PITTSFORD – Consistency. Toughness. Gap control. Discipline. Trust.
These are buzzwords for the Buffalo Bills’ defense this summer at St. John Fisher College.
The Bills’ defense is working to improve on last year’s ranking of 28th against the run. The long days at training camp are for mastering assignments in the quest to eliminate the defense’s maddening weakness.
“I feel it’s a mentality by the front seven,” said linebacker Nigel Bradham. “Even in the back end, by them coming up with safety support and the corners playing on the edge. It’s all about mentality. We have to come out every day with the mentality we’re going to stop the run no matter what.”
“We’re attacking,” said defensive end Manny Lawson. “We’ve got to be more disciplined, more consistent because we can stop the run. We’ve just got to do it every play, instead of taking off time here and there. But the guys are hungry. We’ve still got some improvements to make, and we’re going to get them corrected.”
The Bills’ defense ranked 10th overall in yards allowed last year and 20th in points allowed. Football is a team game. One way the defense can improve is if the Bills’ 22nd-ranked offense scores more points, hangs onto the ball better and gives the defense an occasional lead with which to play.
“Our ability to stop the run goes a long way in creating our ability to stop the pass,” said defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. “Our ability to stop the run goes a long way in creating our ability to get sacks. You move teams behind the chains, you make them one dimensional.”
“That’s our life blood defensively,” Schwartz said. “We put a lot of work into it, and we look forward to seeing the results of that as we move forward through the preseason.”
With three Pro Bowlers on the defensive line – Kyle Williams, Mario Williams and Marcell Dareus – the difficulty in stopping the run prompted head-scratching.
Perhaps the biggest problem was long-gainers. The Bills allowed a league-high 19 runs of 20 or more yards. That suggested a lack of discipline. The Bills’ defenders had a habit of overrunning plays and not being in their prescribed gaps.
“Last year we definitely got gashed at times,” Bradham said. “It was inconsistent in the run game.”
“It takes a lot of trust,” said Lawson. “You have to trust the player beside you and all the players around you to do their job. And you do your job and not try to overcompensate. If a run does squirt out, then it’s happened. That’s a good play by the offense. But don’t say, ‘OK, now I’m just going to do this,’ and neglect your own job.” The Bills have shifted from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 scheme, but that doesn’t change the assignment challenge. The Bills’ defensive tackles essentially are playing the same positions as last year. Regardless of the scheme, everyone needs to be assignment-sound.
Bradham said the “run fits,” as defenses call it, aren’t a lot different.
“Not really,” he said. “We have so many different fronts and stunts, it just depends on being on the same page and gelling together.”
The challenge in training camp is trying to develop a physical mentality in practices that, for the most part, do not have live tackling.
“After high school football, there’s probably not even many colleges that go full go on more than a limited basis,” Schwartz said. “You have to emphasize positioning, you have to emphasize technique in finishing when it comes to tackling, run fits and gap control and things like that. You can work on some of those things in individual periods. We do some circuits when it comes to technique behind tackling, but there’s really no substitute for game day.”
In 2012, the Bills’ defense spent all summer practicing against a shotgun-based, pass-oriented offense. When the season started, the defense wasn’t ready to stop power-oriented offenses. The defense had to go back to “training camp mode” during a stay in Arizona in Week Six to get its run fits sorted out.
The Bills’ offense is more run-oriented this year. Regardless, Schwartz said that will not be a problem.
“I think that’s one of the main reasons it’s good to go against Pittsburgh and those extended practices before the preseason game,” Schwartz said, referring to next week’s joint practices against the Steelers. “Our offense will get a good look at a 3-4. We’ll get a look at a different offense. We have five preseason games, we’ll see a lot of different things. We’ll see read option this year. We’ll see outside zone. Everything we’ll see from an offense at some extent, we have to get ready for before the season.”
“That’s what the preseason games are for,” Bradham said. “We have to work on our fundamentals out here and get better as a defense. We know what we want to establish in the run game. We want penetration, and we want a lot of tackles for loss. Any time we come out here, we try to penetrate on our offense.”
“We’ll be ready to stop the run when it comes time,” said Schwartz.
The Bills were off Tuesday. They return to practice at 2 p.m. today.