen crash to the right (or left), the linebackers would flow in the direction of the play, and a tight end and/or a pulling guard would trap backside. The Bills always have a backside defender in position to make the play (usually Bryan Scott or a nickel back), but that generally happens four to six yards downfield. Watch it for yourselves if you get a chance - this happened quite frequently.
My concerns about the pass rush are minor. For now.
I liked a lot of what I saw out of Aaron Schobel. He looks physical, and though he didn't exactly provide a ton of pressure, he was a handful for LT Chad Clifton on more than one occasion. He can still get it done from time to time. He just needs a running mate - if lines have to actually consider the other end on the field (welcome to Buffalo, Aaron Maybin), the pass rush might be OK.
The entire line looks quite physical - now we just need the athlete. Said athlete starts practice on Monday. I cannot wait to see him on the field next Saturday in Pittsburgh.
I have two minor (for now) concerns, however. The defensive tackles aren't getting the job done in pass rush. They're still one-move-and-done for the most part, and they're generally moved to either side pretty quickly. Counter moves, fellas. Also, Buffalo's blitz packages - while obviously very straightforward and "vanilla" (everyone's favorite buzzword this time of the year, though I prefer "sweet cream base"), never get home. Here's hoping that changes when the games count - the blitz calls certainly will.
None of these topics is worth bigger paragraphs, so here's a quick rundown of the rest of my notes.
- It's a crying shame that Keith Ellison is so limited athletically. I mentioned his getting lost in the wash - he's quick to rectify it, usually, but still a split second late. Ninety percent of the time, he's exactly where he should be. He was the team's best back-side defender in Green Bay. His stuff on fourth and one in the first quarter was a thing of beauty - though it should be mentioned that that play never happens if Kyle Williams doesn't destroy his blocker and create an alley for Ellison to run through.
- I wasn't anywhere near impressed with Bryan Scott on the evening. His run defense wasn't up to his usual standard, and far more troubling, he was torched a couple of times in coverage by second-year TE Jermichael Finley (who is going to be a star in Green Bay). He had a batted ball in the second quarter on a blitz, but that was a bad decision by third-string QB Brian Brohm. I've seen much better out of him.
- Speaking of safeties, they all were pretty terrible. Donte Whitner still doesn't look completely comfortable playing deep in coverage; he has had some nice fills in run support from his free safety position, but looks a little slow to react in coverage. Meanwhile, Scott, Ko Simpson and George Wilson - who aren't in the same league as Whitner athletically - look completely outclassed covering tight ends and slot receivers. I'll watch Jairus Byrd closely later this evening, but boy, it'd be nice to get his athleticism into the lineup sooner rather than later.
- On penalties: most were pretty blatant. Ellison and CB Ellis Lankster both had very obvious, very untimely pass interference penalties. Schobel lined up offsides on one play - a penalty that shouldn't have counted, given that Packers WR Jordy Nelson moved toward the line of scrimmage prior to the snap, which should have been a false start/illegal procedure. Dick Jauron was pretty miffed about that, and got on the refs for it.
All in all, it was sloppy. It's no secret that this Bills defense isn't the type to acquit the offense very often when the offense sets it up to fail. This defense can make plays when they have leads and can get a little undisciplined, but it's not a defense built to carry the team on its shoulders. The offense needs to do its part to make this a dependable defensive unit. That clearly didn't happen in Green Bay.