At this time last season the problems facing Buffalo's defense were numerous. Defending the run, third down defense, first downs allowed, defending the pass and sacks were all near the bottom of the league rankings.
Overall the Bills defense ranked 31st in 2007. But 2008 saw widespread improvements despite the fact that the season ended with a mark of 7-9 for the third straight year.
First and foremost Buffalo's defensive unit improved their league ranking by 17 spots finishing 2008 ranked 14th in the league. The Bills shaved better than 36 yards off of what they allowed on average a year ago.
The biggest factor in a lot of Buffalo's defensive improvements was their third down defense, which ranked in the top 10 in the NFL almost all season. Perry Fewell's unit finished ninth overall in 2008 allowing conversions just 36 percent of the time. That's significantly better than 2007 when Buffalo stood 29th in third down defense (45.1%).
"We emphasized it every day even when we were in OTAs and minicamp," said Donte Whitner. "That was one of our big things getting off the field on third down. Last year we did a good job on first and second down, but on third down we couldn't get off the football field. So going into this season there was a big emphasis on it."
Stopping teams on third down more consistently led to fewer first downs as Buffalo ranked 12th in the NFL in first downs allowed. Last season they ranked 29th.
Improved pass defense is also a reason that first downs allowed were down in 2008. The Bills trimmed almost 35 yards off of their average from last season and improved from 29th in the league in 2007 to 13th in 2008. But Fewell believes his secondary and men up front worked together to make a lot of these improvements happen.
"We did a much better job on third-down with not only coverage, but pressure packages," said Buffalo's defensive coordinator. "When we can continue to do that we can get off the field."
Another area of Buffalo's game that remained consistently strong throughout the season was red zone defense. Ranking fourth in the league for the second consecutive year the Bills defense actually improved statistically when it came to their stinginess inside their own 20-yard line.
The Bills allowed opponents to reach the end zone less than 42 percent of the time in 2008 after cracking their 20-yard line. Only Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Indianapolis were better with all three of those teams qualifying for the playoffs.
Of course having missed the playoffs for a ninth straight season, Buffalo's defenders were more focused on some of their shortcomings this season, like stopping opponents on their opening possession.
"We started off slow in the first half defensively," said Chris Kelsay. "I think we ranked as high as you can in first possession touchdowns given up. Teams were driving the field on us right away and scoring on us. We'd usually come out in the second half playing a lot better football so that's something we need to shore up. We need to play with intensity and emotion from the first kickoff to the last buzzer. That's one thing we didn't do very well."
Buffalo did give up first possession touchdowns seven times in 2008, and only Detroit and St. Louis (16) surrendered more first quarter touchdowns than the Bills (12) this past season. But the defense for Buffalo also forced seven first possession punts in 2008, so the figure doesn't appear to be an accurate indicator for the effectiveness of a defense.
One that seems to be more indicative is the lack of takeaways. While Buffalo's offense was certainly guilty of coughing up the football more in 2008, their defense didn't help as much in getting it back. The defense tied a team mark for fewest interceptions in a season with just 10.
"We have to put our offense in position to score and we have to score on defense, so it's disappointing from that standpoint because we have do to do a better job in creating turnovers," said Fewell. "We work on them a lot and sometimes you just have to be lucky."
Buffalo was lucky from the standpoint of taking their limited takeaway opportunities and scoring as Jabari Greer (2) and Leodis McKelvin (1) turned three interceptions into touchdowns including Greer's game-winning return at St. Louis in Week 4.
An improved pass rush in 2009 would likely do wonders for improving Buffalo's takeaway total, which was eight fewer in 2008 (22) than the season before (30).
Ultimately, the Bills believe if they can improve their pass rush and deliver a few more big plays each Sunday they can become an elite defense.
"We felt that we had the type of team that could make it to the playoffs and we still do, we feel that we have a lot of the guys we need," said Paul Posluszny. "We have to go out and prove it, we have to play well every Sunday. Other teams are too good to go out there and have average performances and still win."