Pressure Points: Buffalo Bills

After flopping badly in their debut performance, the Kansas City Chiefs proceed to take this show on the road. First whistle stop, upstate New York.

I’ll begin this with some generalizations about the Buffalo Bills, and then get into some of the finer details. Like the Chiefs, the 2011 Bills suffered some key injuries that in large part helped derail what looked to be an otherwise promising season. After a strong start and talk of playoff contention, the Bills literally fell apart on the back nine, going 1-8 down the stretch. The 2011 IR casualties included star running back Fred Jackson, NT Kyle Williams, C Erik Wood, NT Terrell Troup, WR Marcus Easley, slot WR Roscoe Parrish, and pass rushing specialist Shawne Merriman. Reportedly Ryan Fitzpatrick also played out the season with a couple of bad ribs after Week 8, the point after which they went 1-8.

Another generalization about the Bills is that they are led by what is widely considered an average QB in Ryan Fitzpatrick. With the right pieces around him, Fitzpatrick can be an efficient game manager. However the popular opinion is that he is not the kind of QB who can typically put his team on his back and win.  Come to think of it, one might reasonably compare Fitz to . . . nah, too easy.

The Bills ranked 19th in passing offense efficiency for 2011 according to Football Outsiders. Aside from Fitz’ pedestrian skills as a signal caller, the Bills were also pretty limited in receiver talent and depth. As far as running the ball goes, the Bills were 2011’s 8th most efficient rushing offense, again referencing Football Outsiders’ “Defense-adjusted Value Over Average” statistical assessment.

Breaking down the Bills 2011 offense even further, we discover that Football Outsiders ranked their offensive line in the top half of the league in most categories. To wit, they ranked 12th most efficient in overall run blocking and tops overall in pass protection.  In the run game, the Bills OL were seventh best at power running, 14th best at avoiding stuffs, ninth best for second level runs, and second best in open field blocking. Along the lanes and gaps, they came in 10th, 20th, 11th, 30th, and second for runs outside the LE, inside LT, M/G, and RT, and outside RE respectively.

Now for the Bills’ offensive pressure points.

Looking at the offensive skill positions, the Bills feature CJ Spiller in the backfield, Stevie Johnson at WR, and TE Scott Chandler. Beyond those three, there does not appear to be much in the cupboard. Unfortunately for the Bills when they face the Chiefs, they will be lacking the services of their best offensive weapon, RB Fred Jackson, who is out with a right knee injury. Jackson is expected to miss the first 3 weeks of the season.

If things weren’t already bad enough, #2 WR David Nelson is on IR after tearing his ACL in the game against the Jets; #1 WR Johnson, hampered by a lingering groin injury, is listed as probable against the Chiefs.

Three words come to mind in characterizing the current state of the Bills’ offensive firepower: Thin, thin, and thin. Short translation, to make this thing go, it will largely be upon Ryan Fitzpatrick to transform himself from a game manager into a field general. That, in turn, begs the question, does Fitz have enough other pieces around him to facilitate said transformation?

The situation in the trenches can be sized up as follows  – extremely solid on the interior but a little suspect at the edges. For example, at left tackle, formerly manned by Demetress Bell, is now the job of rookie Cordy Glenn while the right tackle spot continues to be occupied by veteran Erik Pears. It seems also worth noting that in spite of the fact that Fitzpatrick apparently enjoyed the best pass protection in the league last season, the Bills could only muster a 19th ranking in passing efficiency. That seems to suggest either an indictment of Fitz’ skills as a passer or a lack of quality receivers. Maybe both?

Verdict on the OL – Ryan Fitzpatrick’s blind side protection will and should be tested often this season. Going back to an earlier point, the Bills struggled on runs through the right B gap. That perhaps suggests that Pears, while effective at sealing off the end, and protecting against edge rushers, is nevertheless susceptible to getting overwhelmed with activity that goes inside, to his left. In other words, that right B gap seems like it might be a soft spot for, say, DJ or a safety blitz to make a sack or TFL.

Now for the defensive side of the ball. In 2011, the Bills struggled in just about every facet of defense. Football Outsiders ranked them 28th in efficiency defensing the run and 25th in pass rushing efficiency. Matchups with specific receivers had them 22nd against #1 WRs, 29th against #2 WRs, 1st against “other WRs,” 22nd against TEs, and 20th against RBs.

Much of the 2011 Bills’ struggles in defensing  the pass can be attributed their lack of a pass rush. The Bills clearly recognized this flaw during the offseason, got serious about it, and acquired two DEs in free agency, Mario Williams and Mark Anderson.  One would expect that the Williams acquisition alone should pay immediate dividends in this department.

Football Outsiders ranked 2011 Bills DL 28th overall against the run. At the granular level, they were 14th in efficiency against power running, 32nd in stuffs, 21st in defending at the 2nd level, and 24th against open field rushing.

The return of NT Kyle Williams ought to also be a big boost to the Bills defense, both in stopping the run, and in helping to facilitate a better pass rush. DT Marcell Dareus will be in his second year and can be expected to elevate his game as well. Generally speaking, 2012 should see a much improved defensive line for the Bills.

Other than WLB Kevin Barnett, the Bills the linebacking corps appears to be kind of a work in progress, with SLB Arthur Moats in his 3rd year, and MLB Kelvin Sheppard in his second year.

It is difficult to fairly assess the Bills secondary in light of the defense’s general inability to get the passer last season, but they should, at the very worst, be considered at least average (but also inexperienced, yet possibly improving).  For instance, I would consider Jairus Byrd as among the better safeties in the league. Byrd’s counterpart, George Wilson, on the other hand, seems to me to be a bit suspect.

To shore themselves up at corner, the Bills used their first draft pick on Stephon Gilmore, who has been given a starting role (also noting here that he got roundly schooled by the Jets last Sunday). Playing opposite Gilmore is second-year man Aaron Williams. Like I said, inexperienced but presumably improving. What the Bills do possess in their secondary is quality veteran depth in the likes of Leodis McKelvin and Terrence McGee.

It will be particularly interesting to see to what extent the Bills’ offseason acquisitions — pass rushers Williams and Anderson, along with the return of Kyle Williams — improve this unit over what we saw last season.

Lastly, the Bills ranked 24th in special teams efficiency.

To recap their weaknesses, I tend to view the Bills offense as somewhat lacking in necessary QB skills, thin with firepower, and very suspect at the left tackle position. On defense, the Bills corners are inexperienced but have good depth behind them, they are suspect at SS, their LBs are for the most part young but improving, and their defensive line is stout (on paper at least). What remains to be seen is whether the Bills combination of youthful talent among their backers and secondary combined with veteran talent and skills along the DL will gel into a more formadible unit than the product the Bills showed in 2011?

Addicts, put on your offensive and defensive coordinator caps and let us hear your gameplan for this Sunday in Buffalo.

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