Buffalo's defensive unit has made an awful lot of plays to impact the outcome of some of the team's most notable victories this season. Kyle Williams' interception late in the fourth quarter in the Week 1 overtime win at Chicago. Six sacks of Matthew Stafford and one touchdown allowed on 14 possessions in the victory at Detroit. The six takeaways against the Jets in New Jersey and most recently Mario Williams strip sack for a safety to ice the win over Green Bay. Buffalo's defense has put together the kinds of plays that make one wonder is it one of the best defensive units in team history?
Obviously the AFL championship defenses of 1964 and 1965 were among the better groups prior to the NFL merger. In the modern era however, the two Buffalo defensive units that come to mind are the 1999 and 2004 Bills squads when it comes to comparing with this year's group.
Nowhere to run
The 1999 Bills defense finished first in the league overall allowing just under 253 yards a game. Only 86 of those yards were given up on the ground making Buffalo's run front the fourth-best in the league that season. At the center of it was Ted Washington (pictured), who though listed at 325 pounds was far closer to 360 or more. He was literally immovable and demanded two blockers at all times.
The attention that had to be paid to Washington made it difficult for opposing offense linemen to get to the second level on run plays. That allowed linebackers John Holecek and Sam Cowart to run and hit and the pair racked up a ton of tackles. Cowart led the squad with 125 that season.
Perhaps even more impressive was opponents having little success on the ground would attempt to take to the air, but the '99 unit, coordinated by Ted Cottrell, was also first in pass defense allowing less than 170 passing yards a game (167).
And though a couple of Buffalo's mid-90's clubs were big on accumulating sacks, the '99 squad did not rank high in that category despite the presence of Hall of Famer Bruce Smith. The team managed just 37 that year.
It was their back seven that contributed most to their ranking of third in the league in third down defense. With top draft choice Antoine Winfield serving as a nickel corner with Thomas Smith and Kenny Irvin on the boundary and Henry Jones and Kurt Schulz at safety, it was a solid group.
Despite the success in keeping yards to a minimum they were not big on takeaways with just 21 on the year, which ranked 28th in the league.
The 1999 club won their games in much the way the 2014 team is winning, with defense and just enough offense. They won 11 times that season and the main reason was their defense held the opponent to 10 points or less in almost half of their games (7 games).
The Bills finished second in the league in points allowed, surrendering just 229, a team record (14.3 ppg). They also set team marks for fewest total yards allowed (4,045), fewest touchdowns allowed (23), fewest rushing yards allowed (1,370), fewest first downs allowed (170) and fewest rushing first downs allowed (73).
Buffalo's 2004 defense wasn't far off from that of 1999. The head coaching post however, had changed for a second time since Wade Phillips departure after the 2000 season. The defensive unit had a solid 2003 campaign and there was a desire to keep things the same on that side of the ball, so defensive coordinator Jerry Gray was retained under new head coach Mike Mularkey.
By season's end the defense was ranked second in the league and had some opportunistic ball hawks to thank for it. Buffalo led the league in takeaways that season with 39. Their 24 interceptions ranked second in the league and their 20 forced fumbles was the second highest single-season total in team annals.
Nate Clements led the team in picks with six while Takeo Spikes had five, two of which he returned for touchdowns, earning him the first Pro Bowl nod of his career. Buffalo's 140 points off takeaways also led the NFL and accounted for more than 35 percent of their total points that year.
They allowed just 11 more total yards a game than the '99 squad (264) and finished seventh against the run and third against the pass. They were also third in sacks paced by Aaron Schobel's eight quarterback takedowns that season. The duo of Sam Adams and Pat Williams at defensive tackle left no pocket for a quarterback to step up when Schobel came looping in off the edge.
Adams and Williams were also the main reason the unit gave up just six rushing touchdowns that season, the second-fewest in the league, with defensive leader London Fletcher lined up right behind them along with strong safety Lawyer Milloy.
The Bills held their opponents to 14 points or less in seven of their 16 games and finished eighth in points allowed (284). Their red zone defense was also top five.
Photos of Bills pass rushers sacking and pressuring opposing QBs during the 2014 season.
This year's defensive unit has probably demonstrated the best synchronization of a pass rush with takeaways. The 2014 unit, under the direction of Jim Schwartz, is threatening the sack record the team set a year ago (57) as they have 49 sacks with two games to play in the regular season.
Ranking first in the league in sacks, this year's group also stands second in takeaways with 30 and second in interceptions with 19.
Mario Williams has had a huge second half of the season and leads the unit with 13 sacks in 14 games. Marcell Dareus is in double figures with 10, and Jerry Hughes is on the cusp of joining them with 9.5. With three Pro Bowl talents up front (Dareus, K. Williams, M. Williams) and a fourth that could merit consideration (Hughes), Buffalo doesn't have to send extra pass rushers on a blitz allowing them to drop seven into coverage.
Leading the team in interceptions is a cornerback whose season ended prematurely in Week 11 due to a fractured ankle. Leodis McKelvin has four INTs with Da'Norris Searcy and Stephon Gilmore right behind him with three apiece. All told nine players have posted interceptions for the group.
Aside from being the fifth-best defense in football overall, Schwartz's unit is tied for first in passing touchdowns allowed with 14, first in opponent scoring efficiency (27%), second in opponent completions of 20-plus yards (32) and second in opposing passer rating (73.9).
Their third down defense is also second-best in the NFL allowing opponents to move the sticks just a third of the time (33.3%).
As respected as the '99 defense should be for finishing first in the NFL and setting a host of team records there were not any elite talents on that unit besides Smith and Washington, with Smith entering the twilight of his career. Cowart could have been an amazing talent, but his career was compromised by injury.
The 2004 unit also had a couple of elite players like Adams, Milloy and Spikes, but Adams and Milloy were on the back side of their careers. The group was a good collection of above average players, who knew how to play off one another.
Where the 2014 squad has the other two defenses is on pure talent. The 1999 unit had five first-round picks on their side of the ball. The '04 group had four. This year's squad has seven with Manny Lawson and Keith Rivers playing rotational roles.
Perhaps more important is this year's defense ranks in the top five most often in the more highly regarded defensive categories. The '99 and '04 defenses ranked in the NFL's top five in five key categories each.
This year's Bills defense has six top five rankings right now. Things could change with two games to play, but if the 2014 unit can hang on to those ranking positions they could go down as the best defensive unit in the modern era for Buffalo.