Every summer leading up to training camp Buffalobills.com asks 25 of the most pressing questions facing the team as they make their final preparations for the upcoming regular season. This year we want your opinion on what the most likely answers to these questions will be. After reading each daily installment as the Bills get set for Year 1 under head coach Doug Marrone, go to the Bills daily fan poll leading up to report day at training camp and vote. You could be eligible to win tickets to night practice. Here is the latest daily installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 28th and the Sept. 8th home opener.
It was expected to be significantly better in 2012. Armed with an influx of free agent talent, a healthy Kyle Williams, and Marcell Dareus no longer a rookie, Buffalo's run defense was expected to take a noticeable jump up from their ranking of 28th in rushing yards per game and 28th in yards per carry from 2011. Unfortunately Mario Williams and Mark Anderson both dealt with injuries, Dareus dealt with a personal tragedy and Kyle Williams fought through his second Achilles problem in as many seasons.
The result was Buffalo's run defense got worse instead of better slipping to 31st in the league allowing better than 145 rushing yards a game (145.8).
Close to half of the run plays executed against Buffalo's run defense went for four yards or more (46.4%) good for 31st in the NFL. They were last in the league in opponent rushing plays of 10 yards or more allowing 73. The league average was 42.
New defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has quality talent on his defensive line, and he'll need to lean on it to get Buffalo's run defense back to a respectable level. In his four years as the Jets defensive coordinator Pettine's unit ranked seventh, fourth, 14th and 26th in run defense.
"We had our own issues in New York stopping the run as well last year," Pettine said. "All you had to do was watch C.J. Spiller go up and down the field on us twice last year. It's something that we're going to pride ourselves on here. Even though this has become a pass first league I still think you have to stop the run and force teams to be one-dimensional so you can focus on the pass rush and the coverage. That's going to be a big part of building the foundation here, stopping the run."
Bills defensive line coach Anthony Weaver has executed the scheme as a player and coached it under Pettine. He's convinced the scheme will succeed if players are committed to being technically sound.
"Just with my involvement in this scheme, four years as a player and second as a coach we've hardly ever given up the run," said Weaver. "Now we did against C.J. Spiller and thank God he's on our side now. But that's what I preach every day. I'm really preaching run fundamentals. I know these guys are talented enough to get after the passer. I know they'll do that. So what I've been stressing since the day I've been here is run fundamentals. And we've progressed so much since day one."
Mario Williams, who played with Weaver in Houston, isn't surprised by the emphasis on the techniques for successful run defense.
"Coach Weave when I played with him he was a technician. He's always been a technician," said Williams. "So whenever we come out and do individual position work it's all fundamentals and technique. When we go rapid fire and we're a little tired he's still harping on technique and fundamentals. He always emphasizes going to that to bring you back when you're tired or having some adversity. That's what he speaks about, technique and finishing."
Pettine believes so strongly in technique. He's convinced it can make up for lack of numbers in the front at times.
"You could be in what people would perceive as light-spacing, have a lot of guys dedicated towards coverage, but if you're playing with great technique up front, you can make up for that—maybe steal an extra half a man defending a run," said Pettine. "And then also schematically, you can do some things where you can get yourself in some heavier runs and some heavier boxes, and get safeties rotated down, and account for the run schematically. But we always felt that it all starts with the fundamental part of it. It doesn't matter what the call is."
The second requirement that Pettine demands is an inherent desire to stop an opponent's ground game.
"If we don't have the right mentality to stop the run then we're never going to do it," he said. "We could have the greatest call in the world, the best playbook, but if our guys didn't know how to get off on the count, knock back offensive lineman, and a big part for us to get off the block because you're going to get blocked.
"Teams are smart enough. You're not going to have free runners in the run game usually. Everbody is going to be blocked at the point of attack. The critical thing for us is how quickly do we get off blocks? We're going to get knocked down sometimes—how quickly do we get back up? We're going to be engaged, we're going to get held—how quickly can we disengage from the block? I think that was a big point of emphasis for our guys during the spring. And I think our staff has done a good job coaching it."
Pettine's scheme is known as an aggressive one in all facets. Often aggressiveness can lead to over pursuit on run plays at times, but Williams doesn't believe the scheme allows players to fall victim to that. That's why he's confident Buffalo's run defense will be a lot more consistent in 2013 and take a significant step forward this fall.
"It's just all about the angles," he said. "As long as we're smart and get our pre-snap reads and get our information early and pick up on it and communicate it across the board, which is what we've been harping on, I think we can be aggressive and fast and still be able to adjust. "Pre-snap reads are huge in this league and if we can pick up on those from our opponent I think it will give us an advantage."