It didn't take Chan Gailey very long to explain part of what went wrong for the Bills in their narrow loss to the Giants in Week 6. Yes, the two second half interceptions by Ryan Fitzpatrick were critical in the outcome of the game. In the same breath however, Gailey made it clear from the outset of his postgame press conference that Buffalo's inability to get to Eli Manning paved the way for the Giants passing game Sunday in what wound up being a three-point New York victory.
"It's a problem we've got," said Gailey of the Bills pass rush. "We do have a problem. There's no bones about it. We tried to come after (Manning) with five on a lot of third downs especially in the first half and we still didn't get there. So we're going to have to figure something out to generate some kind of pass rush."
Going into the season Buffalo was hopeful their pass rush would be improved with Marcell Dareus' well-rounded game expected to complement Kyle Williams penetrating style in the middle. The problem is Williams' trademark explosion has been missing for most of the season as a foot injury that first surfaced in training camp has only worsened with each passing week.
This past Sunday Williams was missing altogether as his ailing foot rendered him inactive, and Dareus became the Giants' primary focus as he saw more than his fair share of double teams.
Looking ahead it's unclear if Williams' foot injury will allow him to play his typical up field game that often prevents quarterbacks from stepping up in the pocket and sends them running into the arms of Buffalo's outside linebackers.
That brings us to Shawne Merriman, another veteran Buffalo's defensive staff was hoping could provide some edge pressure even if it was only in obvious passing situations as his playing time has been closely monitored since the preseason.
Merriman is one of only four players with a sack on the season, but with his Achilles flaring up this past week and giving him discomfort it's difficult to know for sure if he'll be able to make the kind of impact the club was hoping for over the last 10 games. Merriman, who said he'll be ready for Buffalo's Week 8 game against Washington, recognizes that the front seven has to be more productive in getting after opposing quarterbacks.
"Myself included, we have to get in the backfield a lot more and help the secondary out," he said. "So it lies at our feet up front to play better."
Buffalo has young up and coming pass rushers in Danny Batten and Arthur Moats, but even Gailey admitted that their time on the field is more extensive than they would like at this point in the season with injuries to Merriman and Chris Kelsay.
"They've been thrust in there a little earlier than maybe a lot of us hoped they would have to be in there," said Gailey. "We were hoping to bring them along slowly. I know they'll compete and they're intelligent and will play as hard as they can play."
Absent Kelsay, Merriman and Williams last Sunday Buffalo's defensive staff knew they had to be more aggressive than usual with their blitz packages. There were a good number of five man pressures by Buffalo in the game.
Defensive coordinator George Edwards to his credit mixed up the looks. Sometimes he sent a slot corner, other times it was a safety, and still other times with both outside backers.
There were several times the Bills were close, but against a Giants offensive line dealing with injuries that ranked 24th in sacks per play allowed they did not register a sack. On 65 offensive plays run by the Giants, the Bills had just a single quarterback hit delivered by Moats as Manning calmly completed 65 percent of his passes in throwing for almost 300 yards.
After reviewing the game tape Gailey believes his pass rushers are not winning enough of the individual battles.
"The main issue we're getting one-on-one blocks and we're not winning the one-on-one," he said. "They're blocking us rather than us beating them. One thing to get better at is technique. You can get better at pass rush technique, so hopefully we'll continue to work on that and get better at it."
After six games the Bills are last in the league in sacks with four. Sacks aren't the end all, be all statistic for defensive success. Buffalo has had games where just getting pressure on the quarterback or hands up in the passing lanes has led to turnovers (See: New England, Philadelphia).
At the same time the defensive players are not putting their heads in the sand. They're very aware that the pass rush is an issue that needs to be addressed.
"It's very frustrating," said Nick Barnett. "We gave (Manning) a little bit too much time back there to throw the ball and it cost us. We've got to try to fix that because we didn't cause any pressure on the quarterback and didn't get any sacks. We've got to change that around."
Through the first six games the Bills have given up the third most pass plays of 25 yards or more (13). On Sunday there was a 60-yarder to Hakeem Nicks. Without a consistent pass rush there's time for opposing quarterbacks to let deep routes develop. On a few plays Sunday Manning took some seven-step drops and still had time.
"It's a team effort," said Marcell Dareus. "As a defensive line we have to get after the quarterback more and apply pressure. And our DBs have to do their job on the back end. We have to get better."
Buffalo may have to get more creative than they have been to generate pressure knowing the chances of having Merriman and Williams at 100 percent the rest of the way is less than a sure thing.
The good news is they have a bye week to devise some different looks. With a brain trust like that of Gailey, Edwards, Dave Wannstedt and other veteran assistants on the staff, it seems likely that they will have some answers to address the situation.
"You try to turn over every rock, or as many rocks as you can between now and then, and figure out a way to generate some type of pass rush," said Gailey. "Is it personnel oriented? Is it scheme oriented? You have to look at it and evaluate it and decide which direction you're going to go. That's never easy. You'd rather it be a four-man rush and get pressure, but we haven't had that so we have to look at what we have to do."