When Jim Schwartz took over as defensive coordinator in the offseason, it was pretty well understood that Buffalo might be making a trade-off. The goal was to improve the run defense and third down defense at the expense of not being among the league leaders in sacks, as was the case last year when they finished second with a franchise record of 57.
Photos of Bills pass rushers sacking and pressuring opposing QBs during the 2014 season.
Needless to say it has been a pleasant surprise that, through Week 7, the Bills have more sacks than at the same time last year and are still a top-five run (4th) and third down (4th) defense.
"Allowing our secondary to do its job," DE Jerry Hughes said when asked how they have been able to sustain last year's numbers. "They've really been doing a fantastic job of making quarterbacks go to their second and third reads, taking away that first option so quarterbacks have to figure out where they want to go once their first option is taken away. When the secondary does that it buys [the defensive line] more time to do what we do."
Last season's defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, now the head coach in Cleveland, is known for his heavy blitzing approach on defense. This can be seen by the franchise-record 57 sacks the team set last year – the downside being that Buffalo had the 28th ranked rushing defense.
When talking to certain members of the Bills' defense, they spelled out why they have been able accomplish so much more this year. What they said it really comes down to is making the offense one-dimensional; Remove the run as an option and the opponent is forced to pass.
"When you stop the run, you get to play the pass on third down," Hughes said. "For us, being able to stop the run, we understand that that's going to pay off for us. I feel like that's why we work so hard throughout the week to kind of get the basic concepts down and make sure that we really understand what's getting ready to take place on Sunday."
This was the case against Detroit and Miami. The two teams were only able to manage a combine 149 rushing yards on 41 attempts against Buffalo. They also had a combined third-down conversion rate of 22 percent (6-27).
Part of this is due to the simple fact that the Bills are seeing fewer running plays. In 2013, the defense faced an average of 28.75 rushing players per game. This season that number is down more than five carries a game (23.57).
"When offensive coordinators see defenses stopping the run, they can either throw it away or keep [running]," DT Corbin Bryant said. "Offenses really like to try it against us, but once they can't, they have to try and air it out somehow."
It's not just one player for the Bills either. DT Marcell Dareus has 7.0 sacks while Hughes and DE Mario Williams have 5.5 sacks. How do you prepare against a defense knowing that if you double-team one player, it leaves another wide open?
"[The offense] just has to know that they're going to be in a frenzy all day Sunday," Bryant said. "We have a lot of great guys on our defense that can get the job done. Not just with the starting front four but with the rest of us that come in. We're guys going out there trying to hunt and get tackles and make plays. They have to know that we're going to be all over the place"
Which brings up that this dominance isn't entirely owed to Schwartz, Bryant added. Sure, Schwartz has great schemes and puts the defense in good positions, but ultimately it's about the players on the front line.
"It really speaks to the talent that we have on the defense," he said. "That's why we're getting to the quarterback and stopping the run the way we should. But credit to Coach Schwartz for putting us in the right spots on Sunday."
Right now the defense is on pace to finish just below last year's 57 sacks but that doesn't mean the record can't be broken again.
Through the first four games, Buffalo combined for 11 sacks. In just the last three games, the team has erupted for 13 sacks.
And when you take that stat and put it alongside the fact that of the nine games remaining on the schedule, eight of them are against teams currently in the top half of the league for sacks allowed, the future is promising for another run at the Bills' record book.