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FILM REVIEW: The Bills Awful Linebacking

Posted on October 23, 2012 by Patrick Moran

Like most of you, I’m utterly flabbergasted.

The Buffalo Bills defense was supposed to be the strength of this team in 2012.  Seven games into the season we can safety conclude that it’s not.  It’s bad. In fact it’s historically bad.  Not since the 1970 NFL merger has a team given up more yards per carry than this current edition of underachievers.

And we thought last year’s defense was bad? By comparison they were the ’85 Bears.

Fans and the media have plenty of darts to throw and the majority are being aimed towards defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt.  I certainly won’t say the scathing criticism aimed his way isn’t unwarranted. I would label his passive schemes and lack of risk taking as rather cowardice to be honest.

But don’t just take the easy way out and think this unit will be fixed if Chan Gailey grows a set and replaces him during the bye week.  It simply won’t matter.  It won’t matter because the more tape you watch of this unit, the more you realize that they simply can’t tackle—or even get off blocks.

I’m certainly NFL film footage expert, but I broke down both of Chris Johnson’s touchdown runs this past Sunday.  Hopefully you’ll forgive the not-so-great quality of the following images I saved.  I’m reasonably confident after seeing you won’t forgive this putrid defense and in particular the linebackers.


Tennessee has a second down and eight from the Buffalo 16 on the opening drive.  The Bills are in a base 4-3 defense with Barnett, Sheppard and Bradham in at linebacker. As is almost always the case in this defense, the Bills don’t blitz and are in react mode.  Shawne Merriman is the right end and Chris Kelsay on the left.   You can’t tell by the photograph immediately, but Kelsay is going to make a big mistake and rush too far up the field, thinking the Titans are going to pass.

Chris Johnson is going to take the hand off and start left off tackle, with fullback Quinn Johnson leading the way.

td1 b
The Bills defensive lineman are always sufficiently being blocked one on one.  In this frame you can already notice Kelsay gets caught at least four yards from the line of scrimmage up the field.  Quinn Johnson is en route to pick up Sheppard singlehandedly.  Next to Sheppard (who’s circled) you see Bradham, who’s already beginning to pitch inside and lose his containment on the outside left part of the field should Chris Johnson cut it out.

You can already see signs of both things wrong with the Bills defensively. First, they’re too easily getting engulfed and not getting off blocks.  Second, the linebackers aren’t staying at home and are over pursuing, which allows patient backs opportunities for counters and cut backs.

td1 c

You can barely see Sheppard in this photo.  That’s because the fullback does his job and takes him out of the play.  Bradham (circles in yellow) is now officially caught inside and easily sealed by the right tackle, David Stewart.  With Bradham caught inside and Kelsay too far up the field in pass rush mode, Chris Johnson has an easy opportunity to use his speed and get outside to the right.  Wide receiver Kenny Britt helps matters with a good open field block on Bills corner Aaron Williams, yet another case of Buffalo defenders not beating individual blocks.

Johnson gets to the right corner and is able to go down the sideline and leap into the end zone for the game’s first score.  You can visibly see a quartet of Bills defenders behind the play fruitlessly chasing.  Things like this happen with Sheppard and Bradham get blocked man on man and can’t get off to make a play.  Kelsay certainly didn’t help matters by remaining in upfield pass rush mode until it was too late, and Aaron Williams getting tied up by Britt was the final straw.   Still, if a linebacker can get off his guy and make a play the score doesn’t happen.


It’s first down and 10 and the Titans are on their own 17.  The Bills are again in a base 4-3 defense with their starting unit of linebackers on the field.  No blitz call or anything on this play.  I could be wrong, but it seems to me Sheppard plays further off the line than most middle linebackers in the league. Anyway, Johnson is going to be getting a handoff that again is set to go off tackle, with Chris Kelsay this time on the right end.


It doesn’t take long to see the Bills are in trouble with this seemingly basic play.  Kelsay is already being sealed out of the hole by Michael Roos and more importantly, the Titans fullback has struck again.  Quinn Johnson comes out of formation and puts a lick on the right outside backer Barnett (circled).  Sheppard (with the black arrow near him) is trying to read where the running is going with the ball, but does it way to slow because in another second he’ll be fully engaged with the Titans center; a battle Sheppard again loses. Chris Johnson is still three yards from the line of scrimmage with the ball but is about to have a clear path towards the end zone, because Buffalo defenders and in particular the linebackers can’t get off blocks.

Bingo.  Johnson is through the line at warp speed and Barnett is helpless as he tries to get his right arm out at him.  Sheppard was entirely late recognizing the hole and pays the price in allowing himself to get engaged with the center to take him out of the play.  A decent block on cornerback Stephon Gilmore ties him up long enough to allow Johnson off to the races.

See you later. Johnson is gone and in his wake are Buffalo’s three linebackers eating his dust—all a victim of being blocked one on one.


It didn’t matter what scheme the Bills were implementing; none work when you play undisciplined, can’t get off blocks and miss tackles.  Johnson also had a 27-yard run late in the fourth quarter that led to the game-winning touchdown. On that play the Bills were in a nickel with George Wilson up near the line.  Defensive end Kyle Moore got caught going up the field in pass rush mode, similar to what happened to Kelsay on the game’s first score.  Both inside linebackers ended up taken out of the play and Wilson ended up with the best shot at stopping Johnson.  Getting off a block by the tight end at the last minute, Wilson lunged at Johnson but whiffed, allowing Johnson to go 24 additional yards.

It’s a combination of these things that have plagued the Bills all season.  Dave Wannstedt is the whipping stick and in many ways deserves to be.  Buffalo has been too passive and has allowed the opposing offense to dictate the game.  Meanwhile, the Bills have been reduced almost exclusively to being the counterpuncher, which is great…if you’re Bernard Hopkins or Floyd Mayweather. Buffalo never seems to have an answer for what the offense is doing, are playing in far too predictable fashion and that’s on Wannstedt.

However, don’t let the blame game end with him. On these two plays illustrated alone you see that the Bills chief problem is they simply can’t get off blocks.  Quinn Johnson is a good fullback but he shouldn’t be engulfing linebackers this easily.  Buffalo’s linebackers are about as bad at getting off blocks and making plays as any unit I can remember.

Lastly, they’re not being helped by a defensive line that other than Kyle Williams seem to be either overrunning the play, or content just to be tangled up and move on to the next play.

I could’ve also summed this up much quicker, simply by concluding this defense is brutal.

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