Bills defense searching for its true identity
ORCHARD PARK, NY – It may seem like eons ago at this point, but in truth, it was just 11 days ago that the Bills were sitting pretty at 5-2 and looking poised to make their first playoff appearance since 1999. Sean McDermott’s process looked well ahead of schedule, with a stifling defense that held teams to about 16 points per game and forced turnovers at an alarming rate.
Back then the Bills had a +14 turnover differential, they were sound tacklers and forced teams to kick field goals when they crossed into the red zone. But those same tendencies that were Buffalo’s bread and butter on defense through the first seven games of the season have abruptly taken a turn for the worse.
In back-to-back blowout losses to the Jets and the Saints, Buffalo’s defense has forced just one turnover, been trampled for 429 rushing yards courtesy of some poor tackling, and allowed touchdowns on eight of their opponents’ 11 trips into the red zone.
“It’s embarrassing,” linebacker Preston Brown said after Sunday’s loss to New Orleans. “I looked up in the third quarter and saw they had 262 rushing yards; it’s not us.”
Just this past week, Brown was reiterating a mantra the Bills defense has had all season: they simply don’t care about yards if they’re keeping teams off the scoreboard. That exact philosophy failed them in Week 10, as the Saints accompanied their 298 total rushing yards with six rushing touchdowns in an absolute massacre of the Bills.
They were constantly a step ahead of Buffalo, who adjusted to a heavy dose of up the middle runs from Mark Ingram in the first half by loading the box, only to see the Saints transition to getting rookie Alvin Kamara going on the edges.
“It’s concerning,” Micah Hyde said. “Obviously we didn’t come out with the energy that we’re used to playing with. Simple as that. You can call it concerning cause it’s not our brand of football. It’s disappointing; we understand that. It’s embarrassing to go out there and put that on film.”
Now, as Buffalo crosses the midway point of the season, the defense is in a serious identity crisis and even the players can’t figure out where it went.
“I don’t know, I mean, I couldn’t tell you,” veteran Lorenzo Alexander said, shrugging when asked what’s changed. “It just comes down to not executing. The first half of the season we tackled well and now we’re not tackling well. Whether it’s being slightly out of your gap and having to reach for the tackle versus having a frontal tackle and be able to wrap up and at least hold him up until guys get to him. It’s a game of inches and when you’re dealing with some good backs and you’re off just by a little bit, they’re gonna find a crease and just run through some arm tackles.”
Alexander wasn’t the only defender to mention gap responsibility as an issue.
“People gotta stay in their gap and you gotta want to stay in your gap,” Brown echoed. “You gotta man up and just say ‘they’re not running in my gap’. [That goes for] everybody across the board: me, other linebackers, d-line, corners, everybody. We gotta play better or it’s gonna continue to happen.”
Curiously, these consecutive defensive duds have come after the Bills traded away run-stuffing defensive tackle Marcell Dareus. His 300-pound frame was often good for clogging multiple gaps at once, which in turn made life easier for Brown and company at the next level of the defense. Even McDermott admitted their issues on defense begin in the trenches.
“It starts up front,” the first-year head coach said. “We’ve got to win at the line of scrimmage. That’s where this game is won, up front. We’ve got to do a better job there.”
“There’s technique, fundamentals, it’s always a combination of that, he added. “Effort. I thought the effort was there. The guys prepared all week long just like they have in the past.
“Hand violence up front in order to stay in your gap. The gap integrity, I’ve mentioned to you guys before. We’re getting knocked out of our gaps and then we’re not fitting the run all the time the way we need to. That’s where it starts is at the line of scrimmage.”
Then again, Dareus saw his snap count decrease dramatically this season before he was traded a few weeks back. Not only that, but the Bills also beat Denver back in Week 3 while Dareus was sidelined with an injury, so they were winning with minimal contributions from the former first-round pick.
Ultimately, the franchise is probably better off without Dareus, but these recent struggles on defense will leave fans questioning his getting traded.
For the Bills franchise though, there is no looking back. The defense needs to sort out this identity crisis all on its own, and fast.
Can they get back to being the ball-hawking, fundamentally sound, bend-but-don’t-break unit that they were for much of the first half of the season? Or is their real identity that of the missed tackle factory we’ve seen in back-to-back ugly losses?
“This is not easy to take,” McDermott stated. “Not an easy pill to swallow, especially at home. Our fans deserve more and so we go back hard to work to give them more. We’re building and we’ve got to continue to be honest with ourselves when we look at the tape. Like I said before, we got outcoached. That starts with me and we got outplayed.”
The process has officially hit its first major speed bump. This Bills team has been praised quite a bit for their resiliency after some stunning trades and frustrating injuries that have thrown a wrench into their plans. Their response to this latest adversity will be the ultimate test of McDermott’s new culture here in Buffalo.