Linebackers are supposed to be the playmakers in the 3-4 defense. Unfortunately for the Buffalo Bills, not enough plays were made.
Their linebackers were a part of the NFL's worst run defense and a virtually non-existent pass rush that finished 27th in the league with only 27 sacks.
Add it all up and you have a linebacking corps that just wasn't good enough in 2010.
"Definitely, the top priority is stopping the run and then second, when we get in passing situations we have to be able to get pressure on the quarterback," said inside linebacker Paul Posluszny.
The inside linebackers might have been better against the run if the defensive line had been stouter. But they also struggled to get off blocks. The outside linebackers did a poor job of setting the edge, which allowed teams to run outside. Running backs exploited cutback lanes that opened because linebackers weren't in their assigned gaps.
Meanwhile, Aaron Schobel's departure eliminated the only player on defense who could consistently generate pressure on his own. Therefore, the defensive coaches had to scheme up ways to manufacture a pass rush.
That's why the Bills re-signed Shawne Merriman. Despite three unproductive and injury-plagued seasons, the Bills hope he can recapture his Pro Bowl form.
"If this guy is healthy he can be a major force on the football field," said head coach Chan Gailey. "That is a proven fact. He has been before. He can upgrade your defense in a hurry if he plays to the level that he has played in the past. And indications are enough that we obviously feel he's going to be healthy."
Positives: Posluszny had a career-high 157 tackles and played 97 percent of the defensive snaps over the last 13 games, an average of 65 plays per game. Outside linebacker Chris Kelsay was in on 95 percent of the snaps. Rookie Arthur Moats made an impression, and not just because he ended Brett Favre's consecutive starts streak. Andra Davis, Reggie Torbor and Akin Ayodele added versatility, leadership and knowledge of the 3-4 scheme.
Negatives: Big plays were absent. Only nine of the team's 27 sacks and one of its 11 interceptions came from linebackers. Injuries didn't help. Six linebackers finished the year on injured reserve, including starters Davis and Torbor. Posluszny racked up tackles, but wasn't a difference maker. Kelsay, a career defensive end, was out of his element at linebacker and was a liability in pass coverage. Moats has a great motor, but may be only a situational player. Counting on Aaron Maybin and Chris Ellis was a flawed decision by the front office. Maybin was inactive in five games and averaged only two snaps in the last eight games he played. Ellis was released after five games. The Bills relied too much on castoffs from other teams.
Outlook: This unit is in need of some serious upgrades. Merriman will help, assuming he's healthy, but that won't be enough. The only linebackers not under contract next season are Posluszny and Ayodele. Posluszny wants to return, but at what cost? The changes may include the release of Maybin. It's not cost-prohibitive if he's on the roster, but the Bills can afford to move on without him.
This is the sixth part of a series assessing the Bills' 2010 season. Today's installment deals with linebackers. Next: Defensive backs