Monday's locker cleanout and final evaluations allowed the Bills time to reflect together on their 4-12 campaign. Despite seemingly unending personnel turnover, possible contract disputes and a new CBA to hammer out, the team's top defensive priority for the offseason was unanimous.
"First and foremost, we've got to figure out why our run defense was so bad and fix those problems," linebacker Paul Posluszny said. "Whether it's personnel – do we need bigger, stronger guys? Scheme – are we lining up right? That's something I know the coaches will take a closer look at starting now and they'll have answers for us."
Despite boasting the No. 3 pass defense in the NFL, the Bills' league-worst run defense brought the team's total-defense ranking to No. 24. The run defense plummeted to the league's basement by allowing a league-high 2,714 yards on 571 carries, an average of 196.6 yards on 35.7 carries per game. Opponents ran for 200 or more yards eight times this season to tie a franchise record (1978).
Bills defenders agreed improving the run defense is their primary focus in the offseason.
"If you're any kind of competitor, you're going to go back and look at the season and you don't want this taste in your mouth," nose tackle Torell Troup said. "I've never played in a defense like we've had this year, so hopefully the guys come back with the right attitude, come ready to work, and get another year under our belts."
"That's number one of any team in the NFL, stopping the run, and we didn't do a very good job of that this year," defensive end Dwan Edwards said. "Getting the ball run on you is kind of like a bully picking on you and beating you up. We've got to change that around here. It will be a lot of hard work."
The Bills struggled to maintain consistency in defensive personnel, using nine different front-seven combinations in the starting lineup throughout the season.
Coach Chan Gailey attributed the team's struggle in stopping the run to the switch to the 3-4 defense, and having to adjust to several changes at linebacker due to injury.
"I don't know how many linebackers we seemed to go through from the start of training camp until the last game," Gailey said. "When you're playing four of them instead of three of them, it has a bigger impact on your football team (but) I don't want to make excuses. I think that we sometimes get caught up in making excuses because everybody on the field is a professional football player and we should be able to play better defense. Whether we're adjusting or not adjusting, we've got to get everybody and keep everybody on the same page. We've got to do that at a faster clip than we did this year."
As defensive end Marcus Stroud sees it, there isn't anywhere for the Bills' run defense to go but up.
"I definitely did not think the transition was going to be this difficult or as difficult as it was, but we've got a year under our belt now (and are) definitely battle-tested," Stroud said. "We'll go back and watch the film and find out the things we've done wrong, and come in here as soon as possible to get it corrected and keep going forward."
Gailey said the team will likely use multiple defensive fronts next season, but will do whatever it takes personnel-wise to improve against the run.
"I've not sat down with the defensive staff about this, but just looking at it on the surface right now I'd say we're probably going to be a multiple-front rather than a Kansas City … or Cleveland (and) sit in 3-4 no matter what," Gailey said. "We may go out there in the first ballgame next year and it might not be 3-4 and everybody will say, 'I thought you were a 3-4 team?' I don't know what we're going to be. I do know we have to get better against the run."
Although the run defense clearly needs the most work, Posluszny said the pass rush is a close second.
"When we get in passing situations we have to be able to get pressure on the quarterback; that creates everything," he said. "All of the interceptions and turnovers that guys have had in years past, it all starts with pressure. So, that's what we've got to be able to do."
The Bills ranked 27th in the league with 27 sacks, and tied for 25th with 22 takeaways – contributing to the team's league-worst minus-17 turnover differential.
Those problems were especially evident in the last two games of the season, when the Bills allowed 217 and a season-high 276 yards rushing – and had a combined minus-12 turnover differential – in losses to the Patriots and Jets, respectively.
Through all the problems the defense had, Stroud said taking care of its top priority is the key to overall improvement.
"We played hard, but the performances we gave up in the run game were terrible," he said. "We've got to fix one issue first, and then we'll see if the boat's got any other leaks."
Posluszny said the last two games magnified the team's defensive problems, but is optimistic about improvement based on the defense's total body of work.
"The last two weeks were very tough situations for us, and that was definitely a step back," he said. "There's no hiding that, but we still feel like – with the guys we have (and) the coaches we have – that we're headed the right way."