No one will argue how effective the Bills defense has been in creating pass pressure and forcing turnovers. They've been among the league leaders in sacks and interceptions for most of the season. One area that was in need of improvement was run defense, a troublesome part of Buffalo's defense for several seasons. If the past two games are any indication Buffalo's defense is tightening things up when it comes to stopping opposing rushers.
Facing the Saints in Week 8 and the Chiefs in Week 9, Buffalo held both teams to less than 100 yards rushing. Kansas City and the league's all-purpose yardage leader Jamaal Charles were held to a total of 95 rushing yards last Sunday. It marked the first time this season that the Chiefs failed to eclipse the century mark on the ground.
The week prior New Orleans managed just 77 yards rushing averaging just three yards per carry.
"It's been improving," said head coach Doug Marrone. "I think we're getting healthier on the back end which is helping us. I think the guys up front are doing a very good job of getting off blocks. The linebackers have been coming up in the holes. I just think it's overall team improvement in that area."
Buffalo's run defense efforts the past two weeks have kept the big run play from leaking out. The longest run surrendered against the Saints covered 13 yards. The best the Chiefs could muster was 12 yards.
"We're focusing on technique a lot better and tackling a lot better," said Arthur Moats. "Still, they had a couple of runs they got on us that we weren't happy about. Overall I think we're playing a lot better run defense. The D-line they're getting great knock back on initial contact and the safeties and linebackers are all playing downhill."
Marcell Dareus, who is among the league leaders with run stops for defensive linemen, believes the guys up front are finally used to playing alongside one another.
"We just know what type of players we're dealing with now," Dareus told Buffalobills.com. "My first year Kyle (Williams) went down and the second year we brought Mario (Williams) in and Kyle was coming off surgery. We were kind of letting them heal. Now they're healed and we kind of know each other. Kyle has seen me play and Mario has been here for a year, so the second time around is just going to be better. We know what kind of style Kyle likes to play. He likes to get off the ball and we know Mario likes to rush and I just like to tear (expletive) up. That's just how we play it."
Just a month removed from ranking 28th in the league in run defense, Buffalo has improved 11 spots and now rank 17th against the run. Manny Lawson being one of the new faces to the defense this season felt in a new system with a few new pieces that it would take some time to really nail everything down as an 11-man unit.
"We're starting to get to know one another in terms of how one another plays," Lawson said. "We're talking more about what we can do in all aspects of our game. Up front we trust everybody to do their job. We're going to stay in our gap and not try to do too much more. That's where it was hurting us before. Everybody was trying to do more instead of just doing your job. Doing more isn't wrong, but it can open up things. But I think everybody is doing their job and that's where the lower numbers are coming from."
The improved run defense has in turn helped Buffalo's third down defense, another area where their productivity had been lacking. Better play against the run however, has helped the Bills improve from 22nd in the league in third down defense to 12th in just four weeks.
"If we can put the opposing offense in longer third downs that allows coach Pettine to open up the playbook with more plays he wants to use on third down," said Lawson. "That lets us get after the quarterback and apply pressure. And the longer down and distance it is it means he has to take a five-step drop instead of a three-step drop. Giving us more time to get to him helps."
Now the challenge is to build on the improved play against the run and make it a weekly occurrence. They're facing a Pittsburgh offense that has uncharacteristically struggled to run the football this season. The Steelers rank 28th in rushing averaging just under 74 yards a game and 3.5 per carry.
The opponent at this point matters less to the Bills. Their emphasis is on being sound with their fundamentals and assignments.
"Ultimately we have been pretty successful the past two weeks and I think it'll continue to carry over as long as we focus in practice on the little things," said Moats. "It has been a while. It definitely has been a while, but we've got seven games left so we've got to continue to buckle down and we want to get to a point where they don't even have those 12-yard runs leaking out."
"The trust factor has come into it and we really believe in each other," said Dareus. "It's growing every week. There's no telling where we're going to be. As the season goes on we know we're going to get stronger and get more in tune with each other. It's just coming together."