Flash back to August for a moment. The defense was expected to serve as the primary strength for the Bills in 2012. While question marks lingered at linebacker and in the defensive backfield, the revamped defensive line was expected to be the centerpiece of an elite unit.
Flash forward to week 13 and the Bills defense is still digging out from the bottom portion of the league’s rankings. A rapid descent, perpetuated by 568 rushing yards allowed between week four and five, has turned a perceived strength into a lightning rod for criticism.
The Bills entered the bye with a 3-4 record after allowing no fewer than 35 points in each of their four losses. In fact, the Bills have allowed an average of 36.6 points, 259 passing yards and 170 rushing yards per game in each loss (passing yards calculated with sack yardage). The Bills forced only four turnovers and registered 10 sacks in each of their seven losses.
By comparison, Buffalo has yielded averages of 15.8 points, 187.8 passing yards and 95 rushing yards in each of their five wins. The Bills have 17 sacks and 12 turnovers in those games.
The most glaring statistics are both points and rushing yards allowed. Buffalo’s best showing in both categories came against the Colts (20 points against, 87 rushing yards). They haven’t held an opponent to fewer than 100 yards in any losing effort and only twice has the defense kept the score to three touchdowns or fewer – a fair level to expect the offense to perform at.
Of course, in the losses to Tennessee and at Foxboro, the offense had a pair of late gaffes that could have changed the outcome of each of those games.
One noticeable change for the Bills defense has come after the bye. The immediate returns weren’t fully evident with back-to-back losses to the Texans and Patriots, however even those games began to show some signs of change.
Houston was held to 118 yard rushing while the Patriots rolled up 117, two respectable figures considering that a 115 yard average is in the middle of the pack league-wide for defenses. Not to serve as an apologist for the unit, but there has been a clear improvement since the bye week.
In addition to the games against New England and Houston, the Bills haven’t allowed more than 90 yards in their other three games (60 vs. MIA, 87 vs. IND, 50 vs. JAC). As has been pointed out by Tim Graham, the Bills have been the best in the league against the run over the last few weeks.
Of course, there is some conjecture at hand here as well. Consider this, Buffalo’s best defensive performances have largely been against offenses that rank in the bottom half of the NFL. In fact, Buffalo’s wins have not only came against sub-.500 teams, but below average offenses.
The Chiefs, for example are 29th in passing but 5th in rushing. The Bills were gashed late by the Chiefs after holding their ground game in check until the game was well out of reach. As for the offensive ranks their other stellar defensive games (those under 20 points or 400 yards): Cleveland 20th and 25th; Arizona 27th and 31st; Miami 23rd and 17th; Jacksonville 24th and 32nd. Indianapolis is the only offense in the upper tier of the league (5th and 18th) which Buffalo has performed admirably against.
So which defense is the real Bills defense? Is it the one allowing an average of 36 points or the one that has ground all rushing attacks to a halt in recent weeks? It is likely a little bit of both, but even in recent losses, the defense has played inspired.
Consider that the defense only had three sacks and three turnovers in their four losses prior to the bye. They have seven sacks and a turnover in the three losses after the bye. The turnaround can certainly be credited to a number of things. Mario Williams is healthy, the interior line are disrupting plays and the secondary, as a whole has been better.
With another date with the Dolphins, a reeling Jets team and the Rams, the Bills defense has the opportunity to continue to build on their success. The real test will come north of the border, however. The Seahawks are building positive momentum and have a strong rushing attack. If the Bills faie well in Toronto, maybe this defensive turnaround can be considered as the real deal.
Mario Williams’ wrist procedure has had some impressive results. Since the bye Williams has six sacks, two passes defended and a fumble recovery off his strip sack on Sunday. Willaims hasn’t been alone with his success, however. Kyle Moore and even Shawne Merriman have been able to make plays off the edge for the Bills.
Moore’s coming out party was against Arizona when he was a visible difference maker at defensive end. His first sack came after the bye in Houston and he now has three on the year. Merriman, who didn’t re-sign until week seven, has a sack and a half on the year. The duo have combined for 4.5 sacks since the bye, which combined with Williams’ total, equals 10.5 since week nine.
A few fresh faces in the Buffalo secondary have not only been a breath of fresh air to what was an ailing group. A basic eye test over the first five weeks of the season showed an overmatched group that was often buoyed by Jarius Byrd’s stellar play. As the season has progressed Stephon Gilmore has continued to evolve into a dynamic cover corner and the sudden emergence of Ron Brooks and Da’Norris Searcy may result in the turnover of 50% of the defensive backfield.
Starting with Aaron Williams’ knee injury in Houston the defensive backs began to improve when Leodis McKelvin stepped into a starting role. Brooks experienced a similar experience against Jacksonville and produced well in his debut as a defensive regular. As for Searcy, he has seen more and more playing time at strong safety and he has proven more than capable of producing for the defense. Despite having half of the defensive backfield playing musical chairs, the change has actually proven to be helpful for the unit. When looking at the full landscape of the defensive “turnaround” the improved play in the secondary shouldn’t be discounted.
One thing that can’t be denied is that this defensive unit is still a work in progress. There is certainly a beautiful foundation with players like Mario and Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Moore. Alex Carrington has begun to turn a corner as a productive depth lineman and no one truly knows what Torell Troup will bring if he is ever healthy.
While the defensive backfield is improving, more depth and talent could be used there and the linebacking corps is woefully thin. Finding a difference maker at linebacker is going to need to be a high priority this spring and the potential to even use a first round pick at the position isn’t out of the question. Exactly who is the best fit is anyone’s guess, but don’t be surprised if a free agent and either a first or second round pick are brought in for 2013.