During the 2013 season, the Buffalo Bills ran the football more than any team in the NFL, and the Chicago Bears were significantly worse than every other team in the league at stopping it. During the offseason, the Bears tried to rectify their biggest weakness, while the Bills attempted to become more efficient at their obvious offensive strength.
The result of those efforts: a Bills offensive line that now features three new starters (one that was with the team last year in a new spot), and a Bears defensive line that has been overhauled nearly in full. Those two groups will be in the midst of a battle of wills when the Bills take on the Bears this Sunday in Chicago.
Chicago's moves were especially noteworthy. Julius Peppers was allowed to leave in free agency, and the Bears then went out and signed three defensive ends: Lamarr Houston, formerly of Oakland (five years, $35 million); Willie Young, a Jim Schwartz product in Detroit (three years, $9 million); and, most notably, feared sack artist Jared Allen (four years, $32 million).
Allen has recorded at least 11 sacks in each of the last seven seasons. Young didn't put up big numbers under Schwartz, but brought consistent pressure for Schwartz in 2013. Houston is more of a base end, excellent against the run and light enough on his feet to be a factor against the pass. It's a deep, talented group with a good mix of skills.
Jeremiah Ratliff (formerly known as Jay) and a healthy Stephen Paea return as the starting defensive tackles, and the Bears spent early-round picks on Ego Ferguson of LSU and Will Sutton of Arizona State to provide talented depth. Chicago did not lack talent on the defensive line last year - most of their issues stemmed from injuries - but suddenly, they have the potential of fielding one of the more productive defensive lines in the league.
Cordy Glenn (left tackle) and Eric Wood (center) are the only two starting Bills offensive linemen that return in the roles they held in 2013. Erik Pears, who has been the Bills' starting right tackle since 2011, was moved inside to right guard in the last two weeks of the preseason to make way in the lineup for rookie right tackle Seantrel Henderson, who quickly earned head coach Doug Marrone's trust after a strong preseason.
The Bills also moved quickly in free agency to sign left guard Chris Williams to a four-year, $13 million contract in March. Williams, a former first-round draft pick of the Bears, left Chicago after parts of five years, in which the Bears had one of the worst offensive lines in football. The Williams signing has been questioned, repeatedly, by reporters and fans alike in the nearly six months since it occurred, but Marrone thinks highly enough of Williams' talents that he's kept him with the ones ahead of another guard he's high on, rookie Cyril Richardson.
Buffalo finished second in the NFL in rushing yards per game in 2013, while leading the league in rushing attempts (though finishing in the middle of the pack when it came to per-carry average). The Bears, meanwhile, allowed a whopping 161 rushing yards per game, gave up over 150 in seven of their final nine contests, and their 5.3 yards per carry allowed figure was a full half-yard worse than the second-worst run defense in the league (Atlanta).
Chicago knows the Bills are going to try to run the football on Sunday, and the Bills know that Chicago knows that - and that they've taken measures to improve in that area. Who do you think wins this particular battle on Sunday?