(This is the third of four stories previewing Buffalo Bills training camp. Today's installment is on the defense.)
The list of items the Buffalo Bills' defense must address this summer is substantial. And in order of importance, there is no question what tops the list.
Stopping the run.
The Bills had the NFL's seventh-rated pass defense last season, but were 18th overall due to their No. 28 league ranking against the run.
"If you can't stop the run," Bills defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said, "you're not going anywhere."
A lot of the problems were blamed on the team's undersized defensive tackles. Fewell said poor tackling, particularly on the perimeter, had something to do with the struggles, but acknowledged the tackle position is the big question mark heading into training camp.
"I think we are solid at defensive end. Defensive tackle is one we have to work on," Fewell said. "We do put a premium on getting up the field and stopping the run. If we can solidify that defensive tackle position we'll be a little bit better in the run game."
The player everyone will be watching in training camp is second-year pro John McCargo, an athletic, quick penetrator who embodies everything the Bills want at defensive tackle. But his health is an issue.
He didn't practice with the team during the offseason while recovering from a broken foot that ended his rookie year after five games. He was starting to show some flashes when he was injured, so the Bills haven't seen all he can do.
McCargo is expected to be ready for training camp, and the Bills are counting on him to emerge as a force and enhance their defensive tackle rotation.
"It's very important that we get John McCargo off and running because if we don't that's a setback for us," Fewell said. "McCargo is really one of the key components. We're really depending on him."
Fewell believes McCargo can alternate between nose tackle (who plays opposite the outside shoulder of the center) and the "three-technique tackle" (who plays opposite the outside shoulder of the guard). Larry Tripplett appears entrenched at the "three" spot, but McCargo could challenge incumbent nose starter Kyle Williams.
Tim Anderson and Jason Jefferson will also have a say in the defensive tackle competition, but their chances to make it may depend on the status Darwin Walker, who was acquired in a trade with Philadelphia but has refused to report to Buffalo because of a contract impasse.
"We're hoping Darwin is here because he will make us much better in the middle," Fewell said. "He looks like a strong 'three' to me, but he can play the other spot, too. He gives us a lot of flexibility if we can get him into camp."
The depth chart at the two defensive end positions looks set. Pro Bowler Aaron Schobel handles the right side with Anthony Hargrove backing him up, while Chris Kelsay and Ryan Denney alternate on the left side. Eric Powell, who made the team last year but was inactive every game, will compete with seventh-round draft pick C.J. Ah You and rookie free agent Corey Mace for the fifth end spot, if the Bills keep that many.
Defensive tackle won't be the only position getting a lot of attention in training camp. The departures of London Fletcher, Takeo Spikes and Nate Clements left major voids at linebacker and cornerback, respectively, that won't be filled easily.
"When you have guys like Spikes, Fletch and Nate you kind of knew who your playmakers were going to be," Fewell said. "We're waiting to see what guys are going to step up and fill those roles. That's going to be an ongoing development process for us. We definitely hope that evolves for us quickly in camp."
Angelo Crowell, back from a broken leg, started at both outside positions last season and will open camp at Spikes' strong-side spot. Keith Ellison becomes a full-time starter on the weak side after a promising rookie year. The middle linebacker job will be contested between second-round pick Paul Posluszny and second-year pro John DiGiorgio.
Coy Wire has made the permanent move to weak-side linebacker, but his experience at safety gives Fewell some flexibility in passing situations. Veterans Mario Haggan and Josh Stamer survived roster cuts last year on the strength of their special teams work, but they will get pushed again this summer by free agents Roy Manning, Thaddaeus Washington, Kevin Harrison and Larry Edwards.
Clements' ability to lock up the opponent's top receiver is an asset the Bills will miss. But Fewell has no plans to alter his coverage concepts because he's confident in the talent available. Jason Webster, Kiwaukee Thomas, Jabari Greer and Ashton Youboty are in the mix to start opposite Terrence McGee. Fewell also likes rookie free agents Duane Coleman, Reggie Lewis and Riley Swanson.
"We have a good group and they all will get a chance to show us what they can do in training camp," Fewell said. "It took us a little while to learn what Nate could do for us, and I think that is going to be the case with these guys going into this season. We won't change our concept, but we'll try to find out what we can specialize in and what we can have certain guys do."
The Bills' secondary will be helped by the fact that safeties Donte Whitner and Ko Simpson started as rookies and are comfortable with the defense. Fewell plans to experiment with different schemes and responsibilities.
The Bills will likely take four safeties into the regular season. Jim Leonhard looks solid at one spot. Converted wide receiver George Wilson impressed during minicamp, but it's hard to imagine the Bills keeping him over sixth-round pick John Wendling. Orchard Park native Jon Corto or fellow undrafted rookie Trevor Hooper may be destined for practice squad duty.
"As a defense, I think we are light years ahead of where we were a year ago because most of our players have been in the system," Fewell said. "But we'll be a work in progress until it all comes together. We did some good things this offseason. Now we need to see how we look in pads."