Stubbornness and persistence are traits the Buffalo Bills will need in heaping doses this week against the San Francisco 49ers defense.
The running duo of Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller is essential to the Bills’ success, but the 49ers have the most dominant run defense in the NFL.
San Francisco has allowed just one 100-yard rusher in its last 44 games, that being ex-Bill and current Seattle Seahawk Marshawn Lynch on Christmas Eve last season. The Niners led the NFL in run defense in 2011, yielding only 77.3 yards per game. They allowed just three rushing TDs all last season, the fewest since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978.
“Something we definitely noticed already is how relentless San Francisco is, how physical they are, how aggressive they are,” said Bills tight end Lee Smith. “They’re a hard-nosed football team. You know you’re in for a dogfight. That’s what it’s all about. This week we truly have to fight on every play.”
An over-reliance on quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick does not look like an ideal response to the Niners’ dominance vs. the run. San Francisco has star pass rushers in All-Pro defensive end Justin Smith and edge rusher Aldon Smith. The Niners’ tied for second in the NFL last year in interceptions with 23. Teams that totally abandon the run game generally have been pummeled by the 49ers.
“That front seven is the best front seven we’ll see all year,” said Jackson. “There’s gonna be 1- and 2-yard runs. We can’t let that discourage us. ... We’ll get some 4- and 5- and 6-yard runs here and there. Hopefully in the end it all balances out and we’re moving the ball effectively enough that we don’t get away from the run game.”
Teams that kept a semblance of balance and avoided turnovers have been competitive vs. the Niners. In Week 16 last season, Seattle rushed 27 times and lost by two. In Week 14, St. Louis rushed 25 times and lost by seven. In upsetting the Niners two weeks ago, Minnesota rushed 41 times for 146 yards. The New York Giants showed great patience on offense in beating the Niners in the NFC Championship Game last January. Despite averaging just 3.3 yards a carry, New York still ran 26 times and won, 20-17.
Niners inside linebackers Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman both made the Pro Bowl last year. They stay in the game in the nickel defense, which the Bills will see for the most part. They’re good enough to cover most tight ends one on one, which helps the rest of the pass coverage. Linebacker Ahmad Brooks usually stays on the field in the nickel defense, too.
“It’s as good a tandem as there is in the league, really,” Bills coach Chan Gailey said of Willis and Bowman. “They are big, strong, physical. They play pass and run, they do it all. They’re very, very good players.”
“They play downhill,” said Bills center Eric Wood. “They’re not gonna do a lot of fancy stuff. I think they think that fancy stuff can get ‘em beat. And they’ve got good enough players that they can line up and play with anybody.”
So far this season, the 49ers rank fifth against the run, yielding 79.5 yards per game. They have allowed only 32 percent of opponents’ run plays to gain 4 or more yards.
The Bills are averaging 4 or more yards on 53 percent of their run plays, if you take away six Fitzpatrick kneel-downs at the end of a half or game. Spiller is averaging 8.3 yards a carry.
“We just gotta keep pushing and finishing our blocks,” said guard Andy Levitre. “After a certain amount of time, I don’t know when, we’ll start getting more and more yards. As an offensive line, we have to keep your legs running, finishing blocks to the whistle and let the running backs hit the hole. I think that’s helped us be successful in the past.”