For five straight weeks in the heart of Buffalo's regular season the Bills faced 3-4 defensive fronts. The offense's results against them spoke volumes. Unable to run the football with much effectiveness in three of the five matchups and turning the football over frequently left the team with a 1-4 mark over that stretch and searching for answers.
After a one week respite against the Chiefs, a second gauntlet of 3-4 defenses awaits beginning with San Francisco on Sunday, followed by the second run through the AFC East, with the Dec. 21 date at Denver the only reprieve.
With their playoff hopes in a very precarious position at 6-5, Buffalo has to have quicker answers for what the 3-4 defenses have ready to dish out.
"We have no choice," said Lee Evans. "I think this is really the time where you have to take advantage of all the opportunities that you are given. I think our (offensive) line really knows that."
"What we need to do is learn from those games and use those down the stretch for these next five games we need to use those things we went through if we ever face another situation like that," said Edwards. "We need to fix those problems quickly."
Signs that there were lessons learned from facing all of those 3-4 fronts in succession began to surface in the Monday night game against Cleveland. With Trent Edwards struggling to find a rhythm in the passing game, Buffalo's men up front had one of their better games creating rushing lanes for Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson.
The result was 186 yards on the ground, far and away their best total of the season to that point. The Bills believe if the running game can be started that much sooner they could see their game plan unfold far more successfully than in the recent past.
"Coming from that Cleveland game when we ran the ball pretty effectively against their 3-4 it breeds some confidence," said Evans. "When you can run the football effectively it just automatically opens up your playbook because you get them thinking about the run and you get opportunities in the pass game. I think that's where it really stems from with the offensive line really putting it on their shoulders to get the running game going."
Part of the reason Buffalo struggled so much running the football was because they faced some strong run fronts in San Diego (15th), Miami (9th), the Jets (3rd) and New England (13th), three of which have Pro Bowl caliber nose tackles.
The 49ers fortunately don't have a nose tackle of equal caliber. Aubrayo Franklin is not a major disruptive force like the Jets' Kris Jenkins or New England's Vince Wilfork. He's unlikely to push the pocket or shed two blockers to make the tackle. More often than not he's going to stand in there and grind with two offensive linemen and let the likes of Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes make plays.
His backup Isaac Sopoaga usually plays left defensive end in the Niners 3-4 scheme and is considered more of a plugger than athlete.
That's why the Bills backs are hopeful they can establish a ground game like they did against Cleveland, just a bit sooner.
"We want to try to keep that going," said Fred Jackson. "We know this weekend is going to be a good test for us with the two linebackers they have in the middle. But as an offense we're excited about the things we've been doing the past couple of weeks so we want to try to continue that success. It takes a lot of pressure off Trent once we get that running game established. It's going to open things up for Lee to get some deep balls thrown to him. We definitely have to get it going early."
One of those San Francisco linebackers Takeo Spikes has looked at a lot of the Bills game film against the 3-4 fronts they've faced and admits he's seen the opposing defenses changing up their approach against Buffalo.
"I've looked at several other games that they had against the 3-4 fronts and I saw a lot of mix up," said Spikes. "I think all the 3-4s are different and it starts up front especially at the nose guard position. If you can get somebody who is pretty stout and athletic… I remember looking at the Cleveland game and Shaun (Rogers) was going up against Duke (Preston) and at times he was playing regular and at times he was slanting across his face and that kind of messed up the plays. There is a lot of stuff out there from what I've been looking at."
Spikes maintains that the 49ers defense is far from vanilla too in terms of the different looks they can throw at an opposing quarterback.
But Buffalo's signal caller is taking solace in the fact that over those five games against 3-4 fronts they've seen an awful lot of what defenses can dish out from that formation. He's hopeful that when there is something different thrown at them this Sunday he'll be able to draw on his recent experience and have solutions.
"I think that we've faced the 3-4s and we've seen the majority of what their defenses can do," Edwards said. "Hopefully we can handle it. The past couple of weeks the 49ers haven't shown as much defensively as they had earlier in the season. But I've said this about past defenses, they don't show a lot and once we play them they bring the kitchen sink. That hopefully won't happen to us, but if it does we've faced that before and we've got to be able to handle it."
"Obviously the more you see and the more you experience it, you get a better and better feel for it," said head coach Dick Jauron. "This (49ers) team gave Dallas all they could handle. I thought Tony Romo and Dallas made plays, big plays, to beat them. They pressured and they played hard, they come after you, they're a talented group. We'll definitely have our hands full."