Defending the run was a recurring problem that plagued the Bills through their first eight games, but the team comes off a bye week hoping to shore up deficiencies in this area. There is no wasted time seeing if those improvements can come to fruition, as they face a tall order in containing Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson.
Currently ranked last in the league in rushing yards allowed per game, the Bills have seen an opposing running back gain at least 100 yards in seven of eight contests this season. If the unit hopes to change this figure, it must stop Johnson, who leads the league in rushing with 959 yards and six touchdowns.
In the Titans 34-27 victory at San Francisco last Sunday, Johnson rushed for two touchdowns and 135 yards on 25 carries just a week after bruising the Jaguars for 228 yards on the ground.
The tremendous speed of Johnson was a topic several Bills players discussed Wednesday. After an impressive combine workout in 2008, opening eyes with a 4.3 40 yard dash, the Titans selected the East Carolina product with their first round pick. All Johnson has done since is rush for 1,228 yards and nine touchdowns his rookie season, making the Pro Bowl, and campaigning for another one in 2009.
"The thing that really stands out about him is his speed. We need to definitely be able to contain him on the outside," Ryan Denney said. "The key is to be consistent in our gap control and making sure we don't miss any tackles."
The issues Denney referenced as well as third down defense has led to significant breakdowns for the Bills defense during the first half of the season. At times, a player was caught out of position and the opposition was able to sustain drives with a big gain on the ground or convert third downs. It's been a primary factor in wearing the defensive unit out by game's end.
The Bills yielded almost 40 minutes in time of possession to the Houston Texans offense two weeks ago, and Paul Posluszny was quick to take blame for the performance stating it falls right on the defense's shoulders.
However, he's confident the bye week helped the team gain a sense of focus on what mistakes need to be corrected.
"Coming off the bye we had some time to reload and come back into the second half fresh and ready to go. That's definitely been the mindset," Posluszny said. "We've been on the field a lot, guys getting injured, but you can't use that as an excuse. We have to go out there and play sound football, get off the field and make the plays you need to make. This week we have to stop the run, keep those yardage totals down and get off the field."
Donte Whitner agreed with his teammate, saying the bye was positive and the unit as a whole needs to make plays consistently.
"We look forward to fixing the things that were going wrong the first half of the season. For us on defense the big thing was stopping the run," Whitner said. "We just have to trust each other, stay in our gaps and make sure that we tackle well especially this week against Chris Johnson. He's a home-run hitter. He can take it to the house from anywhere on the football field, so that's a big priority for us this week."
The ability to go the distance every time he has the ball is one of Johnson's trademarks, yet the 5-11 200 pound back is not a one-dimensional runner because of speed alone. Despite his small frame, he can keep defenses honest by pounding the ball inside—evidenced by 6.7 yards carry—and use of superb vision and acceleration to beat teams off the edge. In two games this season, Johnson has broken runs of 91 and 86 yards, including 23 runs of 10 yards or more.
Posluszny said the defense must be wary of Johnson's cutback ability, a reason why the interior line and linebackers have studied extra film. In the end there must be a concentration on discipline and staying in position.
"We're going to have to be really disciplined against this guy because he has the speed to take it anywhere," he said. "He bounces to the outside and turns the corner, but if he sees that cutback he has the speed to burst and get through the field."
Titans coach Jeff Fisher said an impressive element to Johnson's season is a few of his longer runs have come between the tackles despite the best efforts of opposing defenses, which are often stacking eight and sometimes as many as nine defenders in the box.
"He'll get through (the hole) so quick that safeties have alignment responsibilities regardless if there's one in the middle of the field or if there are two playing halves, he's just so quick there's very little time to adjust," Fisher said.
Responsible for the deep middle is Jairus Byrd, and he will certainly be tested if Johnson cuts loose into the open field.
"We saw on it film, he's outrunning angles so your margin of error is pretty small. It starts up front and being in our gaps because by the time it gets to me something has gone wrong. If we can eliminate that it would be great."
Considering what Johnson brings to the table, and the Bills problems on defense no secret, it makes stopping him all the more important.
"We've got to handle the second best rushing offense in the league, and obviously we've struggled with that the first half of the season, so I'm sure we're going to get a heavy dose of Johnson," Chris Kelsay said. "It's something we need to shore up and shore up in a hurry. It's a big task, but we'll be fighting this week and preparing hard for it. I think we'll be in good shape."