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Pass defense still a big issue in Buffalo

Drew Brees is coming to town, folks.  The quarterback of the red-hot New Orleans Saints is the NFL's top-rated passer by a wide margin through two weeks.  He's currently completing 75 percent of his passes (51 of 68) at 9.8 yards per attempt (669 total yards), and he's tossed a whopping nine touchdowns in two games.  With just two interceptions, Brees' quarterback rating is a comfortable 132.9 - more than 20 points higher than the league's second-rated passer, Indianapolis' Peyton Manning.

On Sunday, he'll face a Buffalo Bills pass defense that is ranked No. 31 in the NFL.

In many cases, statistics don't tell the whole story.  That's the case with Brees, despite the fact that every bit of praise he's getting right now is deserved, and it's also the case with Buffalo's pass defense.  But the fact of the matter is that, perhaps at this very moment, Brees is sitting at Saints HQ in Louisiana licking his chops at the thought of facing a Bills defense that is currently surrendering 332 passing yards per game.

To say that Bills defensive coordinator Perry Fewell has his work cut out for him this week is perhaps one of the largest understatements one can make this early in the season.  His pass defense needs a lot of work.

First, a bit of perspective
Why have teams been passing with such alarming frequency against the Bills? Tom Brady and Byron Leftwich have thrown 103 passes against this defense through two games, and both hit the 50-pass mark.  True, they were passing because it works - stats do tell part of the truth, after all - but they were passing predominantly because their teams were losing.

Buffalo has only trailed in-game for 55 seconds this season - and I'm fairly certain y'all remember those 55 seconds quite well.  In the remaining 119:05 of action, Buffalo has either been in the lead or tied with their opponent.  Of that 119:05, the Bills have held the outright lead for 100 minutes, 57 seconds - that's a hair over 84 percent of two games that Bills opponents have literally been playing catch-up, and throwing the ball in the attempt.

It's also important to remember that the Bills have been playing short-handed; nickel corner Drayton Florence has yet to see the field, and starter Leodis McKelvin missed over two full quarters with an ankle injury.  Buffalo played the second half against Tampa Bay with just three healthy cornerbacks.  Also, let's not pretend that Bills defenders aren't making plays - the team has intercepted three passes through two games, and more impressively, two of those have been returned for touchdowns.

The stats that don't lie
332 yards per game, however, is unacceptable.  An inability to get off the field and contain short throws prevented Buffalo from putting the Pats away in New England, and a few big plays from Tampa's passing game kept the Bucs alive for far too long as well.  Buffalo has been nearly equally adept at surrendering yardage in the first half (308) as in the second half (366).  All of their interceptions have come in the first half.  Most concerning of all, however, is that Buffalo's defense - along with four other defenses league-wide - has surrendered five touchdowns, second-most in the league behind Detroit's eight.

Buffalo has, however, taken a step or two towards improvement in this area.  In New England, Buffalo struggled mightily to get off the field, allowing the Pats to convert 10 of 16 third down opportunities.  Aided by a whopping 32 blitzes (a Buffalo News figure) against Tampa Bay, that stat dwindled to 4 of 16, and as a result, time of possession was nearly even, even with Buffalo running a no-huddle offense, scoring two quick touchdowns, and getting a defensive touchdown.

Perhaps the biggest improvement, however, is the fact that the Bills stiffened up in the second half from Week 1 to Week 2.  In the second half in New England, Brady completed 26 of 31 throws for two touchdowns in their come-from-behind victory.  After allowing Leftwich two big touchdown throws (along with two picks) in the first half, Buffalo calmed down in the second half, limiting Leftwich to one score on just 13 of 31 passing.  It wasn't perfect, but it was a marked improvement from being utterly dominated.

Problem areas to address
Tight Ends.  Pats tight ends caught 7 passes for 74 yards and two scores, with Ben Watson doing serious damage to the team, particularly at the end of the game.  Bucs tight ends caught 10 passes for 114 yards with two more scores - one each to Kellen Winslow, Jr. and Jerramy Stevens.  Defending tight ends was a strong suit for Buffalo last season, but they're getting torched by them this year.

Pressure variety.  The Bills have just three sacks in two games, but sacks aren't the end-all stat for gauging the amount of pressure a team creates.  Buffalo couldn't generate heat on Brady in the second half, allowing him to carve apart their secondary on three-step drops.  That changed when Fewell decided to blitz Leftwich more than Leftwich himself blitzes a sandwich assembly line.  But variety is the spice of life, Perry.  Most of Buffalo's blitzes came off the edge, with inside blitzes routinely getting stuffed.  More defensive line stunts and a variety of looks are required, particularly when facing a player of Brees' caliber.

Aggression.  Buffalo's secondary is full of tough players.  They're not big or physically imposing, but to a man, they're tough, physical tacklers.  Fewell needs to use those assets.  Far too often, opposing receivers see no press coverage, and I can't recall a single play in which a Bills defender did anything to disrupt a called route.  From Randy Moss to Sammie Stroughter, opposing receivers have been able to run the routes they're supposed to run.  The best friend of a defensive blitz is knowing that the opposing quarterback isn't sure his receiver will be where he's supposed to be.  Fewell showed aggression with his blitz calling; now he needs to let his secondary play aggressively as well, particularly off the snap.