After missing the playoffs for an eighth straight season in 2007, a handful of Buffalo's defenders got together and took a closer look at just what it was going to take on the field to perform well enough to qualify for the playoffs. Through three games in 2008 they're on the right track.
"As teammates, we came up with the goal of what we want to hold them to on the ground and what we want to hold them to in the air," said Chris Kelsay of opposing offenses. "So far this season we have reached those goals. We have taken them very seriously and we strive to achieve those goals each and every week."
The Bills defenders examined all 12 playoffs teams from last year and looked at what their defenses surrendered in both rushing and passing yardage per game. They then took the average of those postseason clubs and came up with their own goals for the 2008 campaign.
Last year's 12 playoffs teams had run defenses that gave up an average of 99.3 yards per game. Against the pass they surrendered 199.9 yards per game.
Though three games are far from a full season, the Bills are ahead of the curve with respect to their goals. Buffalo's defense is allowing an average of 93.7 yards on the ground and 153.7 yards through the air.
The run defense has probably been the most impressive through the first three weeks, especially after shutting down Oakland's then number two ranked rushing game. Seattle, Jacksonville and Oakland were all held under 100 yards by Buffalo.
Buffalo averaged 124.6 last season in rushing yards allowed per game, so shaving off more than 30 yards per game thus far is a big step forward.
"I attribute it to two things," said defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. "I think we understand our fits better and we've tackled well. We only had three missed tackles in the game last week and that is a big, big factor against a good running football team like Oakland. So when you go into a ballgame and play 51 plays and only have three missed tackles, you are humming."
That wasn't the case in Jacksonville in Week 2 when the Bills missed several tackles and allowed the Jaguars to hold onto the football for almost the entire third quarter. Ultimately, the defense was able to rebound in the fourth quarter and when all was said and done they held Jacksonville's ground attack to just 98 yards.
Buffalo's front four including new addition Marcus Stroud has been getting a lot of the credit for the team's improved run front, but Kyle Williams doesn't believe that's an accurate assessment.
"I don't think it's just the front four, I think it's everybody," said Williams. "One thing we all need to realize is that having a one-gap scheme, the linebackers are just as important, the safeties are just as important, and it's been that way the past three years. We're 11 guys out there taking care of the run so far and it's worked."
The Bills still play their fair share of eight-man fronts to stop the run even though Marcus Stroud commands consistent double team attention. But that eighth man is not nearly as sore as he was last season when involved in the run front.
"I feel great," said Donte Whitner. "My body feels great right now. Last year after games I'd be extremely sore a day or two after the game taking on guards and tackles and fullbacks just being that eight man in the box. Marcus he has added to that and Kyle has been playing very well. When you have guys that can take two guys in the running game it makes it easier on that eighth guy in the box, which is usually the safety."
Linebackers are also able to run through the gaps with no offensive linemen to battle with and the results are more tackles for loss.
"We're still playing a lot of eight man fronts, but last year teams were still able to run the ball on us," said Paul Posluszny. "This year so far that hasn't been the case. Through the first three games we've been able to play the run pretty well and stopped some pretty good running football teams so it's been a pretty good sign for us."
That strong run defense on first and second down has set up a lot of third and mediums and third and longs and Buffalo can then get after the opposing quarterback.
"It is very important to shut the running game and make them one dimensional," said Kelsay. "We have done a pretty good job of it so far and it has showed in how we have performed."
"We have tackled well and if we can continue to tackle well, we can continue to hold people to yardage that doesn't get out of control," said Fewell.
Buffalo's defense has also been successful at times with just seven men in the run front, which provides for better coverage on the back end in the event of play action.
"That's why you haven't seen a lot of big plays in the secondary because we don't have to always add that eighth guy in the box and have single coverage on the outside," said Whitner. "I think that everything is working together stopping the run."
Defensive co-captains Kelsay and Whitner believe the defense can be a top 10 unit this season, which is an ambitious goal knowing just a season ago the Bills ranked 31st overall.
"It is (ambitious), but that is why you play," said Kelsay. "You don't play this game to be mediocre. You certainly don't play it to be towards the bottom of the list. You play to be the best you can possibly be and we believe in each other, we believe in our coaching staff, and we believe we can do whatever we set our minds too with hard work and preparation."
So far, so good.