After giving up a franchise record 466 passing yards to New England in Week Two, there were questions about Buffalo's highly publicized defense. Pre-snap communication, inconsistent execution and an absent pass rush were all under the microscope. Now almost a month later the Bills defensive unit looks to be rounding into the same form that made them the fourth-ranked defense in the league in 2014.
Buffalo's defense held Tennessee to 13 points last week despite being on the field for better than 35 minutes.
"We always have those little mistakes that you want to fix, but that was one of our best whole games we put together," said Preston Brown. "We were out there a lot so to put that effort together was good."
That wasn't the case a month ago. Looking back on it now the players feel the first five weeks of the season were a feeling out process between them and the new coaching staff under head coach Rex Ryan. Yes, the balance of the defensive roster has played together for the last three to four seasons, but they had to get acclimated to the new scheme and new staff.
"When they came in and when we all got here and we became a team, everyone needed to get a feel for one another," said Manny Lawson. "Granted on paper you see talent, and you watch film and you see talent, but you want to know how to utilize that talent. And it just takes time to find out exactly who the coaches are and how we can communicate with one another and get our points across and just get things done on the field because that's what we want to do."
Buffalo's defensive staff saw a smart unit that was wholly familiar with one another on the field. They chose to implement a series of pre-snap check options for the players to turn to so they'd have the perfect call for the anticipated play from the opposing offense.
That worked well in Week 1, but every opponent after that went with a quick pass game and an up tempo no huddle approach to keep Buffalo's defense from completing their checks and calls before the snap. A healthy give and take between the players and the coaches has led to a more streamlined approach to defensive play calling. That combined with five games of experience with Ryan and defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman has led to the improved play.
"I do feel like we're getting better as a defense. We're understanding things, maybe things are a little bit simpler," said Corey Graham. "It's helping us get aligned a lot faster especially with teams on offense now they're speeding the pace up so it's a lot tougher on us as a defense to make four, five or six different checks within a play. So we're going to continue to get better. I'm pretty sure Rex is going to find ways to go out there and put us in position to win and that's what we're going to do."
Since Buffalo's Week 2 loss to New England their defense has improved in several categories. Overall defense is up to 16 from 28, run defense up to number two from three. Pass defense has moved up seven spots from 31st to 24th, which may not sound like much but after a franchise worst is significant in just three games. Third down defense has moved up 12 spots from 19th to seventh. Red zone defense has improved from 24th to 12th in the league and points allowed is down a touchdown from 27 points per game to 21.
Players credit the open dialogue between coaches and players when reviewing plays from the previous week and discussing what will be part of the next game plan.
"They always ask for our input, what we like and don't like-that's a good thing," said Stephon Gilmore. "A lot of times some coaches don't do that, so that's good. We're just all in it to help us feel comfortable on the field and help us win games."
"You can't just say, 'I don't like this play.' You have to have a reason for it. If the reason is legitimate we'll toss that play out," Lawson said. "There have been several plays that have been tossed out because a guy might not be comfortable with coverage responsibilities, or maybe the stunt takes too long. The coaches throw plays out and are fine about it. There's a lot of respect in our room. When somebody speaks up in our room, everybody listens."
Buffalo's coaching staff knew they had a talented unit on the defensive side of the ball walking in the door. They just needed to see their new personnel in action in this scheme. Now a month into the season they have a much better handle on their players' strengths.
Still, they never want to leave anything to chance, so there was a concerted effort to always put the Bills defense in the best play call every down of every series. But in five games Buffalo's defensive unit has shown it's more important for them just to be lined up and they'll make plays even if the play calls are not ideal.
"Rex crosses all his 'T's and dots all his 'I's," said Marcell Dareus. "He wants to make sure. But we're a pretty stout defense. We got some monsters up front and we're going to get after it."
As encouraging as their play was last week most do not believe they've reached their peak from last season, but they're moving in that direction.
"I think we're making strides toward that," said Lawson. "We have to be more consistent. We can't have these ups and downs, have a good game defensively then all of a sudden get complacent and let a team run up and down the field on us and score. So when we can become more consistent I think we can be better than what we were last year. But we have to actually all want that."
"We've got a pretty good defense. We had a pretty good defense last year," said Graham. "We've got to get on the same page as our coach to know what he wants from us, but we're going to be okay. We feel no matter what we're going to be alright."