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.*
After a season of struggles defending against the run, the 2014 Bills should see a marked improvement. From a new scheme to new additions and position changes, here are a few reasons why the Bills will improve on their rank of 28th against the run in 2013.
The Detroit Lions were one of only six teams in the league to give up less than 100 yards per game in 2013. In Jim Schwartz's eight seasons as defensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans, his defense ranked among the top six in the league against the run five times.
There are many similarities in the defense that Schwartz intends to run and that of Mike Pettine from last season. It is called a 4-3 defense instead of a 3-4, but it will still be operating primarily as a one-gap defense with a focus on getting to the quarterback with the front four. What Schwartz's new defense does, according to Brandon Spikes, is allow players to roam free, make plays, and not think so much.
"It gives you an opportunity to just play football, you know?" Spikes said. "Just be relentless, go all-out, get to the ball and make plays. You've got a responsibility and that is primary but at the same time you get to just go all out and play. That's what I love about it."
Clearly, Bills general manager Doug Whaley was committed to finding players to improve the defense this offseason. Brandon Spikes has earned a reputation as one of the best run stoppers in the league during his time with New England, while Keith Rivers and Preston Brown both represent versatile additions who can play all three downs.
The presumed loss of Kiko Alonso for the season is surely a blow for a defense that was looking to see him play every down, as he did last season. But Rivers has the proven track record of a capable run stopper at both weak side and strong side linebacker spots to fill the void.
Jim Schwartz has already shown an affinity for Preston Brown, lining him up in the first-team nickel packages during OTAs and minicamp. He was the leader of Louiseville's dominant defense in 2013, racking up 98 tackles, 12.5 for loss, at middle linebacker. We should see his role grow over the course of the season as he gets up to speed with the scheme and adjusts to the NFL game.
"Just being around the ball as much as possible," Brown said about his playing style. "That's one thing I try to do, I try to be around the ball and slide to the ball. Pursuit, I'm always going to be the guy trying to rip the ball out and be around the ball. Any aspect of being around the ball I feel I'm going to be there."
Manny Lawson will go from full-time linebacker to a more hybrid position on the edge in 2014. He believes that position could be a more natural fit for him.
"I'm not going to drop as much," said Lawson of his role in 2014. "I will have my hand in the dirt more, but other than that the SAM linebacker and defensive end are relatively the same position. I don't have to cover anybody man to man now, so it's see ball, go get ball."
Lawson should bring the run-stopping mentality he had at linebacker to the defensive line, setting the edge and stopping explosive runs before they start.
Meanwhile, the safety pairing of Aaron Williams and Da'Norris Searcy could be an upgrade in the run game even with the departure of Pro Bowler Jairus Byrd, who was more of an impact player in the passing game. Williams was second on the team in tackles while switching between corner and safety. Searcy finished fifth on the team in tackles and averaged more tackles per game than Byrd in a limited role. The two likely starters are both ball-hawks who can creep up close to the line of scrimmage and are not afraid to mix it up near the trenches.
"The thing that probably impressed me the most was his physical play. He's a tough guy and really made a physical impact on the field last year," Schwartz said of Williams. "I thought last year was the year you really started to see what Aaron can do. He can make an impact on the game - interception, big hit, he can blitz, he can do all those things."