The Buffalo Bills spent all summer convinced that their rebuilt defense was markedly improved from last year.
They're sticking to their story, six weeks into the NFL season, regardless of what the statistics say.
We should have a firm idea in the next month or so whether they're right.
"I think we just need to keep fine-tuning the things we're not doing well," coach Chan Gailey said of his defense as his team left for its bye weekend. "I think what we're doing is good. I think we're not doing it very well. We're playing hard, we're not playing better. That's the key -- to go play better. We're doing some things sometimes that are not very smart on the field. We need to play smarter. We need to play better, and I think we will."
The numbers say the Bills are not much improved from last year. The Bills stand 31st in yards allowed and tied for 22nd in points allowed. They're 29th against the run and 30th against the pass. The one bright spot -- and it's a big one -- is turnovers. Buffalo ranks No. 1 in the NFL in takeaways, which is a big factor in the team's surprising 4-2 start.
The opportunity for improvement is on the horizon. The Bills do not play that many high-powered offenses over the rest of their schedule.
In fact, seven of the Bills' next nine opponents have offenses that rank 16th or worse in the league.
Next up is the Washington Redskins, whom the Bills face next Sunday in Toronto. The Redskins rank 17th in yards and 23rd in scoring entering today's games. After that the Bills play the New York Jets, who stand 29th in yards gained. The next seven opponents and their offensive ranking: Dallas (seventh), Miami (16th), the Jets (29th), Tennessee (19th), San Diego (sixth), Miami (16th) and Denver (tied for 26th).
Obviously, rankings don't always tell the story. Three weeks ago, the Bills gave up 458 yards to a Cincinnati offense that's ranked 22nd.
Nevertheless, if the Bills' defense truly is respectable, the opportunity to prove it lies dead ahead.
The Bills' defenders say they're in a much better place than they were last year at the bye.
"We've done better this year," said Spencer Johnson, who's playing at outside linebacker and defensive end. "I think everybody's a lot more comfortable. Last year going into the bye there were a lot of things up in the air. There were a lot of things guys weren't yet comfortable with. This year we're much more used to the system. Everything that's happening to us is fixable. We know what it is. We have to tackle. We have to cut down on big plays. Last year everybody was all over the place."
"Obviously, the numbers aren't where we want them to be," said linebacker Chris Kelsay. "But we do know we've made improvements regardless of what the stats say. A lot of the stuff that's happened, as is the case normally, is self-inflicted. Be in the right gaps, be where you're supposed to be, not try to do somebody else's job."
There is reason for hope that the run defense is better. Rookie defensive end Marcell Dareus is playing well. He was outstanding in the loss to the New York Giants last week. While the run-defense numbers weren't great against the Giants, the Bills were not gashed like they were in so many games last season.
The Giants finished with 122 rushing yards and a 3.7-yard average. They had just 71 yards on 25 carries entering their final, fourth-quarter drive.
"The last quarter, the last drive, is really what hurt the statistics there," Gailey said. "You can go back to Philadelphia, we held those other runners pretty good. Now [Michael] Vick got out of there for 90 yards. That's gonna happen with a player like him. I think our run defense is better, and I think we're getting closer to where we need to be there, we just need to do it for four quarters."
The Eagles' runners, not counting the quarterback, carried 14 times for 84 yards, a 6-yard average.
Playing good run defense will be essential for the Bills, because it seems clear their pass rush does not have a lot of upside. The Bills rank last in sacks with four. Better health could help. Kelsay is recovered from a calf injury that kept him out the last two games. Linebacker Shawne Merriman expressed confidence his sore Achilles tendon will be better in time for the Washington game. But is the pass rush ever going to become dominant this season? Hard to see it.
"It's a problem we've got," Gailey said. "We do have a problem. There's no bones about it. We tried to come after [Eli Manning] with five on a lot of third downs, especially in the first half and we still didn't get there. So we're going to have to figure something out to generate some kind of pass rush."