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.
The descriptions of Buffalo's new defensive scheme under coordinator Mike Pettine have included words like attack, aggressive and relentless. While those words apply to the Bills defense as a whole, fans are hoping to see evidence of that approach with the team's pass rush.
"That will be our mentality," Pettine told Buffalobills.com. "We want to intimidate. I know some things have been made of that recently, but we're going to walk that line. We'll never be a dirty group, but we want to intimidate. We want to be physical, we want to knock people down and not help them up. I think that's the approach you have to take. That's something we're not going to shy away from. We want to be the toughest defense in the NFL."
Strong words from Buffalo's defensive coordinator, but it's clear a seismic shift in thinking and approach will be made on that side of the ball for the Bills. The question is will that aggressiveness maximize the potential of Buffalo's talented pass rushers and vault the defense into the upper echelon of NFL pass pressure clubs?
Over the last three years, teams that have finished in the top 10 in sacks have averaged 44.1, 45.2 and 45.1 sacks per season. Only four NFL clubs have made more than one appearance in the top five over that three-year span (NY Giants, Cincinnati, Green Bay, Minnesota).
While a team has to have over 40 sacks in a season to compete for a top 10 ranking, Pettine doesn't set a sack target for his defense.
"Never have," said Pettine. "I think what has happened with defenses, I've never been one to consider high sack totals a positive stat. Wins first and foremost, to me it's wins and points. I'm not even a big fan of the way the NFL ranks defenses, I always thought it should be some type of index that takes into account takeaways and points and those type of things."
Pettine knows that a team's sack total can often get inflated by a number of factors. A team like the Giants, for example, have been among the higher scoring teams in football. More sacks are likely when your team is playing ahead on the scoreboard knowing your opponent is passing more.
In fact Buffalo's defensive boss believes an attacking-style defense like his can miss out on sacks.
"Sacks, to me, have always been a little bit elusive when you're a pressure defense," he said. "I think the ball tends to come out a little bit sooner. We've actually timed it, gone to the tape and timed it and we've always felt the ball came out on average a little bit quicker against us than it did against a lot of other teams, just because of the perceived threat of the pressure."
As Pettine sees it teams coming into the game knowing their quarterback is going to get hit so they go in with a game plan of getting the ball out quickly.
"That's why I've never got wrapped up in the actual sack totals. To me, what's more important, is how much did we affect the quarterback this game? One of the first times we ever went up against New England when I was in New York, the first game of the 2009 season, I think we pressured Tom Brady over 20-times—physically, got a hand on him, knocked him down, whatever it was, over 20-times. We never got a sack."
But Pettine was satisfied with the results because it was a game where Brady was constantly under pressure and it affected him late in the game. The Jets won that game 16-9, marking the first time in almost three years that that Patriots had not reached the end zone in a game.
"That's what we're looking for, how much did we affect the quarterback in his decision making, in his willingness to take a hit for his team," said Pettine. "Teams can avoid sacks. Again, we don't pin a lot on that actual number."
Pettine's defenses with the Jets the past three seasons logged 40, 35 and 30 sacks. Meanwhile Buffalo's sack totals over that same span has increased from 27 to 29 followed by 36 sacks last season.
Mario Williams was responsible for almost 30 percent of that total posting 10.5 sacks in an injury-riddled 2012 campaign. Pettine believes Williams can be a linchpin for Buffalo's pass rush, but doesn't want to give opponents the opportunity to neutralize the pass rusher's talents.
"He's a guy who can cause some problems for an offense as far as where he's aligned," said Pettine. "I think he's special enough that teams have to account for where he is. So we don't want to do offenses a favor by putting him in the same spot all the time, where they can gear a formation the same way, or put a tight end in a certain place or offset a back in a certain place knowing that they could help.
"We want to get teams in a situation where, maybe it's a rule breaker for them, or they're going to have to sacrifice having him one-on-one with a tight end or having him one on one with a back. He's a guy I think it will be in our best interests to have him move around, where we can find a weak link that we can get him matched up on."
Coming off a season in which Buffalo's defense was largely predictable in terms of fronts and alignments, the players are excited about how much Pettine's defense morphs and changes.
"There are so many things that we can do that regardless of what we're seeing we can make an adjustment for it," said Mario Williams. "It's one of those things where we don't have to go draw it up in the dirt because we've got things for every formation and every personnel grouping. We'll tweak some things I'm sure as we go through the season and the opponents change, but it's definitely looking pretty good right now."
"There are a lot of things going on," said Kyle Williams. "We're learning a lot of multiple positions. We're going to be doing a lot of different things. We have to make sure everybody knows what we're doing because there are a lot of moving parts. But if you look at the track record of the defense that's kind of what it takes. So I'm excited about it."
In the end the Bills might not be one of the top teams in sacks in 2013, but if an intimidating and aggressive identity is forged and pass pressure is consistent it'll be more than enough to vault Buffalo's defense up among the more successful ones in the league, sacks or not.
"The biggest thing is just showing what our mentality is and what we're going to be doing," said Mario Williams. "We're not going to be sitting back waiting for anything to happen. We're going to make the offense play off of us and I think that's the biggest thing that we're focused on right now."