When the defense lost middle linebacker Paul Posluszny to injury during the season opener at New England there was concern over how the Bills would go about replacing his quality production and leadership. A lot of the pressure fell on other members of the group, such as veteran outside linebacker Keith Ellison, to fill the void and make plays in the middle.
If the first two games are an indication, Ellison is up to the task.
After collecting a career-high 15 tackles (10 solo) against the high-powered Patriots attack in the opening loss, Ellison followed up that performance with 10 tackles in a win against Tampa Bay last Sunday—giving him a team-high 25. With stopping the run being an emphasis on defense, his play helped limit the Buccaneers to 57 yards rushing and 3.0 yards per carry.
Although Posluszny was replaced in the lineup by second year player Marcus Buggs, who contributed six tackles in his NFL debut, Ellison shifts to the nickel 'mike' linebacker position on passing downs.
Ellison, with experience playing both the weak side and strong side positions in his career, had no problems with the change. He said maintaining his endurance is most important when staying on the field for three downs.
"It really hasn't been too much of a transition," Ellison said. "I've had practice at it in the offseason and getting some work here, and last year had practice with it too. Just have to do some running after practice, not too much of a change."
In his fourth season with the Bills, Ellison's career high in tackles came in 2008 when he ranked fifth on the team with 82 over 14 starts. He was pressed into action when starter Angelo Crowell opted for season-ending knee surgery four days before the season opener, as well as remaining a solid contributor on special teams.
In addition to his speed and athleticism on the outside, Ellison has showed a knack for being a disruption around the line of scrimmage. Against the Patriots, he made several tackles on short running plays as well as running down the elite duo of Wes Welker and Randy Moss on the outside—displaying his ability to stop the run and drop into coverage effectively. In the fourth quarter last Sunday, Ellison and defensive end Chris Kelsey hurried quarterback Byron Leftwich into a poor throw at a crucial time to help protect a Buffalo lead.
During the offseason, Ellison, 25, signed a one-year tender offer as a restricted free agent to stay with the Bills. Working on a one year contract Ellison has shown early signs that he's more of a long-term value for the club. For the fourth-year linebacker however, victories are the main priority over his performance this season.
"I think we're just trying to win games. It doesn't really matter what my production is, personally. It's a matter of if we win," Ellison said. "We have a chance to come out and put another performance on against the Saints—which is a really good team. So the focus is just winning games."
Ellison is undersized for his position by NFL standards (6-0, 229). He played safety at San Diego State and El Camino Junior College for two seasons before moving to linebacker at Oregon State. Buggs, a former college safety himself, said Ellison compensates for that with dependability and knowledge of the game.
"Keith has been great for me these first two weeks. He's kind of playing a new position, that 'mike' spot, and he's a very smart guy coming in there and not making many mistakes. A very trustworthy guy and you can depend on him to get the job done," Buggs said. "I think he's handled it great, He shows he's in great condition playing as many snaps as it takes during the game. From the first snap to the 60th or the 70th, he's stays mentally sharp throughout the whole game."
Leading up to the game against Tampa Bay, a focal point of the linebacking corps was establishing communication. Since Buggs was getting caught up to speed on the defensive game plan, the pressure fell on veterans Ellison and Kawika Mitchell to take command of the huddle.
Ellison said he was pleased with the effort, but knows it's still a work in progress.
"It went well, we just have to make sure we keep talking to each other and tell each other what we see, recognizing things they're trying to do on offense," Ellison said. "The more we communicate on offense, the better we are—we're trying to get each other on the same page."
The chemistry will need to be on the same page this weekend as the Bills welcome the New Orleans Saints to Ralph Wilson Stadium. Winning their first two games with a scoring average of 46.5 points, the Saints boast a number of offensive weapons including quarterback Drew Brees.
"They got a lot of talent on offense and one of the best quarterbacks in the league running it. It's definitely a challenge for us," Ellison said. "Everybody just has to do their job. All 11 guys do their job and it gives us a great chance to win. One guy tries to do a little too much or doesn't do their assignment, we have breakdowns. So, I know our guys are focused on doing what they're supposed to do and get a win this week."
As the season progresses, Ellison is focused on remaining consistent while helping achieve team goals.
"To continue to get out there and make some more plays and help our defense perform well. It's all about victories, we're all trying to help the team win, and that's what matters at the end of the day."