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Defensive checklist: Set the tone

More big plays, more takeaways and better run defense. All of these elements are points of emphasis for Buffalo's defense entering 2009. Right up there with those priorities however, is another that encompasses all three, and it's starting fast.

Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell was troubled late last season when his team was giving up points on their opponent's first possession of the game. It happened in seven of their last 10 games in 2008. In fact Buffalo ranked 31st in the league in first possession opponent scoring percentage surrendering touchdowns on the opening drive 44 percent of the time.

The Bills got off to a good start in the Hall of Fame game getting off the field and forcing a punt situation on Tennessee's first possession. The fake by the Titans' special teams, however, went for a touchdown.

Giving up points so early in the game may not seem like a big deal. A 7-0 score does not seem all that insurmountable. But don't tell Buffalo's coaches that.

"It's a big statistic when it comes to winning or losing if you can stop your opponent on the opening possession of the game," said Fewell.

Buffalo struggled in that category and it showed in their record. The Bills were 3-6 when their opponents scored points on their opening drive against the Bills last season.

"I think it definitely changes things," said Kawika Mitchell of giving up an early score. "Our job as a defense, if they don't score, they can't win. If they score on the first drive and they're up we're failing from the start. It definitely makes a big difference."

"There's no doubt it changes the complexion of the game because now we're behind the eight ball," said Fewell. "We feel like we need the offense to go score seven points just to get even again and now we'll play you. It shouldn't be like that. We need to come out and dominate that opening drive or score on defense to set the tone of the game. We didn't set the tone well in the games where we gave up seven touchdowns and two field goals."

What's shocking is on the first possession of the second half of games last season, Buffalo ranked second in the league in opponents' touchdown percentage, allowing touchdowns just 12.5 percent of the time.

So what's the difference?

First and foremost an opposing offense usually has the first 10-15 plays scripted for the start of the game.

"The first 20 plays are always the hardest," said Mitchell. "They're going to have 20 plays that are scripted that are meant to beat you. That's what they're putting in at the beginning of the game. If you can survive the first 20 plays of any game I think you're pretty well off. After that they're going to run a lot of stuff that you already saw in the game."

Though Fewell agrees with Mitchell that the beginning of an NFL game is different than the start of the third quarter strategically, he doesn't believe the opponent's best plays are why it's been harder for Buffalo to stop opening drives.

"Yes, they're throwing our best stuff at us, but hopefully we're throwing our best stuff at them too," he said. "If we're going to try to dominate and dictate play no matter what they throw at us, we feel like we should be able to handle whatever they throw at us. (Last year) we were playing not to get beat on that opening drive instead of attacking that opponent and saying, 'Hey, we're going to stuff you and stop you right here.' And then take on the next series."

There are some other obvious differences between the start of the first and third quarters with one team usually ahead on the scoreboard, forcing perhaps a different approach strategically by both teams. But there's no reason Buffalo's defense should not be able to duplicate their past success in the second half to the start of the game.

"We should be able to carry it over," Mitchell said. "I think it's a mentality. That first half we just need to have our minds right and defend our goal. In the second half last year I don't know if we were behind sometimes and felt we had to pick things up for the team. For whatever reason we didn't have our minds right in the first quarter."

"What we did a year ago, whether it was a mindset or what have you, we felt them out instead of attacking them and I looked at how I called it and my calls were not much different from the first half to the second half," said Fewell. "I just think it's a mindset that our players have. So we've emphasized that to our players in camp because we need to be dominant from the opening play and after halftime from the opening play and sustain what we're doing and finish strong." 

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