Nick Barnett had been home for only a few hours Monday before he sent a group text to his fellow linebackers. He wanted them to know, with one of the NFL’s most dangerous backs waiting for them this Sunday, they had little time to bask in victory following their narrow win over the Cardinals.
Barnett, the eternal optimist, is also a realist. The Bills’ problems with stopping the run have coincided with the Titans’ inability to establish the run. Barnett wanted to make sure everyone was in the right frame of mind, so he told the linebackers to report for work early Wednesday and start cramming for C.J.
They would have met Tuesday night, on their day off, but Bryan Scott was meeting with the secondary for the same reason. They showed up about 8 a.m. Wednesday for extra video study, giving them enough time to review Tennessee’s tendencies, before special teams practice in preparation for the game.
“I told them that we definitely don’t want this to be the game that C.J. busts out, and he’s back on his tear,” Barnett said Wednesday. “If one guy isn’t disciplined, we’ll get exposed by a running back like this. He can run full speed sideways, in a carioca, and change to the next gap. You have to wait.”
C.J., of course, is not Spiller but Chris Johnson, and waiting a split-second for him seems like an eternity. Then again, people have been waiting for the Bills to stop the run all season. Buffalo has allowed 740 yards rushing the past three games alone. San Francisco carved the Bills for more than 300 yards on the ground. Arizona rolled up 182 yard rushing, although nearly half came from their quarterback and a fake punt.
Added up, the Bills are ranked dead last in the NFL against the run. Johnson would be frightening Sunday if the Titans didn’t have the NFL’s worst rushing offense with 421 yards. Johnson has been in decline since rushing for 2,006 yards in 2009 and is on pace this year for less than 1,000 yards, which would mark a career-low.
It makes for an interesting game in Ralph Wilson Stadium between two featherweights in the running game. The result is certain to be a humbling experience for one of them. You can almost hear the winner chanting, “We’re not the worst!”
Remember, before the season began, the Bills were expected to have one of the better run defenses in the league. Much of the talk during training camp was about Mario Williams and the Bills’ formidable front seven. Williams had his best game last week against the Cardinals in an otherwise uneventful season.
The Bills were adamant Wednesday that the statistics weren’t nearly as deplorable as they appeared, which was like hearing a fender-bender wouldn’t have been so bad if someone wasn’t taken away by ambulance. But at least they held the Cardinals’ third- and fourth-string running backs to less than 100 yards last week.
By the Bills’ paltry standards of late, it passes for growth.
Johnson’s patience and lateral movement, however, make him unsettling for the Bills. The key for Buffalo will be swarming him near the line of scrimmage and make sure he doesn’t have a chance to use his breakaway speed. If he gets into the secondary, they might as well catch up with him via email.
“Every time he touches the ball, he scares you,’’ Bills coach Chan Gailey said.
Buffalo had numerous reasons Wednesday for its recent problems that some might perceive as excuses. For now, let’s call them theories.
One suggested the Bills’ desperation for a solution has worked against them. Their eagerness to make a big play and their aggressiveness toward tackling led them to over-pursue ball carriers and take themselves out of plays. Too often, what normally would have been small creases expanded into canyons.
Offensive coordinators find soft spots, and they have been taking turns exposing the Bills’ defense for the past three weeks. New England showed the way in the second half in its rout over Buffalo. San Francisco rolled up 311 yards the following week. Arizona surpassed its season average Sunday.
“We were better last week, but we have a lot of improving to do,” Williams said. “We have to tackle better and be smart about being aggressive. When you do make that decision, you have to make the play. You can’t get out of the gap and not make the play and leave a hole. Great backs find that hole.”
Another theory is that the Bills are still adjusting to the 4-3 defense under Dave Wannstedt after playing the 3-4 under George Edwards. The Bills are stronger up front than they were a year ago. OK, they should be. Six weeks into the regular season, players are still getting comfortable with one another.
The transition, in keeping with the theory, has forced the entire defense to think too much rather than reading plays and reacting. The defense needs to become more instinctive, which means faster and better, sooner than yesterday. The more failure, the more desperate their search becomes for a solution.
Around and around they go.
And they simply haven’t played well. Marcell Dareus, the former first-round pick who was selected largely for his ability to stop the run, has been a non-factor for much of the season. If teams are single-blocking him, they have more manpower to address Kyle Williams. The Bills’ linebackers have been average.
Added up, it’s negative.
“A fix here and a fix there, and we could be second in the league,” Barnett said. “It’s not that we don’t have the talent. That would be the biggest problem, saying, ‘[Shoot,] we can’t do it.’ It’s frustrating when you know you have the talent and capability to be a really good run defense. We just haven’t done it for whatever reason.”