Camp Countdown presented by M&T Bank will examine some of the more pressing issues facing the team on the field as they make their final preparations for the regular season. We also focus on a few different areas that impact the team off the field. We'll address these subjects one at a time until training camp begins. Here now is the latest daily installment as we carefully probe for some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 30 and the Sept. 13 opener at Ralph Wilson Stadium against Indianapolis.
Their new head coach hasn't been shy about publicly announcing the expectations for his team's defense. In fact Rex Ryan put it out there at his introductory press conference with the Western New York media in January less than a month removed from Buffalo's defense ranking fourth in the league.
"This team, we know how loaded we are with talent. There's no question about it," said Ryan. "Fourth in the league is probably a little disappointing, to be honest with you, because that's not where my expectations are. I know we'll lead the league in defense. That's just the way it goes."
Expectations are one thing and Ryan has a proven track record, but the rest of the NFL is going to make Buffalo's defense walk the walk to stamp themselves the best in the league. Can the Bills pull it off?
ContinuityThe biggest element in Buffalo's chance to improve upon their ranking of fourth in 2014 is their player continuity. For the first time in a long time Buffalo responded to their own success by re-signing their own. The chief defensive piece being pass rusher Jerry Hughes, who was to be a free agent this past offseason.
The Bills committed big money to Hughes, but the pass rusher wanted to stay all along. He recognized that he's found a special on-field chemistry with his defensive teammates and it helps to make him the most valuable player he can be. Many other players on Buffalo's defensive unit feel the same way and not just on the defensive line.
The players realize in a league that is largely transient due to free agent departures and players pricing themselves off of current rosters to take bigger pay days with new ones that what they've put together in Buffalo could be special.
"I think it's very rare. Mostly, I see coaching staff turnover, I've had a different coach every year," said Mario Williams. "To be able to play and jell with guys, especially in the same group, same room—I think it's very important. If you can do that and the guys can work together and produce, that's one of the keys to get to where you want to be at the end of the year."
DepthBuffalo didn't stand pat with the talent they had. They went out and got some reinforcements. Not high-priced free agent commodities, but rather dependable veteran talent and a top flight rookie.
The Bills added veteran defensive tackles Alex Carrington and Andre Fluellen, who will both compete to be wave players on the second unit. They also drafted CB Ronald Darby to provide further depth in an already stacked secondary.
"On the back end, we have some very talented guys—Gilmore, Williams, the names are endless. As far as talent goes, a very talented group," said defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman. "Everybody knows about the front four. We're talking about Pro Bowlers, Pro Bowlers, Pro Bowlers—they've all done it. We're excited about that. We have a young group of linebackers we're excited about. Coming through OTAs and minicamp they've done well. We expect them to continue to improve. If they do, we have a chance to be a pretty special defense."
AggressivenessLast year's defense under Jim Schwartz did not blitz very often. Most of their pressure was successfully generated by creating long down and distance situations and then getting heat on the quarterback mainly with their front four. Under Ryan and Thurman that won't be the case.
Ryan's defenses are rooted in aggressiveness, overloading one side of the ball, blitzing a nickel corner or on occasion bringing the house.
That what has Nickell Robey so excited about being back in a defensive scheme that enabled him to burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2013.
"Just scheme-wise we'll be doing a lot more blitzing," Robey said. "I'm playing a lot more aggressive coverages, but most of all doing a lot more blitzing. I love it. Coming off of Mario (Williams) or coming off of (Jerry) Hughes it's a great switch up because they're all going to be keyed on them and then I just slide underneath them. It's like a giveaway. It's real easy."
"The way this defense is set up is through multiplicity and we try to take advantage of our playmakers," said Thurman. "So we ask them to do a lot of different things. We try to put our best players in the best position to make plays and sometimes that means taking them a little out of their comfort zone. Other times you have to make them decoys and if you can make them a decoy and allow somebody else to make a play then it just makes your defense stronger."
Buffalo's scheme combined with their talent makes the Bills defense a logical pick to hold the top spot come season's end provided their top players can stay healthy.
"We're going to coach this loaded defense and we're going to coach it to the best of our ability," said Thurman. "We're hoping we can take it to another level. They played great defense here last year. Our job is to get it a little bit better."
"We want to be the number one defense in the NFL," said Jerry Hughes. "We weren't that last year so there's still a lot of room for us to grow. With the new scheme, and everyone understanding their role in the defense and how we can work throughout that system, we want to build on that. You always want to be the best at what you do and that's what we look forward to accomplishing."