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Midseason: Offense, special teams steady; Defense must improve

Posted Oct 24, 2012


The expectations coming into this season were high. With a roster that saw proven veteran free agent talent added on defense along with a cornerback taken in the top 10 in the draft, and a new left tackle for an offense, it was anticipated the Bills would take a sizable step forward. Through seven games the team is 3-4.

There are several statistics on offense, defense and special teams through the first seven outings this season that are similar and in contrast to the first seven games of 2011. We examine the major categories for all three phases to see where Buffalo sits a season later.

Offense
First, the good news. Buffalo’s offense still runs the ball very well. In fact even though Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller both sustained injuries and neither were 100 percent healthy for the better part of the past month, the Bills are still averaging 10 more rushing yards per game (150.3) than they were at this time last season (140.6). Last year at this time Buffalo ranked fifth in the league in rushing. This year they rank fourth.

“We are running the ball better this year in my opinion. We’re running it for more yards,” said head coach Chan Gailey.

Buffalo’s offensive line is a big reason why as they’ve relied on their inside zone run game for positive yardage. With Jackson battling his way back to 100 percent from a Week 1 knee injury Spiller has carried most of the load thus far with 523 of the team’s 1,052 rushing yards on the season. But this past week in the loss to the Titans, with both backs healthy, Gailey was able to strike a solid balance between the talented duo.

“For them to touch it 35 times between them and about four or five other times we tried to get the ball to Fred on some throws and we didn’t connect on them, but if we can let them touch it between 30 and 40 times a game I think that’s pretty good for us,” Gailey said.

The passing game hasn’t been quite as productive through the first seven games this season. Averaging less than 200 yards per game (198.7) Buffalo ranks 30th in passing. Last year they ranked 13th and were putting up over 40 yards more through the air per game. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick put the lesser production squarely on his shoulders.

“I haven’t had a good year, and it’s been for a number of reasons,” said Fitzpatrick. “It’s something that you just have to continue to work at.  It’s a disappointment, nobody expected us to be 3-4.”

Fitzpatrick’s completion percentage (61%) is about six percent below what it was at this time last year (67.7%). On the plus side the team is performing a bit better on third downs converting at better than 42 percent (42.4%) almost one percent higher than this time in 2011 (41.6%). Fitzpatrick is also still one of the lesser sacked quarterbacks in the league as the team ranks third in fewest sacks allowed with eight.

Gailey maintains the need to pass has been lessened by the added production on the ground.

“We’re running it better so we haven’t had to rely on the pass as much,” said Gailey. “All of that goes together.”

Knowing how Buffalo’s offense came flying out of the gate last season, it was going to be hard to match their 30.1 points per game average through the first seven games. Still, the Bills stand 14th in scoring at a very respectable 24.4 points per game.

Defense
The Bills defense on paper looked poised to show decided improvement this season after a difficult 2011. Through seven games however, the unit has found it hard to maximize their potential.

After seven games last season the defense ranked 26th overall, 20th against the run, but 14th in third down defense and 12th in points allowed per game. All those numbers have slipped through the first seven games this season with rankings near or at the bottom of the league.

“I wouldn’t have believed it in a million years,” said Chris Kelsay of their play on defense thus far. “I don’t think anybody would have around here. That’s why it’s so frustrating and there is no excuse for it.”

“The inconsistency has been the most frustrating thing for all of us,” said defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt. “We came out of preseason feeling good. There was a transition with new players and a new system and got into the season and felt good even into halftime of the New England game.

“It doesn’t take much to lose confidence in this league as an individual, as a group as a team. You can get your confidence back just as fast, and you don’t get your confidence back on Sunday. To me you get your confidence back on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. You’re going in to take the exam on Sunday and the more prepared we are, the more confident we are the better we will play on Sunday.”

Gailey sees consistent execution as the biggest problem particularly with respect to the run defense.

“Being consistent with everybody being where they’re supposed to be when they’re supposed to be there,” said Gailey. “That’s the key to the whole thing. You walk out on our practice field guys are working hard. To me I watch the film, everybody is playing hard. But you’ve got to do more. When you’re losing you’ve got to do more.”

Buffalo’s head coach believes it’s the big plays that are hurting their defense the most. Last week’s 83-yard touchdown run by Chris Johnson is the latest example.

“We’ll stop the same play twice and the third time it gets out of there,” he said. “I think there were four runs last Sunday that accounted for about 140 yards of the 190 yards rushing. The thing about it is it’s like a Jekyll and Hyde situation where we either play really good or don’t play well at all. We’ve got to sit down and evaluate.”

“We just need to re-focus and stress consistency,” said Kelsay. “We’ve played really well at times and we’ve played really, really poorly a lot of the time. It’s more what we’re not doing than what other teams are doing to us.”

Special teams
While the in-season change made at the punter position is what has grabbed the most attention outside the walls of One Bills Drive, on the whole Buffalo’s special teams have fared pretty well through the first seven games this season.

Last year at this time Buffalo’s punt and kick return units ranked 26th and 31st respectively. This year they’re both tops in the league through the first seven games. Leodis McKelvin is leading the league in punt return average with a gaudy 24-yard mark, almost 10 yards better than his next closest pursuer. He’s also third in the league in kick return average (32) behind only Baltimore’s Jacoby Jones and Minnesota’s Percy Harvin.

“I think he is an extremely talented returner,” said Gailey of McKelvin. “He’s got a chance to take every ball, whether it’s a kickoff or a punt, he’s got a chance to take it all the way as we saw already this season. Our guys will keep working because when they know he’s back there, they are working extremely hard to block and to do their assignments. It takes everybody. One guy can’t do it.”  

“He’s an explosive player and we know that if we make our blocks he’ll make a big play for us,” said White. “It’s definitely exciting when we see him out there. We just need to keep it going and see how far we can get with it.”

Brad Smith only added to Buffalo’s kick return average with an 89-yard return for a score last week.

On the coverage end Buffalo has slipped a bit ranking 30th in punt coverage down from last year after seven games (23rd). Their kick coverage is respectable at 14th in the league, but they were hoping for better with a kickoff specialist in John Potter. Last year at this time they were fourth in the NFL.

Conclusion
With nine games to play it appears that Fitzpatrick’s game is pulling even with the rest of the offense after his best outing of the season against Tennessee, save for the late INT, and the run game looks ready to bust loose.

Special teams has made their contributions felt in the return game and will strive to yield less in coverage.

And the defense knows the onus is on them to deliver a better second half of the season if the Bills are to make a run down the stretch.

“It’s been a tough pill to swallow, but the season’s not over,” said Marcell Dareus. “We’ve still got games, and we still can turn this team around.”