Feel free to blame it on injuries. Chris Kelsay seemed to be playing through injuries all year. Aaron Schobel hurt his foot early on (around Week 3) and was finally out for good following the humbling loss to Arizona. Rookie Chris Ellis wasn’t activated until seven weeks in. He answered with only three tackles in six games before landing on injured reserve with an injured ankle. Injuries and aging defensive ends (Schobel and Ryan Denney are both 32, Kelsay is nearing 30) had most thinking major changes would be in store for 2009.
The writing on the wall was recorded when Buffalo drafted Aaron Maybin in the first round this past April. Despite his lack of ideal weight for the position, the front office regarded Maybin as a defenseive end and not a rush linebacker. The former Nittany Lion looked to be headed for a situational role as a speedy pass rusher this season, and the future starting left end. To date Maybin’s done absolutely nothing on the field once the game’s started counting.
Fortunately it hasn’t mattered much. The pass rush from the defensive line has improved significantly so far this year, even without a Maybin contribution. The Bills are currently tied for sixth in the league with 11 sacks through 4 games. That’s 46% of last year’s total sacks in only a quarter the time. For those uninterested in math, it puts the defense on pace for nearly double the production of a year ago. And that’s with no new personnel on the field. The same starting defensive line as last year is doing a radically different job.
Where did this newfound production come from? The assumed washed-up Schobel has three sacks, an interception, forced fumble and two passes defended. Marcus Stroud has two sacks, been stout against the run and has knocked down a pair of passes. Classic overachiever Kyle Williams has been spotted knifing through offensive lines for multiple pressures, one of which led to a Donte Whitner pick-six against Tampa Bay. Even the man dogged by Bills fans everywhere (Kelsay) has gotten in on the action with two sacks, tying his total through all 16 games last season. Even their primary sub (Denney) has a couple of quarterback takedowns. The best part about the old line/new results is pressure on opposing quarterback has been consistent, a term rarely associated with the Bills pass rush.
It’s also appropriate to look at who the Bills opponents have been. The Patriots gave up plenty of sacks last year with Matt Cassel at the helm, but surrendered only 21 in 586 passing attempts during Tom Brady’s last full season. New England allowed a sack and six QB hits in Week 1 against the Bills.
The Buccaneers, despite a horrible offense, have only given up 5 sacks on the year, two of them to Buffalo. Tampa Bay has played both Dallas and the Giants, who combined for 101 sacks last year, but zero against the Bucs.
New Orleans gave up two sacks to the Bills after allowing just 29 in their previous 33 games. That’s 29 sacks on 1322 passing attempts, an absolutely absurd ratio.
Miami’s quarterbacks have been taken down a total of 13 times in four games this season and nearly half of them (6) are courtesy of Buffalo.
In fact, three of the four teams Buffalo’s played are among the bottom ten in the league in sacks allowed. Miami is the odd one out, but the other three have combined for merely 13 sacks allowed in a total of 12 games. Five of those thirteen sacks belong to Buffalo’s defense.
No matter how you construe the numbers, the pass-rush has been impressive. After ranking in the bottom five for sacks the past two years, what has changed?
The only palpable difference is new defensive line coach Bob Sanders. He was defensive coordinator in Green Bay for three years before being fired (along with five other coaches) due to an underachieving unit that was also ravished with injuries. Sanders was known in Green Bay as a guy who got the best from his defensive linemen and no example is better than how he helped mold Aaron Kampman from journeyman to Pro Bowler.
Sanders brings a different style of coaching to the Bills than their previous defensive line coaches. Instead of barking ferociously at the players, he focuses on teaching the players counter moves and hand techniques, even bringing in a judo expert to help. His work has obviously paid off, as the numbers can attest.
Sanders has been coaching football since 1980 and with that kind of experience the Bills linemen know what they’re getting.
“He’s been around the game for a long time and he knows exactly what he’s doing, ” Kelsay said. “He expects us to play to a certain level and he’s helped everyone on the line get more out their strengths. We’ve done some things differently than the past and we’ve picked up on some new things and it’s been able to translate to better results on the field.”
If the defensive line can keep up this pace over the entire season, Sanders will have proved his worth in teaching old dogs new tricks.
His pet project is developing Maybin and Ellis to the point where they can be rotated in heavily during games, and produce. Maybin has played sparingly through the first month. Ellis hasn’t played at all. It’s a work in progress.
” Both guys had some success in the preseason but they’re still things they are learning,” Sanders said. “We’ve got guys on the front line who are smart and productive, so we’re going to let our younger guys continue to grow and learn and we’ll move them along accordingly.”
Sanders wasn’t a bad defensive coordinator in Green Bay by any means, but he seems to do a better job when allowed to solely focus on the defensive line. Keeping him on to mentor the youngsters while getting the most possible out of the vets is a big step in revitalizing a front four that’s collectively underachieved in Buffalo for years.