This is the fifth part of a series assessing the Bills' 2010 season. Today's installment deals with the defensive line.
It came as no shock that the Buffalo Bills struggled to adjust to a 3-4 defense.
The Bills' defensive front had struggled to stop the run the previous five years when it was playing a scheme specifically designed for the talent on hand. It did not go smoothly when most of that same cast, with the addition of some rookies, was asked to change to a new scheme.
A Bills defense that ranked 30th against the run in 2009 dropped to 32nd in 2010. The result was almost identical to what happened in Kansas City, which switched schemes in 2009. The Chiefs were 30th in 2008 and dropped to 31st in 2009.
"We knew coming in it was going to be a process," Bills defensive line coach Giff Smith said in an interview in mid-November. "I had a veteran guy tell me one time that when you make the jump to the NFL with a new staff, it's normally not a ready-made program. So it's been a work in progress. A lot of the problems we've had versus the run have been self-inflicted. That's one thing we've worked hard on, just knowing your assignment, playing through your assignment and doing your responsibility and being accountable for your position."
As any Bills follower knows, the only Buffalo defensive lineman who performed above expectations was defensive tackle Kyle Williams. The Bills wisely used him in essentially the same role as in the past and he put up career numbers in tackles, sacks and tackles for loss. Williams finished fourth in Pro Bowl voting among AFC defensive tackles and will make his first trip to the all-star game later this month.
But when offenses were able to wall off Williams, there wasn't enough stoutness in the rest of the defensive front.
"He's their best player," Patriots star guard Logan Mankins told the Boston Globe after the Pats' 34-3 rout of the Bills. "He gets no credit around the league, but if you watch him he destroyed a couple lines this year and he's had a hell of a year. We knew we had to take care of him. If we got him blocked and the other guys took care of the other guys, we'd have a good chance."
Expect the Bills to continue to play to Williams' strengths. In a traditional 3-4 defense, which Kansas City and Cleveland employed in 2010 and which New England sometimes uses, the nose tackle plays head-up on the center and the defensive ends usually play head-up on the tackles. Each of those defenders is covering two gaps on the line of scrimmage.
The Bills mostly used an "under" or "over" front, which doesn't put the interior linemen head up. (Under being a shift away from the tight end side, over being toward it). That put Williams either on the outside shoulder of the weak-side guard (a 3-technique) or had him shaded over a shoulder of the center, both of which were familiar spots for him.
Bills veteran Marcus Stroud made his reputation playing a 3-technique. He played mostly 4- or 5-technique on the strong side, the former being head-up on the tackle, the latter being on the outside shoulder of the tackle. It's a grunt position, and he didn't cause a lot of disruption.
"I think he's worked hard to be a professional as far as putting in the film-study time and the schematics of the defense," Smith said. "Marcus, at this stage of his career, there's some things he doesn't do as well as he might've done when he was younger in the league. But he's worked to gain an edge by preparation. That's one thing we've been harping on. You've got to study more tape to anticipate some stuff to help give you that half step of quickness you might have lost."
The Bills no doubt will be counting on rookies Torell Troup and Alex Carrington to play bigger roles next year. Troup was picked in the second round, Carrington the third.
Smith on Troup: "I think Troup is what you're looking for in the 3-4. We've had to kind of do a version of some unders and some 4-3 looks to survive in the first year. I've been pleased with the way Troup's developed. He's going to work hard, and he's got good long arms, so he's able to separate off [off blocks]. We're going to continue to work on him being a little more explosive off the ball and attacking blocks a little bit better. His deal is block recognition."
Smith on Carrington: "Carrington has gotten better. I'm excited about the future for Alex. He's got long arms, and he's extremely strong. He can hold the point. He needs to play some and know how to disengage off of blocks. He can be a little robotic at times. That's one thing I think even with the scout-team work he did, it's helped him with shedding blocks and understanding when do I disengage and when do I make the move to make the play."
Playing time breakdown: Williams played 81 percent of the plays (54 snaps a game), Stroud 62 percent (41 snaps), Spencer Johnson 44 percent (29), Troup 27 percent (18), Carrington 19 percent (12). Carrington, however, averaged 25 snaps a game over the last seven weeks. Dwan Edwards was playing 79 percent of the snaps the first 10 games before getting hurt early in the 11th.
*Positives: Williams had a career-high 5.5 sacks and an unofficial 16 tackles for loss. The Bills adjusted and played seven decent-to-good games against the run, five of them after the bye week. Cleveland's power run game was held to 105 yards. After Williams, Johnson probably graded out best among the D-linemen.
*Negatives: The Bills did a rotten job of setting the edge on runs to the outside, an issue for the linebackers and the line. Edwards seemed to struggle early with this, as well. Teams like New England had great success getting the Bills' front seven moving and then cutting back. The Jets got wide on the Bills almost at will.
*Outlook: The pounding the Bills took in the final two games against the Pats and Jets underscores the need for changes in the front seven. The question is where do the Bills get upgrades? Edwards and Williams are set as starters. Troup, Carrington and Johnson make it five returnees. Stroud, 32, is due to get $5.5 million in 2011, with $1 million of it coming in a March bonus. His salary makes him vulnerable to release, given the fact the Bills are committed to playing Carrington more. Johnson, 29, is due $3.5 million in 2011. John McCargo, who played in just one game, is a free agent. Kellen Heard, a 355-pounder, is under contract.