The Buffalo Bills’ run defense has made a worst-to-first turnaround in the last five weeks of the season.
Consider the following numbers, put together by the team’s media relations department: In the first eight games of the season, the Bills were allowing 169.5 rushing yards and 5.6 yards per attempt, totals that ranked 31st and 32nd in the NFL, respectively.
Over the last five games, those numbers have fallen to 78.4 yards and 3.1 yards per rush, figures that are second and tied for first in the league. The Bills also lead the AFC in stopping opponents 41 times for negative yards on rushing plays, a total that ranks sixth in the NFL.
“You see guys getting where they need to get, making the tackles. Very few missed tackles. That’s really the biggest difference,” said linebacker Bryan Scott. “We always knew the potential this defense had, and now you see us coming into our own the last four or five weeks.”
The Bills have held their opponents to less than 90 yards rushing in each of the last four games, marking the longest such streak since Weeks Two to Five of the 1999 season.
“I think there’s a great trust factor among our defensive players that everybody has their gap and they stay in their gap,” coach Chan Gailey said. “They’re very disciplined about attacking the line of scrimmage in their gap. We’re not giving very many creases. … You really predicate your defense on your run defense and it’s been outstanding.”
The numbers back up Gailey’s belief that a good defense starts with stopping the run. After allowing 417.9 total yards per game in their first eight contests, which ranked 31st in the NFL, the Bills are allowing 272.8 yards per game in their last five, second to only Pittsburgh (248.7) in the NFL.
Not surprisingly, the stat that matters most — points — also has improved. The Bills had allowed 28 points per game in their first eight, that number has been reduced to 18 per game in the last five.
“I don’t think the confidence was shaken [early in the season], it was just more questions like ‘why aren’t we?’ because we know we’re capable of doing it,” Scott said. “Some of the things I see now, we’re just playing very well together, reading off of each other.”
Not being “gap sound,” as the players call it, was referred to several times in the first half of the year, particularly in Weeks Four to Eight, when the Bills gave up 937 yards on the ground, an average of 234 per game.
Gaps are the space opposing running backs try to rush through. The space between a center and guard on either side, for example, is referred to as the “A” gap, the space between the guard and tackle the “B” gap, and it continues like that out to the sideline.
A defensive player is assigned to a particular gap, and even if he doesn’t make the tackle, his job is to clog up the running lanes and allow his teammates to swarm to the ball. Too often early in the season, the Bills said that wasn’t happening.
“I think all that’s been cleaned up. We’re not doing anything differently. I think the things are cleaner. I think guys are where they’re supposed to be and I think guys are playing faster,” defensive tackle Kyle Williams said. “I think that was the main thing … guys getting on and off the blocks and getting to the ball, and not missing gap assignments are huge. It’s amazing what being in your gap can do.”
Fellow defensive tackle Marcell Dareus had another theory for the improvement.
“The second half of the season, we told ourselves as a defensive front, as a defense, all together we’re going to draw a line in the sand, and I guess that’s what we did,” he said. “Our defensive front, we just put our mind to it, we’re going to do the best we can, no matter what else is going on around us. … Just as a front, we really feel like we can do this, we can be one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL. That alone is just helping our team.”
It’s worth noting the teams the Bills have had success against in stopping the run rank in the bottom half of the league, but individually St. Louis’ Steven Jackson (836 yards, 16th in the NFL), Miami’s Reggie Bush (791, 18th) and Indianapolis’ Vick Ballard (562, 26th) all rank in the top 30. Bush and Jackson, in particular, present two drastically different styles.
“Our guys have handled it extremely well,” Gailey said.
Sunday will go a long way toward proving just how far the run defense has come. The Bills face the Seattle Seahawks, whose ground attack is led by former teammate Marshawn Lynch. He ranks second in the NFL in rushing with 1,266 yards, and the Seahawks as a team are fourth.
“I know he’s going to be excited for this game, but at the same time we’re going to do the best we can to shut him down,” Dareus said.
The Bills officially ended running back Fred Jackson’s season by placing him on injured reserve Tuesday, a day after it was revealed he suffered a Grade 2 MCL sprain in his right knee.
To take his place on the 53-man roster, the Bills promoted defensive tackle Jay Ross from the practice squad. Ross spent one game on the active roster earlier this season, Week Six in Arizona, before being released and brought back for his second stint on the practice squad.
The Bills will go into Sunday’s game against Seattle in Toronto with just two running backs in C.J. Spiller and Tashard Choice. Gailey said Monday fullback Corey McIntyre could serve as a third running back if needed. The Bills signed running back Zach Brown to the taxi squad Tuesday to give themselves more depth at the position.
Bills’ run defense by the numbers
Week Opponent Yards Yds/rush
1 N.Y. Jets 118 3.3
2 Kansas City 150 6.3
3 Cleveland 33 2.5
4 New England 247 6.2
5 San Francisco 311 8.2
6 Arizona 182 6.1
7 Tennessee 197 7.3
9 Houston 118 3.7
10 New England 117 4.0
11 Miami 60 2.5
12 Indianapolis 87 3.0
13 Jacksonville 50 2.8
14 St. Louis 78 2.9