The Buffalo Bills’ defense does not look like the train wreck against the run that it was last season, based on its performance in Week One.
Will the run defense actually be good enough to be considered an asset this season? We get a better idea on Sunday when the Bills host the Carolina Panthers at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Carolina ranked ninth in the NFL in rushing yards last season. The Panthers’ top ball carrier, DeAngelo Williams, has a career average of 4.9 yards per carry, fourth best among active NFL running backs.
“I see an aggressive, right at you, style,” Bills defensive end Alex Carrington said. “It’s a man-up deal. They have zone reads but they have power plays. They’ll run right at you. They’ll sneak 10 yards at you real quick.”
The Bills gave up 158 rushing yards in losing to New England last week. That’s a dozen more than they yielded per game last season, when they ranked 31st in the NFL against the run.
However, the overall defensive picture wasn’t bad. The Bills held the Patriots to just two touchdowns in 14 possessions, and both of those scores came on drives that started deep in Buffalo territory.
Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was not discouraged by the rushing yards allowed to Tom Brady & Co.
“We’ve always been in the mode against New England that we’re willing to concede a few rushing yards,” Pettine said after Friday’s practice. “We always felt if we presented some lighter looks to Brady, we always felt a lot better about him handing it off versus throwing it. So schematically there were some things where you don’t get too upset about it. There were a couple times where I made a pure pass call and it was a running play.”
“We were willing to have it be probably more yards than we’d want in a normal game, when you’re playing an offense like that,” Pettine said.
Pettine stressed that the success of the defense starts with the run game.
“As much as this is a pass league, you have to defend the run,” he said. “You have to. That makes the play-action less effective. … And it’s disheartening when a team can just keep you on the field. It affects everything. That’s something we’re going to pride ourselves on.”
The Bills’ base defense, with three down linemen and four linebackers, looked pretty good against the Pats’ run game. The Pats gained 37 yards on 10 carries against the Bills’ “regular” front seven, not counting goal-line and kneel-down plays. That included one 20-yard run.
The Bills think they’ve upgraded with two new starters at linebacker in fast Kiko Alonso and stout Manny Lawson.
“It helps with the guys we have in there,” Pettine said. “I think Manny has been a good addition as far as a big, stout Sam linebacker who can set the edge in the run game. That’s why we brought him here.”
The Bills’ run defense faces the added pressure this week of Panthers QB Cam Newton, whose 741 rushing yards last season led Carolina and ranked second to Washington’s Robert Griffin III among NFL quarterbacks.
“The plays they can run with Cam Newton – the zone read series – is an added weapon to their rushing attack,” Pettine said. “Off of that comes the play action. They’re very similar to Washington in that they’re running a lot of play action out of that type of mode, and it creates the ability to free up receivers down the field. The running game, for us, is really what sets everything up.”
Other defensive notes from the opener:
• As advertised, Pettine was more aggressive than predecessor Dave Wannstedt. The Bills rushed five or more men on 14 of 55 pass plays, by The News’ count. Last year the Bills blitzed Brady on 1 of 38 pass plays at The Ralph.
• The blitz was effective. Brady went 5 of 13 for 38 yards with a sack on the 14 blitz plays.
• The Bills played five or more defensive backs on 63 of 89 plays. That percentage (70.7) probably won’t be so high this week. Carolina used No. 3 receiver Ted Ginn Jr. on only 44 percent of the snaps against Seattle last week. The Panthers have a good fullback in Mike Tolbert and will use two tight ends. Look for the Bills’ regular defense to be on the field more of the game.
• Newly acquired safety Jim Leonhard was pressed into heavy-duty service by the Bills. He played 57 plays against the Pats.