Consider the 2013 Buffalo Bills season an experiment in how far coaching can take a young team with low expectations. It’s an old NFL refrain: The new coaches are going to do a lot better than the bums who got fired last season. ¶ Yet there’s reason to think the Bills might be onto something with new head coach Doug Marrone. He was somebody other teams actually wanted, as opposed to past Bills choices (Dick Jauron and Chan Gailey), who had zero chance of getting a head-coaching job if the Bills hadn’t come along. It’s widely viewed around the league that Marrone was coveted in both Cleveland and San Diego, and maybe elsewhere. ¶ Furthermore, the presence of new coordinators Mike Pettine and Nathaniel Hackett offers promise because their schemes are creative. ¶ The Bills’ defense woefully underachieved last season, ranking 26th in points allowed and 31st in rushing yards allowed. Few are predicting the Bills will be a top-10 defense this year. But few think they were as bad as they performed last year. The Bills’ defense boasts five first-round picks and two second-rounders. Pettine has material. He has experience, too. There’s only one rookie starter. ¶ The youth is on the offensive side, where Hackett will break in a rookie quarterback, and at least three young receivers will play key roles. ¶ How fast can Marrone and Hackett bring along the young offense? And in the wake of injuries to EJ Manuel, Kevin Kolb and Stephon Gilmore, how well can the coaches weather the injury storm the early part of the season? ¶ Those will be the biggest factors in determining how many games the Bills win. ¶ Here’s a capsule preview of the Bills’ season:
• Thriller Spiller. C.J. Spiller last year became one of seven backs in NFL history to average 6.0 yards an attempt with a minimum of 200 carries. His 207 carries ranked only 22nd. Counting his 43 catches, he had 250 touches. Ten backs had 300 touches last year. Spiller should hit that mark this year.
• Defensive front. Down-linemen Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams and Alex Carrington, combined with stand-up end Mario Williams, form a quality front. Pettine has shown a willingness to move Mario Williams around, which should increase his effectiveness. He’s a rock against the run and will have double-digit sacks as long as he stays healthy. Dareus is more focused and looked good in preseason. Kyle Williams is fully healthy. Carrington is the perfect long-armed strongman for the end position in the three-man line. The preseason play of strong-side linebacker Manny Lawson was encouraging, too. He set the edge with force.
• Team speed. The deep ball should be back in Buffalo, which hasn’t ranked higher than 20th in pass plays of 20-plus yards since 2002. Manuel has a big-time arm. T.J. Graham, right, and Marquise “Flash” Goodwin have elite deep speed. Can Goodwin do more than the average third-round rookie receiver? Spiller and the wideouts should keep defensive coordinators awake at night. On defense, Kiko Alonso is a huge speed upgrade over Kelvin Sheppard.
• Cornerback. Losing Gilmore for the first six or so games hurts, because cornerback already was a worry. Can No. 2 corner Leodis McKelvin hold down the spot for good in his sixth season? Ron Brooks has all the tools to be a good nickel corner but he essentially played only four games last year. Can he get it done? Can Crezdon Butler and Justin Rogers hold down Gilmore’s spot until he comes back?
• Young QB, WRs: How consistent can the Bills expect to be with a rookie at quarterback throwing to a young cast of wideouts in the first year of an offensive system?
• Offensive line: It could all work out fine, especially if the unit stays healthy. But left guard is a concern. Colin Brown is stout but not mobile. Cordy Glenn could develop into a quality left tackle but must build on last year’s promise. Erik Pears needs to rebound. He never was healthy last year but looked good in preseason. We’ll see how Glenn and Pears deal with speed rushers. Losing Chris Hairston to injury makes the tackle depth uncertain.
Defensive strategy to watch
Blitzes and zone dogs: Blitzing doesn’t solve all problems. But playing passive and predictable – as the Bills did last year – brings certain failure. Buffalo rushed five or more men on just 15 percent of pass plays last year, according to News statistics. That was the lowest rate in the league. Pettine’s Jets defense rushed five or more on 34.4 percent of plays, 11th most. With Gilmore out, will Pettine be that aggressive? Maybe not. But he still will rely a lot more than his predecessor (Dave Wannstedt) on zone dogs, rushing four at the passer but dropping off a lineman into coverage. The Bills rushed a defensive back at the quarterback only 6 percent of the time last year, according to FootballOutsiders. That was 26th in the league. The Jets did it 22 percent, which led the league. The key player in the pass rush is Jerry Hughes, because he balances the threat of Mario Williams. If Hughes plays as well as he did in preseason, the Bills’ rush will be fierce. If not, Pettine has to take more risks.
Offensive strategy to watch
QB option plays: We expect Hackett to make extensive use of read-option and “packaged plays.” As Bills fans still having nightmares of the blowout loss to Seattle last December will recall, the read option features the quarterback in the shotgun position, taking the snap and putting the ball in the running back’s belly. At that point, he reads the defense and either gives the ball to the back or runs around defenders who have overcommitted to the inside run play. On a packaged play, the QB has the option of handing off, keeping it or throwing a short pass, depending on his read of the defense. If a linebacker bites on the run-fake, the QB can throw a short hitch or slant. If the linebacker takes a step back, the QB hands off. It all fits with the up-tempo style, which doesn’t allow the defense to substitute and limits pre-snap disguises. Ideally, the option plays help the O-line, because the fake handoffs force the pass rushers to hesitate.
Third-down offense: The Bills are committed to the up-tempo style, and efficiency on third down is the key to making it work. New England ran up-tempo a lot last year, averaging a league-high 74.4 plays a game. Buffalo averaged 61.4, the sixth fewest. Both teams essentially averaged the same per play, but the Pats gained 74.4 more yards a game. The key is New England stayed on the field because it converted a league-best 48.7 percent of third downs. If the QB and receivers aren’t sharp, it turns into ugliness, like the exhibition in Washington, when the Bills hurried up off the field (three and out) on 9 of 12 possessions.
It’s all about EJ: If Manuel is as accurate and as poised as he showed this summer, then Bills Nation can feel good about the future, even if Buffalo finishes 4-12. If he looks bad, then the future is grim, even if the team somehow lucks its way into a 9-7 record with somebody else playing QB. For now, the Manuel-Marrone duo provides more legitimate reason for optimism than the Bills have had since the 2004 season. But the youth and the new systems suggest this will be a developmental year.
Projected record: 6-10.