From the top to the bottom of the organization the Bills knew their run defense needed more talent to improve what was the least effective run defense in the league in 2010. Buffalo's front office took definitive steps to address their run front using their top four picks on defensive players that have a reputation of being physical against the run. That additional talent combined with a second year in the defensive system for returning players under defensive coordinator George Edwards is expected to yield noticeable improvement.
The Bills tied a dubious franchise mark last season allowing eight opponents to rush for over 200 yards against them in 2010. Their lack of effectiveness forced the defensive staff to shift back and forth between 4-3 and 3-4 looks week to week depending on the opponent. While the immediate plan is for a hybrid system to continue Bills GM Buddy Nix has said the long range outlook is to primarily be a 3-4 defensive front.
Top draft choice Marcell Dareus is a major indication of that. Having played in 3-4 system at Alabama Dareus walks into a defensive system that he himself said has similarities to the scheme in which he played under Nick Saban in Tuscaloosa. Widely expected to be the Bills' starting left defensive end come September being able to hit the ground running in an offseason with far lesser practice time will be important.
"We're expecting him to come in and help us," said Edwards. "He plays with a lot of power and explosion. You can see he does a nice job with his hands. He's able to shed blocks and make plays which is what we saw him do his whole career when we looked at his body of work out of college. We're very anxious to get started with him."
At 6'3 ½" and 319 pounds, Dareus was just one example of the Bills getting bigger and stronger across the board defensively. Second-round pick Aaron Williams is a 205-pound cornerback, third-round pick Kelvin Sheppard is a 250-pound inside linebacker and fourth-rounder Da'Norris Searcy is a 223-pound strong safety.
"You draft bigger and you become bigger. That's the only way it's going to happen," Edwards said. "We've got some unique pieces to add to us defensively that should help us depth-wise and should in year two help us make a jump."
How much the Bills run front can improve is the question.
While there's no debating that Buffalo improved their personnel from a talent, size and depth perspective, their opponents also factor heavily into where the Bills wind up when it comes to the league's run defense rankings.
Edwards' defense will face five of the top six rushing teams from a season ago including the top two rushing teams in the league from 2010 in the season's first two weeks in Kansas City (1st) and Oakland (2nd).
Last season in a game that went almost five quarters, the Bills surrendered 274 rushing yards to the Chiefs, with Jamaal Charles accounting for 177 on just 22 carries good for an average of better than eight yards per rush (8.04).
But Edwards is confident his run front will be ready to handle all that Kansas City can dish out on the ground come the opener this season.
"We've gotten bigger from a year ago," he said. "Having guys that have been in the defensive scheme for a year and adding some guys that have played in the 3-4 throughout their college career… we think that should help us up front. Now the proof is in the pudding so getting out there and doing it and seeing it every day is what we're looking for."
Though he was not on the staff last season, Bills Assistant head coach/inside linebackers coach Dave Wannstedt has been quick to support Edwards' scheme for a stouter run front this season.
"George Edwards has done a great job this offseason of laying out a plan that everybody has jumped on board with and collectively guys have bought in and everyone is on the same page in terms of what we need to improve and how we need to improve," said Wannstedt. "Now you've got to have players and I think we have players that will make us better. We will improve."
How much they'll improve might be hard to definitively peg, but Edwards wants his unit to be considerably better, and they'll have to be to give Buffalo more chances to pull out games that slipped away from them last season.
"We're looking to make a big jump," he said. "From that aspect of it our goals will be high and our expectations will be high, but at the end of the day our biggest deal are our bottom line results. So we're anxious to get started and get out there and get working and put the results on tape and you can see it at the end of the year."