Finishing tied for 28th in sacks in 2008 is all that Buffalo's defense needed to know when it came to identifying areas of improvement for 2009. Bills head coach Dick Jauron doesn't make sacks the end all, be all statistic, but he doesn't deny their totals in that category need to be better than they were a year ago.
"We need it to improve," said Jauron. "Pressure is the big thing and sacks are not, but generally they're related. If you're getting a lot of pressure then you're usually getting a lot of sacks so we've got to improve ourselves in both of those areas."
Knowing consistent pressure often leads to takeaway opportunities for a defense as well, the lack of pressure generated by Buffalo last season led to just 10 interceptions tying a franchise low.
"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," said defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. "We did not take advantage of that opportunity to get the ball. That's definitely going to be an emphasis for us. Hopefully we can increase our production in sacks as well as turnovers."
The Bills know that pressure up front is the key to improving the takeaway numbers in the back, and minus-8 in turnover ratio, as was the case last year, won't get it done.
But Buffalo has three important pieces for their defensive puzzle this season to help revitalize a pass rush that often needed to bring five and six to develop consistent pressure last year.
Aaron MaybinThe Bills top draft pick was a direct answer to the pass rush problem. Knowing sacks have been hard to come by over the past two seasons, even when Aaron Schobel was healthy in 2007, Buffalo's brass felt it was necessary to get a premier pass rushing talent to improve their ability to get to the quarterback.
"We talked about it at the conclusion of the season," said Bills COO/GM Russ Brandon. "We have to make the quarterback uncomfortable and (Maybin) gives us an opportunity to do that with the rotation that we run and the athletes that we have we feel we've upgraded."
Maybin is a pass rusher blessed with rare physical skills and is only beginning to scratch the surface of his potential after 12 sacks at Penn State last season.
"He's got long arms and a nice reach and he's got that quick first step," said Jauron. "We think he's got the ability to edge and turn toward the quarterback and reach and get to the ball and we like that."
Having just turned 21 last April, however, Maybin still has not fully filled out his 6'4" frame physically. That is certain to come in time, but it could prevent him from being a three down player as a rookie.
Buffalo's staff remains confident that even as a situational player Maybin can make a big difference in the team's pass rush fortunes.
"We were looking for a different type of talent," said Fewell of the team's plans going into the draft, "One that could put some more pressure on the quarterback in a third down situation. He didn't have to be a full time starter necessarily, but if he could give us (help) in long yardage situations or passing down situations to increase our pass rush, that worked for us. Football right now is so much situational. It's a situational game."
Jauron, who was obviously in agreement with this approach to the draft, does caution that no one should sell Maybin short.
"We know that he can come off the edge. We know that he plays the run well," said Jauron. "When you try to base him with a tight end he does a terrific job. He's not a giant right now, but our defensive ends are not giants. I would say he'll come in and he'll compete and we'll see where he fits, but we drafted him for a reason."
Despite being the team's top pick and viewed as the primary answer to Buffalo's insufficient pass rush, Maybin has tried to remain a humble rookie.
"The pieces of the puzzle are really here and I just want to be able to come in and contribute," he said. "All the tools are here from what I can see and everybody is working hard and I just want to be a part of that and bring whatever skill set that I have to help the franchise win football games."
As long as Maybin can force opponents to take some of their attention away from Aaron Schobel, and tally a half dozen sacks with 12-15 quarterback hurries in the process it will be a relatively successful rookie season.
Aaron SchobelIt would be foolish for anyone not to attribute at least part of Buffalo's low sack total last season to the absence of Aaron Schobel for the final 11 games of the season. In the first four games of 2008 with Schobel in the lineup the Bills racked up 11 sacks for an average of 2.75 per game.
Over the last 12 games last season, with an injured Schobel appearing only in the Arizona game, Buffalo had just 13 more sacks on the year. Their sack average per game dropped to 1.08 per game.
"Tremendous player," said Jauron of Schobel. "A guy that wins a lot of matchups. One of the premier players in the league at his position and when he's not on the field we definitely miss him. It's good to see him back."
Coming off of the Lisfranc foot injury that kept him out of the lineup for the final 11 games last season, Schobel participated in spring camps and is confident that his left foot will not be an issue come training camp.
"As we go through camp and stuff I'm going to feel better especially the explosion part," said Schobel. "You can't really train to be in football shape. You have to do the football stuff to get in shape for that. As the days went on this spring I felt more explosive. So it takes time, but it's going to come back."
With Maybin now in the fold Schobel is confident he and the rookie can work off one another when it comes to getting to the quarterback.
"It's definitely going to help," said Schobel. "He's an athletic guy that can pass rush and that's what we needed. The more pass rush you've got the better."
Bob SandersThough Sanders will not be on the field on Sundays, his coaching resume, particularly with defensive linemen speaks for itself. As a line coach at the University of Florida for four seasons, the Gators led the SEC in sacks every year, while helping Jevon Kearse become the most coveted pass rusher in the 1999 NFL draft.
As a line coach and defensive coordinator in Green Bay he helped to turn Aaron Kampman into a premier pass rusher and two time Pro Bowl defensive end.
"Bob brings a lot of coaching experience both in specific areas that he has coached, in this case defensive line, and an overview of defense in total through his experience as a defensive coordinator," said Jauron. "He has outstanding credentials and the recommendations of people that I trust and respect."
Where Sanders is likely to make a difference with Buffalo's defensive line contingent is in the area of technique. It's a major emphasis in his coaching and the players took notice in the spring practices.
"He's different," said Schobel. "He talks more about the position and the techniques and stuff. It's good."
Equipping talented pass rushers like Schobel and Maybin with more counter moves while sharpening the technique of Buffalo's other defensive linemen should result in greater success when it comes to closing down the pocket of opposing passers.
All in all, Buffalo's pass rush should see noticeable improvement in 2009. The Bills are unlikely to reach the 59-sack total by Dallas that led the league last year, but the 40-sack plateau would be a realistic and respectable number to aim for knowing the NFL average in 2008 was 32.4 sacks.
If they can approach that total the chances are good that Perry Fewell will have a pass rush he can rely upon.