For almost a decade now, the Buffalo Bills haven’t been able to figure it out. ¶ Four coordinators, each with a different scheme, have tried in the past five years alone. The first three failed. The latest hasn’t been successful yet. ¶ After all the time and effort, the Bills still cannot stop the run. The Bills’ average NFL ranking against the run has been 28th over the last nine seasons. Many of the club’s worst run defenses have been fielded in that stretch. ¶ Despite the excitement of this year’s defense and a league-leading sack total under new coordinator Mike Pettine, run defense remains a major concern at One Bills Drive.
The Bills’ defensive-line and linebacker units are comprised of Pro Bowlers, high draft choices and plenty of experience with defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus and defensive ends Mario Williams, Alan Branch and Jerry Hughes.
Inside linebacker Kiko Alonso is a top candidate for defensive rookie of the year. They’ve remained remarkably healthy.
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan remarked last Sunday the Bills have one of the league’s best front sevens. Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said this week the Bills own the tip-top interior-line combo.
But the Bills this week had internal discussions specifically about how the defense must improve against the run.
The Bills’ defense enters today’s game against the Buccaneers in Raymond James Stadium ranked 24th in rushing yards and 20th in yards per carry.
Relative to previous seasons, that’s fantastic.
“That wouldn’t be the F-word adjective I would use,” Pettine said after Friday’s practice in Orchard Park.
Atlanta is one of the worst rushing teams, but ran for 151 yards on Buffalo in the Rogers Centre. Atlanta had touchdown runs of 27 yards and 38 yards.
Buffalo will want to clog Tampa Bay this afternoon. Tampa Bay ranks 22nd on the ground and has four running backs on injured reserve. But forcing rookie quarterback Mike Glennon to bear the offense is Buffalo’s likely objective.
Run defense is a big deal.
“We have a very high standard here, whether it’s total rushing yards, yards per rush,” Pettine said. “That needs to get better.
“There are different styles, different philosophies on how to stop the run, and I think we’re very far from where we need to be. We’re disappointed with where we are, but we’re seeing some encouraging signs.”
The last season Buffalo was effective against the run was 2004. Mike Mularkey was a rookie head coach. His defensive coordinator was Jerry Gray.
Buffalo’s defense allowed the NFL’s seventh-fewest rushing yards and the second-lowest yards per carry.
Then the wall turned to rubble.
No coach, coordinator, scheme or set of players has been able to build the wall back up. Not yet, anyway.
Since 2005, the Bills have posted six of their 15 worst seasons in rushing yards and seven of their 15 worst seasons in yards per carry.
The last five seasons have been particularly abysmal. In that span, the Bills have employed four defensive coordinators, each applying a new philosophy yet yielding results that rank at or near the bottom of the league.
Dick Jauron has a respected brain for defense. The Bills named him head coach in 2006, and he hired Perry Fewell to oversee a 4-3 defense known as the Tampa 2. Fewell took over as interim coach when the Bills fired Jauron in 2009. That season, their defense was 30th in rushing yards and 30th in yards per carry.
New head coach Chan Gailey put George Edwards in charge of switching the defense to a standard 3-4 base. Edwards lasted two seasons, overseeing the second-worst run defense in club history and finishing dead last in the league in 2010. Slight improvement in 2011 didn’t save Edwards’ job.
Gailey turned to Dave Wannstedt, who won a Super Bowl ring as Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator in 1992. Wannstedt reverted the Bills to a 4-3 defense, and they got trampled some more. Last year’s Bills allowed 5.0 yards a carry, a franchise high, and 23 rushing touchdowns, tied for second-worst.
When Doug Marrone was named Gailey’s replacement this year, fans were excited to hear Marrone had taken away Pettine from the New York Jets.
Pettine was groomed for the job by Rex Ryan and, by extension, Buddy Ryan, mastermind of the 46 defense the Chicago Bears made famous in the 1980s. The 46 is a multiple-look, aggressive scheme that’s founded more on 3-4 concepts than 4-3.
Kyle Williams, who has played for all of the above coordinators, dismissed the idea that repeated overhauls have corrupted Buffalo’s ability to be consistent.
“There are a lot of different variables,” Kyle Williams said. “That could be one of them. But you see it every year where somebody new comes in and teams have success.”
Pettine, though, noted continual renovations are undeniably an issue. Buffalo hasn’t been simply tinkering from year to year. Changes have been frequent and radical.
Wannstedt’s philosophy was to line up the same way each play and contain the offense. Pettine wants his defense to confuse and attack its opponent.
“We are pretty drastically different,” Pettine said. “When you look at the tape from last year and how they defended the run and to what we’re doing this year, it’s a very different mentality.
“To change from one to the other, there’s going to be growing pains, and they call them pains for a reason. It’s tough to see. But there’s no doubt we’re going to get better. It’s stressed every day.”
Attitude plays a key role
So why in Pat Williams’ name can’t the Bills solve their chronic run-stopping problem?
Regardless of defensive scheme, there are universal truths to stonewalling runners.
Preparation is significant to recognizing what an offense intends to do. Pettine explained he doesn’t want his players straddling expectation between run and pass before any given snap. Pettine tells them to make a savvy read and go for it.
“It’s an education,” Pettine said, “and you have to get your guys to the point they’re 80, 85, 90 percent right.”
Gap assignment is critical. For instance, defenders must know their responsibilities when a run is coming at them or moving away.
Technique is equally important. An astute pre-snap read and knowing where to be will do a player little good if he takes a false step, turns his body the wrong way, can’t disengage from a block or whiffs on a tackle.
Although it might sound like coachspeak, another crucial element is attitude.
“Stuffing the run is a want-to thing,” said John Goodman, a defensive end for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the early 1980s.
Goodman played on a unit in 1982 that limited opponents to 3.2 yards a carry, the fourth-best number in Steelers history. He also studies today’s game. His son-in-law is Philadelphia Eagles tackle Lane Johnson, this year’s fourth overall draft choice.
“Run defense is not glamorous,” Goodman said from his office in Oklahoma City, where he works as an investment banker. “You’re not going to get statistics. It’s hard grunt work, where you’ve got to handfight your way through guys that typically are bigger than you. You’ve just got to want it more.”
Rob Burnett concurred that stopping the run is rooted in a certain mindset. Burnett, a teammate of Marrone’s at Syracuse, was a starting end for one of the NFL’s legendary defenses.
The 2000 Baltimore Ravens allowed only 970 rushing yards (the lowest 16-game total, third-lowest when you include 14-game schedules) even though they faced 11 running backs who rushed for at least 1,200 yards that season. The Ravens permitted 2.7 yards a carry. You must go back to the 1940s for a better average.
“It’s mostly discipline and having guys who are unselfish, who play hard and buy into the system,” said Burnett, who tallied 10.5 sacks that year. “We all felt responsible for each other.
“Nobody wanted to be the guy in the film room who was trying to do his own thing and pad his stats at the sake of the defense. We policed ourselves. I don’t know if they have that kind of mindset nowadays.”
Goodman and Burnett started for high-wattage defenses. Goodman played alongside Hall of Famers Jack Lambert, Jack Ham and Mel Blount. The Ravens’ first championship team featured Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware and Rod Woodson.
Yet when it came to erasing runners, all 11 players had to be willing to participate.
“We took pride in it,” Goodman said. “No individual is going to rack up stats that say, ‘We stop the run.’ It’s not like a sack or an interception. But every year I was there we were among the league leaders in stopping the run.”
Burnett said it takes “only one selfish individual trying to pad his stats to open up natural seams where it’s almost impossible” for a run defense to succeed.
“There needs to be a commitment, a mentality,” Pettine said. “It’s not necessarily a scheme thing. You have to want to stop the run.
“It’s heavy-lifting. It’s the hardest part of the game from a physical standpoint.”
Few mistakes here, there
The Bills have dazzling pass-rushers. They lead the NFL with 43 sacks and need only seven more over the final four games to match the team’s 49-year-old season record. Four players have at least five sacks, and no other team can boast that.
The Bills absolutely possess a load of talent in their front seven, which makes their inadequate run defense even more of a head-scratcher.
Bills opponents this year are averaging 121.5 rushing yards a game and 4.2 yards a carry.
Through 12 games, the Bills have surrendered at least 120 rushing yards eight times. Opponents have recorded at least 134 rushing yards three games in a row.
While Burnett suggested a team can get overly aggressive against the pass and create natural seams for runners to break loose, he conceded that’s probably not a factor in the Bills’ struggles. Goodman concurred.
“If you put the guys in position and have them where they should be,” Goodman said, “they should make the plays.”
Defensive line coach Anthony Weaver “and I were laughing about it the other day,” Pettine said. “We know there are D-line coaches out there that are, like, ‘Quarterback, quarterback, sacks, sacks, sacks.’ Here we are, leading the league in sacks, but we don’t harp on that.
“Most of our preparation time is the pre-snap info, the run-game stuff. If you chart the time we spend in individual drills, then run technique and releasing off blocks and all the things pertaining to the run are swung very far in terms of defending the run.”
Even as football has evolved into a passing game, denying an opponent on the ground remains significant.
The stingier a defense can be, the more predictable an offense becomes. Permit a 5-yard carry on first down, and an offense has so many more playbook options to move the chains over the next couple snaps.
“We’re not going to over-commit to stop the run,” Pettine said. “This is a pass-first league. We don’t want to be the team – and I’ve seen them – where we’re top-five against the run and 31st against the pass.
“But there are some things we need to clean up.”
In explaining the run defense’s inconsistency, Kyle Williams reviewed three game-changing plays from last Sunday. The first was Steven Jackson’s 27-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.
“Plain as can be, we missed a tackle,” Kyle Williams said.
The second influential run was Antone Smith taking his only carry 38 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter.
“They ran a toss when we had an under front,” Kyle Williams said. “They had us out-leveraged. We overran it. He cut back.”
The next costly run was a 17-yard Matt Ryan scramble on a third-and-9 play in the third quarter.
Those three plays accounted for 82 of the Falcons’ 151 rushing yards. Subtract them, and the Bills held the Falcons to 2.6 yards a carry.
“The things you can’t reconcile are when you’re overmatched,” Kyle Williams said. “If we’re lining up and they’re just blowing us off the ball or guys can’t get over the top, that’s where you’re, like, ‘OK, we might need to get different people.’
“But that’s not the problem. It can be corrected.”
The Bills will have opportunities to improve their run defense ranking over the final four weeks.
The Jacksonville Jaguars went into this week ranked last (although Maurice Jones-Drew ran 14 times for 103 yards Thursday night). The Miami Dolphins were 25th. The New England Patriots were 12th.
“I’m confident,” Pettine said, “that between now and the end of the year and moving into next year that those numbers are going to get better.”