At the midway point of the 2009 campaign there are a lot of problem areas for the Bills on both sides of the ball, but one problem area from 2008 no longer appears to be one. Buffalo's pass rush over the past two seasons ranked a combined 29th in the league when it came to sacks. This season there's been a noticeable difference. Through the first eight games the Bills rank seventh in the league in sacks with a respectable 18.
To a man credit is paid to Buffalo's new defensive line coach Bob Sanders.
"I think coach Sanders has really done a nice job and brought a new attitude and approach toward the rush," said defensive coordinator Perry Fewell.
"Since coach Sanders arrived here that's been our main focus, the pass rush," said Ryan Denney, who led the team in sacks a season ago. "Everything we do, every drill we do in practice is designed to help us get back to the quarterback. I feel that has paid dividends for us and we're able to give that full effort in getting to the quarterback."
So far the results are there. The Bills have five more sacks at the halfway point of the season than they did last year when they managed just 13 and finished the year with just 24. A typical bench mark for NFL teams is 40. Sanders has preached a more aggressive approach to the pass rush with the focus on the opposing signal caller, not the offensive linemen in front of them.
"It's just the mentality," said Chris Kelsay. "We're taking the fight to them. Instead of a finesse pass rush, it's almost a bloody street fight mentality. I think that helps. We're rushing at the quarterback instead of rushing the man in front of us. He's just in our way toward the quarterback."
Kelsay in eight games has 3.5 sacks already surpassing his total from a season ago, a career low two as a starter. The veteran end worked in Buffalo throughout the offseason with Sanders to improve his pass rush techniques.
Sanders has also encouraged the ends to line up wider in obvious passing situations creating more isolated situations with the opposing offensive tackles. With extra lateral space created by lining up wide, the tackle has to protect both an inside and outside rush lane giving Buffalo's defensive ends more options.
There's also no denying that having their top pass rusher in the lineup week in and week out has also been a factor in the Bills pass rush resurgence.
"It always helps when you have Aaron back," said Kelsay. "He always brings that presence on the field and people have to take him into account every play. Just because of his success and the player he's become over the course of his career. So that helps us out across the line."
"Any time you have a guy that can rush the passer like an Aaron Schobel, you're going to expect them to get to him, which in turn will free things up for other people," said Stroud. "The difference now is we're getting in there and making the play."
Schobel leads the team with five sacks, which is a good midseason number knowing he typically gets off to slow starts. The two-time Pro Bowl defensive end played in only the first five games last season as a Lisfranc foot injury forced him to miss the first 11 games of his career.
Buffalo's right defensive end doesn't worry about being the focus of opposing offenses as he prefers to keep the game simple each and every week.
"You're not going to find many players that aren't good at this level," said Schobel in reference to the offensive tackles he faces each week. "I'm going to try to do what I do and hopefully it's better than what my opponent does."
Though he left Buffalo's Week 8 game with a groin injury, Schobel is expected to return to the lineup following the bye and play in the team's Week 10 game at Tennessee.
With veteran players across their defensive line, the coaching staff has also given their linemen the freedom to improvise on the fly, affording them opportunities they haven't had in the past.
"We have a lot of freedom," said Kelsay. "Instead of having to run a stunt or call a (tackle-end) game prior to the snap, we can just set it up ourselves and we feel comfortable enough with each other to just play off of one another and basically go out there and do whatever we can to get to the quarterback. That helps a lot when you have the freedom to do that from your coaching staff and then you also know that you have the back of the guy next to you. We're playing really well off each other."
"What we're doing well is we're able to read off each other this year much better than we were last year," said Marcus Stroud. "That's the number one thing. Guys are able to rush and you're rushing without restrictions. I know if Chris is going to beat his guy on this side, I'm going to cover him up and if I beat my guy up the field Chris is going to play off me and go across and it's the same thing on Schobel's side. We're all playing well with each other. That's the biggest difference."
Naturally the players know they can't be irresponsible with the plays they draw up in the dirt during a series. They know if it compromises the integrity of the scheme their freedoms will be restricted.
"With that trust comes responsibility and we know we have to hold up our end of the deal or the coaches will pull the dogs off and put us in situations where we have to do stuff by the blackboard and you don't want that because it limits you," said Kelsay. "So it's a give and take deal and it's nice to have coaches that trust you enough and it's nice to have players that trust each other. That's kind of where we're at now. If we don't hold up our end of the bargain they could pull it back on us."
"It's definitely enjoyable," said Stroud. "Now that we've had a little success it's definitely fun. We're just looking forward to trying to keep doing what we're doing and build off of it and become better."
But the veterans know they will need some of their unproven pass rushers to step forward and help boost that sack total come the second half of the season. Through the first eight games top pick Aaron Maybin and second-year end Chris Ellis have been used sparingly on defense.
"The young guys need to step up," said Denney. "With injuries and opportunities for them to play we're really counting on them to do their part. Without them we won't have the energy we'll need to go down back half of the schedule."
"That's what we're going to need down the stretch," said Stroud. "Hopefully we'll be able to get back to winning after the bye. We're going to need everybody for these last eight games if we're going to be successful."