In the NFL one side of the ball is often required to carry more of the load than the other at times through the course of a 16-game season. There are stretches where a defense may struggle to keep points off the board and the offense has to pick up the slack and score more to win a shootout. At times a team's offense may have a turnover-filled day and need to lean on their defense to win a low-scoring affair.
For Buffalo's defense the added burden from start to finish this past season ultimately became too much to bear as the Bills offense could not hold up their end of the bargain for much of 2009.
When the regular season came to a close last Sunday there was no defensive unit in the NFL that had been on the field for more plays in 2009 than the Bills, 1,086 to be exact. Part of the reason why was Buffalo's offense, which was last in the league in third down conversion percentage (26%) and last in first downs per game (14.6). They were also last in total offensive plays for the season with just 911.
That difference of 175 plays left the Bills defense out on the field longer than almost any other team in football this season. Their average time on the field in a 60-minute game was 32:34. Only Kansas City's defense spent more time on the field on average (32:49) than Buffalo's.
"That's three maybe four games if you have 50 snaps in a game, which we had," said Donte Whitner. "That's a lot of extra plays, not even including the preseason and the grind there. It's tough, it was tough, but we pride ourselves on that, being able to go when it gets tough out there."
"It's hard when you have that big of a discrepancy between one side of the ball than the other," said Kyle Williams. "When you put that much pressure on one side."
Buffalo's defense did its level best to keep the Bills in games ranking a respectable 16th in points allowed, but they could only hold off opponents for so long. Time on the field was partly the reason why come the third and fourth quarters the defense was worn out.
"When you're going three and out every time and you need the defense to make a play its tough because they're spent," said Terrell Owens. "Offensively we never got it done and that's the key thing. The defense shut down a lot of offenses that could put big numbers on the board. You look at the scores and they can be misleading, but we put the defenses back against the wall."
The Bills were tied or had the lead entering the fourth quarter this season 10 times and won only half the time. Buffalo was outscored by 42 points in the final stanza in 2009 and by 53 points in the second half. But defensive co-captain Paul Posluszny said it's too easy to fault the offense.
"If we get off the field on third down then those numbers decrease," Posluszny said. "That goes hand in hand. We were on the field a lot, but that's fine, that gives us more of an opportunity to make plays. That's on us, being on the field a lot. That's on us because we feel like it's our job to get off the field on third down and put our offense back out there. And when you don't do that that's when the amount of plays keeps increasing."
Buffalo did rank 24th in the league in third down defense allowing opponents to convert just over 40 percent of the time (40.4%). Being on the field as long as they were the Bills ranked 31st in third down conversions allowed with 97. Only the Indianapolis defense allowed more (104).
All that time on the field also put extra wear and tear on bodies. It's not unrealistic to believe that all the extra snaps contributed to the bounty of injuries that befell Buffalo's defense.
"We had a ton of injuries on the defensive side of the ball," said Whitner, who missed six games this past season. "That's probably a reason, guys laying it on the line, guys taking on blocks and not ducking them, they're running into people and when you have that many more plays it adds up and the percentage of the risk of you getting hurt is greater when you play more plays."
The starting linebacking corps alone spent all of a quarter and a half on the field together in 2009. Posluszny was hurt in the opener and missed the next four games. By the time he returned Kawika Mitchell was out for the season with a knee injury, and Keith Ellison soon followed three weeks later.
"Unfortunately I got hurt and by the time I got healthy Kawika was out," said Posluszny. "Keith and I got to play a little bit together and he got hurt. It's a tough part of the deal. Guys do get hurt, but this season was particularly difficult. I guess that's sometimes just the way it works out."
"If you're playing that much things are going to tend to happen," said Williams, who missed most of three games with a knee injury. "That being said we still had so many guys get hurt and we were still able to stay in a lot of football games."
Looking ahead to next season the men on Buffalo's offense realize that they've got to be better in a lot of areas, but chiefly with keeping drives alive. "Third down is definitely going to be the key," said Lee Evans. "We left our defense out there for a lot of plays this season. That has to change."