Every summer leading up to training camp Buffalobills.com examines 25 of the more pertinent issues facing the team as they make their final preparations for the upcoming regular season. This year we wanted to focus on a few different areas that impact the team off the field in addition to what takes place on the field. From now until report day at training camp we'll address these subjects one at a time. Here now is the latest daily installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 18 and the Sept. 7 opener at Chicago.
Last season the Bills set a franchise record in sacks (57) to rank third in the league. They ranked fourth against the pass, sixth in red zone defense and finished in the top half of the NFL when it came to third down conversion percentage allowed. A lot of that success was due to Buffalo's formidable front line made up of three players who had double-digit sack seasons and a fourth with 7.5 sacks. The defensive cast is largely the same, but the defensive scheme has changed for the fourth time in four seasons. So how dominant can Buffalo's defensive line be?
Three Pro Bowlers
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is no stranger to dominant defensive lines. He coached one for the better part of his five years as head coach of the Lions with talent like Cliff Avril, Ziggy Ansah, Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh. Last season they ranked sixth against the run and first in third down defense. What's his initial assessment of the unit he inherits here in Buffalo as to how dominant they can be?
As Schwartz sees it there are steps to be taken to reach that elite level as a unit, but the group is more than capable with three Pro Bowl talents and a 10-sack end as piece number four.
"It will depend on how well we will work during training camp and how well we work during the season, but we do have some talent up front and we also have a little bit of depth up front," Schwartz told Buffalobills.com. "It's hard to judge too much where we are right now. We haven't practiced in pads, it's hard to really judge where you are stopping the run and rushing the passer, but we have the potential to do well in both of those areas."
The pass rush doesn't appear to be a concern. After their 57-sack season in 2013, their top five players on their sack list are all back. In fact Manny Lawson, who finished fifth on that list with four sacks, will be coming after the passer a whole lot more this season as a rotational defensive end in the 4-3 scheme. He figures to improve on his total from last year.
"Probably the only thing that's going to change a lot for me now is I'm not going to drop as much," Lawson said. "I will have my hand in the dirt more so I don't have to cover anybody man to man now, so it's see ball, go get ball."
Impressive in the OTA and minicamp setting was Jerry Hughes, the only one in the team's top four for sacks who did not go to Hawaii last February. Anxious to build off his breakout season in 2013, Hughes already has his game dialed up for the fall.
"He is a very good pass rusher and we can use him in a lot of different roles," said Schwartz. "He's stood up at times, he's down at times. He can change the game with pass rush and that's a big thing in this game and those guys are very valuable."
As Hughes sees it however, the dominance of their defensive line will only be assured by what happens behind them.
"We're going to be as good as our back seven," Hughes told Buffalobills.com. "We have some very talented guys back there behind us so the sky is the limit. That being said we know they're going to do their job of keeping the quarterback guessing and keeping the ball in his hands to give us a chance to get back there and wreak some havoc."
Dash of Pepper
As talented as Buffalo's front line might be they haven't experienced a lot of success when it comes to winning. Enter defensive line coach Pepper Johnson who comes in with a fistful of Super Bowl rings thanks to his 13-year playing career and 15 years coaching with New England.
Johnson's football intellect is every bit as valuable as his winning background, and it's obvious that his value is more than recognized by the men who will line up for him.
"He's been out there on the field playing between those lines," said Hughes of his defensive line coach. "Anytime you have a coach like that it kind of gives you that added mindset where it's not just the four guys on the field. You have that fifth person on the sidelines so when we do get to the sideline we know we can relay the different looks we got from the offensive line and he can feed off of that as well as giving us what he sees from the sideline so it's going to help us out tremendously."
Run defense is still an area that must be addressed collectively by the defense, but Schwartz has a history of improving that part of a defensive unit's play more than any other.
So long as Marcell Dareus does not incur a league suspension for some of his off the field transgressions all the pieces should be in place for a defensive line that can do some major damage.
"It's just a matter of us getting to training camp and putting it together," said linebacker Keith Rivers. "You look at the front of the huddle and you've got Kyle Williams and Marcell (Dareus), Mario (Williams)… you've got some dogs up there. It's exciting."