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. With Year 3 under head coach Chan Gailey and veteran player report day at St. John Fisher fast approaching, here is the latest daily installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 24th and Sept. 9th.
It's no secret that putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks has been a major problem for the Bills. Only once in the last five seasons has Buffalo ranked higher than 25th in the league in sacks (2009 – 18th). The 2009 season was also the only time in the last five years that the Bills logged 30 sacks or more (32) as well.
Aaron Schobel was the only defensive lineman on Buffalo's roster over the past decade whose primary talent was his pass rushing ability. That perhaps explains why getting to the quarterback with any kind of regularity has been such a chore for the defense.
Simply put pure pass rushing talent has been anything but plentiful on the Bills roster, allowing opposing offenses to play Buffalo's defensive front straight up in most cases. There really was no pass rushing threat to game plan for over the past two seasons when the Bills finished 27th in the league in sacks both years.
Bills GM Buddy Nix saw a problem that was only going to worsen as offenses continually gravitate toward the passing game. If you don't have a consistent pass rush, it's hard to get off the field, let alone put your offense in a position to be successful themselves.
Nix said he'd be aggressive in free agency this past offseason and he was signing the jewel of the defensive free agent class in Mario Williams. He then supplemented that acquisition with another proven pass rushing talent in Mark Anderson, fresh off a season in New England with 10 sacks as a situational rusher. Add in the surprisingly resurgent looking Shawne Merriman in spring practices and suddenly Buffalo's crop of veteran pass rushers looks very formidable.
But just how productive can the group be when it comes to disrupting and ultimately taking the quarterback to the ground with the ball still in his hands?
"A lot goes into getting sacks," said defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt. "I've been involved with college teams and pro teams that have led the nation and led the league in sacks. A lot has to do with the situation that you're in. Are you playing from behind? Are you playing from ahead? A lot of it has to with the guys rushing the passer.
"A lot has to do with quarterbacks you might face or offensive linemen during the year. We're going to get our share. I think that's going to be an exciting part of our defense. When we do get people in third down you're going to have to block us. We're going to have a chance to put some pressure on you and that's kind of what this defense is all about."
Since taking over as the defensive boss in January, Wannstedt has preached an attacking, up the field style to his charges predicated on winning one-on-one matchups.
Though many believe that Mario Williams will see his share of double teams being the most feared pass rusher in the group, there is more than capable talent all the way across the front that often cannot be blocked one-on-one either.
"Our mentality is up the field," said Williams. "We've got guys inside that can completely stop the run and plug up, but also get up the field pressure to flush them out to us. But then you can get guys around the edge and flush them back to them. When we're all humming and it's 100 percent it's up to us. It's up to us to make plays. It's up to us to get better to make the team better."
Kyle Williams, who is expected to be full go at training camp, and Marcell Dareus each led the team in sacks the past two seasons. Both logged 5.5 sacks in 2010 and 2011 respectively.
To truly make a jump in team production however, there has to be at least one primary pass rusher in double digit territory when it comes to quarterback takedowns. Anderson, Merriman and Mario Williams have all done that more than once in their careers.
Buffalo hasn't had a pass rushing contingent like that since 1995 when Buffalo led the league in sacks with Bryce Paup (17.5), Bruce Smith (10.5), Phil Hansen (10) and Cornelius Bennett (2) accounting for 40 of the team's league-leading 49 sacks.
The key as the current Bills see it will be properly working off of one another.
"Everything is flowing well right now," said Anderson. "We got good work out there in the spring. Everybody was working hard and everybody was doing their assignment. We were just out there clicking and jelling as a team. Just trying to get a feel for each other."
"That's the number one thing I've seen is once you understand the defense and the principle of what we've got going on it's just getting after the ball," said Williams. "Then you can kind of… pre-snap, before the play happens you kind of see things and know what to expect. We get a lot of teaching and a lot of coaching on that and dictating what's about to happen. The biggest thing for us is being able to get off the ball and make things happen."
So what is a realistic number for Buffalo's pass rushers to shoot for in sacks?
Last year's league average was 40.25. Every team in the top five had 45 or more, with Philadelphia and Minnesota tied for the league lead (50).
Knowing Buffalo has games against six of the top eight teams in most sacks allowed, it seems realistic to expect the unit to be in the 45 sack range.
The Bills' new pass rushing contingent knows they're the main reason that there's a buzz about the team finally turning the corner and becoming true contenders. That's why they're committed to the work that lies ahead as well as each other to put the results on the field that has them among the league leaders in sacks.
"Expectations are just what they are, but unless you go out and do it it doesn't mean anything," said Merriman. "That's what we're about. We have to go out and not look on paper and see the guys that we have. We have to go out and be ready and prepare and that's what's going to be the biggest key for us coming up this season. Obviously we have great, talented guys on this team and we're looking to be a lot better than we were in the past."