PITTSBURGH – The Buffalo Bills’ run defense has been terrible through many years and many coordinators.
Might this year finally be different?
The Bills’ run-stoppers are off to a wonderful start through three preseason games. The starters have allowed only 29 yards on 15 carries.
In Saturday night’s 19-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field, the Bills’ first unit held hard-charging backs Le’Veon Bell and LaGarrette Blount to 11 yards on five attempts.
That’s encouraging for a defense that ranked 28th in rushing yards allowed, 23rd in yards per carry and dead last on runs of 20-plus yards last year.
Bills coach Doug Marrone noted after Saturday’s game his players have picked up new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s system well. Schwartz previously oversaw a talented front seven as head coach of the Detroit Lions.
“If you go back and look at the scheme, they’ve always been very good against the run,” Marrone said of Schwartz’s Lions. “There’s three linebackers instead of two or sometimes one where we’ve been in the past, where some people have been able to make some big plays on us.
“We’ve done a good job there of keeping the ball inside. The players have responded well to it.”
Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams refused to get too pumped about their performances so far. This is Williams’ ninth NFL preseason. He has seen the best-laid plans not materialize when it mattered.
“I’m not here to get too excited about anything in August,” Williams said. “Guys are just playing fast and getting to the ball and just trying to press the issue, but I don’t put too much stock into the preseason.
“Hopefully, we can build some momentum and play well and carry it over.”
The Bills have ranked better than 25th in run defense once in the past nine seasons. They have not ranked better than 21st in yards per carry in that same span.
For the first time since 2007, last year’s Bills defense didn’t average a rushing touchdown against for every game.
Last season was a head-scratcher. The Bills fielded a front seven that included three Pro Bowlers (defensive end Mario Williams, defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus), a player with double-digit sacks (defensive end Jerry Hughes) and a Defensive Rookie of the Year runner-up (linebacker Kiko Alonso).
The Bills set a club record with 60 sacks and ranked second in interceptions. But they were often trampled by opposing running backs.
Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak, the Pro Football Hall of Fame left guard, was astounded by the amount of talent he saw on the Bills’ defensive line when the teams practiced last week in Latrobe, Pa.
“This is a special group,” Munchak said. “They can get after you pretty good.
“They have about eight or nine really good guys. I was looking them up and said, ‘My gosh. Their second group is pretty damn good.’ That’s not going to be a problem for them up front.”
Still, the statistical sample size hasn’t been enough to convince Kyle Williams.
He noted defenders face the same vanilla running plays so often in camp that defenders know their cuts and run lanes by rote more than the read-and-react skills needed in regular-season conditions.
Saturday night’s exhibition against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Ralph Wilson Stadium will be the most realistic preseason setting.
Starters should play into the third quarter.
The Buccaneers have a strong backfield, with star Doug Martin, third-round pick Charles Sims and Bobby Rainey, who ripped off an 80-yard touchdown on the second play against the Bills in Week 14 last season.
“We haven’t faced a game plan,” Kyle Williams said. “We haven’t put in a game plan.
“We have to play more than a half. We have to play two of them, obviously. We’ve got a long way to go.”