Buffalo's defense made a wealth of improvements in their play last season, but there was one glaring problem that coordinator Perry Fewell saw right away. A lack of big plays.
In 2008 Buffalo tied a franchise low in interceptions (10), managed just 10 fumble recoveries and ranked 27th in the league in takeaway-giveaway margin at minus-8. The Bills also had their lowest sack total since 1979 with just 24 last year.
"We did not have a lot of sacks and we had some pressures and we had a lot of balls on the turf that we did not capture," Fewell said. "We did not take advantage of that opportunity to get the ball. That's definitely going to be an emphasis for us."
Emphasizing it and having the talented players to make it happen however, are two different things. Fewell recognizes this.
"I've said often times to my staff in the offseason that we need more playmakers on our defense," he said. "When the ball is in the air or on the turf do we have a person that creates turnovers for us to put us in a better position?"
Fewell is hoping it's been added via the draft or a young veteran is ready to blossom this fall. Either way the takeaway numbers have to increase sharply if Buffalo is to contend for a playoff berth in 2009.
So who are the possible candidates that could emerge this season and make a big difference in the big play category?
Entering the draft Fewell made no secret of his desire to add a pass rusher and a takeaway artist.
"When we look at different players (we ask), can we add a person that will help us make more plays," said Fewell prior to last April's draft. "Hopefully we can increase our production in sacks as well as turnovers."
Buffalo's coaching staff believes they've done that on both fronts with the selection of rookies Aaron Maybin and Jairus Byrd.
Maybin's pedigree is well documented. Lightning quick first step, relentless pursuit, still on the ascent. And though he may not be a starter right away he presents one-on-one matchup problems for pass protectors.
If Maybin can manage just a half dozen or more sacks and 15-20 quarterback pressures this season opposite established playmaker Aaron Schobel, the top pick could provide a one-two pass rush combination not seen since Bruce Smith and Bryce Paup were coming off opposite sides.
Meanwhile Byrd enters the fray an astute anticipator. While transitioning to free safety will be an adjustment, it's a wise move by the staff. They're trying to find the centerfielder that will make more plays on the ball after no safety on the roster recorded an interception last season.
With 17 interceptions and 53 pass breakups in three years as a corner at Oregon, not having coverage responsibilities nearly as demanding at safety will give the instinctive defensive back more latitude to make plays on the ball.
"I think I see why they want me back there," said Byrd. "In light of my takeaway ability I think I can learn the defense and where I need to be, and I'm a smart cerebral player so I think I can help the team in that aspect."
But to be a playmaker you have to be playing, and for Byrd that's far from a lock. The rookie will be battling veterans Donte Whitner and Ko Simpson for a possible starting role at free safety. Nevertheless the potential is there.
A better bet for making more plays on the ball in 2009 is Leodis McKelvin. Set to assume the starting right cornerback position vacated by Jabari Greer, McKelvin is a more confident player. That should translate into faster reactions to the ball and more interceptions.
"Being able to know my assignment and put myself in the right spots (is valuable)," said McKelvin. "I just want to showcase my talent for what they picked me for. Showcase that I can make plays and that I can come in at a starting spot and do my job."
McKelvin was tied for second on the team in interceptions last season and second in defensive touchdowns thanks to his interception return against Kansas City.
With more time on the field as a presumed starter, more comfort with the defensive system and more familiar with a good number of opponents in the league, McKelvin figures to make a leap in the big play department as an NFL sophomore.
Another likely candidate to take a step forward in the playmaking department defensively is Buffalo's middle linebacker. Paul Posluszny is already adept at finding the ball, but to this point it's been mainly as a tackler, not a takeaway artist.
Posluszny led the team in tackles last season with 129. He also showed signs that he's capable of making more game changing plays as he stood fourth on the team in pass breakups while contributing an interception, forced fumble and fumble recovery.
With 2008 essentially his rookie season after playing just two and a half games in 2007, Posluszny wants more.
"It seemed in a lot of instances I was always just a half a step away or if I took a wrong step in one direction that was the difference between making a play and not," said Posluszny. "After so many games last season I felt like I learned so much where I said I wish I knew this before the game started. There were so many circumstances where I felt I was much better off after a game just from going through all the experiences and playing each game. It will come."
And the Bills are hoping it comes this season, preferably from all four of the players mentioned above.