With this my initial contribution to the #BillsMafia, I want to first thank Bills fans for the opportunity. Words cannot describe how special of a group you are. And, one day, your undying loyalty will be rewarded with the greatest moment of triumph that any of us will ever experience.
So I’m guessing the news that came down the pike late on the evening of July 1 put quite the damper on your optimism headed into the 2014 campaign. Already down its highly regarded coordinator and Pro Bowl safety from 2013, the Bills defense lost its top overall linebacker and arguably most popular player. With those losses, it would be crazy to think the defense will be better this season, right?
Well, maybe not.
In no way will I attempt to minimize the contributions of Mike Pettine, Jairus Byrd and Kiko Alonso. Nothing irks me more than when fans respond to the loss of good players and coaches by saying, “They weren’t that good anyway.”
Instead, I am going to point to the changes and additions that will lead to the Buffalo Bills making a significant jump on the defensive side of the ball.
Let’s start at the top – the coordinator. In seven seasons as defensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans, Jim Schwartz produced three top-10 overall rankings and five top-10 run defense rankings. In 2003, Schwartz’s unit led the NFL in rush defense with a front seven very comparable to the 2014 Bills in terms of talent. His defenses weren’t as successful during his time as head coach in Detroit, but I don’t think there are many around the league that consider the Lions defensive talent to have been on par with that of these Bills – especially in the secondary.
Schwartz’s system, however it may be labeled (4-3, wide 9, etc.), has always relied heavily on the front four. And with the services of in their prime players like Jevon Kearse, Albert Haynesworth and Ndamukong Suh, why wouldn’t it?
Fitting for Schwartz, he inherits a front four in Buffalo widely considered one of the best in football with three of its players ranked in the NFL’s Top 100 (Mario Williams – 26, Kyle Williams – 32 and Marcell Dareus – 62).
While the Schwartz-led defense doesn’t project to be as “sexy” as the one coached by Pettine in terms of exotic blitz packages and sacks, it should be significantly better against the run and MUCH LESS susceptive to allowing the big play. In the end, it projects to be better in the only defensive statistical category that truly matters – points allowed.
Next, let’s look specifically at the defensive backfield and how the Bills can succeed without No. 31. I’ll keep it short and sweet here. Aaron Williams is a budding star. He registered 82 tackles with four interceptions last season, and he displayed a major quality that a young Byrd once did for the Red, White and Blue – a nose for the ball. Motivated by his new contract and expanded role, expect Aaron Williams to perform at a Pro Bowl level in 2014. Then partner him with a talented crew at corner (Stephon Gilmore, Leodis McKelvin and Nickell Robey), the hybrid capabilities of free agent signee Corey Graham, and promising players like Duke Williams at the other safety spot, and the Bills secondary should be just fine. I can’t overstate how much a healthy Gilmore is going to make everyone’s job easier this season.
Lastly, we look at linebacker and the “hole” left by the Kiko injury. While No. 50 led the team in tackles, he did begin to break down near the end of the year after consistently taking on opposing linemen on the inside. That led to several big breakdowns, like the run Tampa Bay’s Bobby Rainey ripped off in Week 14. Again, I am not trying to minimize Kiko. He was primed to have a big year from the outside. However, the additions of Brandon Spikes, Keith Rivers and third-round pick Preston Brown were already going to decrease the Bills’ need to rely on Alonso against the run – especially in those 1-on-1 situations like at Tampa Bay. Spikes is widely regarded as one of the NFL’s top ILB in run defense. On top of that, I wouldn’t sleep on Nigel Bradham in the weak side backer role. He has the skillset to cover, and there is a reason PFF listed Bradham as a “Secret Superstar.” In the end, the additions to the LB corps and the change in defensive philosophy were already going to create a situation where the Bills wouldn’t need to rely so heavily on “The Legend” against the run game.
Training camp begins this Sunday, and it will be exciting to watch this defense develop under Schwartz. There is obviously plenty of room to grow for a unit that ranked 21st in points allowed and 23rd against the run. Really, it all comes down to how you define success. For me, I’m going with a simple formula:
Less big plays allowed = Less points allowed = More wins
As always, “BILLieve.”