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Defense circles the wagons; Coordinator has players' backing

As the avalanche of criticism from fans and media toward George Edwards grows, the one place the Buffalo Bills' defensive coordinator can find peace is in the team locker room.

It is there that Edwards has a deep bench of supporters who made it clear that whatever needs fixing about the Bills' defense, it's not the man guiding them.

"I would never put the blame on the coach, especially a coach like George," veteran linebacker/defensive end Chris Kelsay said. "The guy works tremendously hard and his defense has worked in the past. When the coach gets the blame, which many times they do, I'll always be the first one to step up and say, 'It's the players who aren't executing the plays.' The coaches can do only so much from the sidelines."

It's great for Edwards that one of the team's leaders feels so passionate about his ability to direct the defense. Yet it ignores the 800-pound gorilla that will weigh heavily on Edwards heading into the offseason: Why didn't the unit improve from a year ago?

Edwards was handed a strengthened defense but injuries hit almost immediately and then came the losses and the bunches of points allowed, putting him squarely on the hot seat with two games remaining. The Bills host the Denver Broncos on Saturday.

Asked if he's worried about his job security, Edwards said Thursday, "Right now, all I'm concerned about is Tim Tebow this week."

Fans began voicing their displeasure even during the Bills' fast start and another layer of heat was added last Sunday against Miami when it was mentioned during the team's radio broadcast that assistant head coach Dave Wannstedt had taken over the play-calling duties from Edwards. Bills coach Chan Gailey and the players denied that report.

Asked if he was satisfied with Edwards' performance, Gailey said this week, "This is not the time to discuss all of that. We're all doing the very best that we can and trying to put guys in position to be successful. Everybody, in all three phases, that's all we're trying to do is be the best we can and try to win this game and the next one."

Though the five wins is a one-game improvement from a year ago, the seven straight losses and possible 0-9 finish to end the season leaves a bitter aftertaste for a team that didn't sell out its last three home games. Part of the problem is the defense and Edwards is hearing his share of disparagement.

"Everybody's getting criticism," Gailey said. "If you lose this many games in a row we all get criticism. There's nobody that escapes criticism when we're doing what we're doing right now."

The Bills have allowed 371 points with two games remaining in 2011 after giving up 425 last year -- a virtually identical average per game. It goes right in step with the Bills' NFL-low 21 sacks, six fewer than last season's 16-game total.

Last Sunday, the Bills were once again dominated in the trenches, continuing a December trend in which the defense has had very little counterpunch. Frankly, the defense the Bills have trotted out for the last two years doesn't strike much fear in any offensive coordinator.

That falls on Edwards, who played linebacker at Duke and began working in the league as linebackers coach with Dallas in 1998. Hindered by season-ending injuries to Kyle Williams, Shawne Merriman and Terrence McGee -- arguably the three best players of their respective units -- Edwards is coaching a defense struggling to find an identity, switching from its base 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 midway through the season because of injuries. If he started with a more talented unit, he didn't finish with a complete deck, yet Edwards won't use injuries as an excuse.

"The next guy has to be ready to go, we have to get them ready to go," he said. "We've got some young guys who have stepped in, had to fill some roles and that's valuable learning experience for them. And they're the right kind of guys so we have to keep improving each week."

The biggest issues defensively coming into the season were the run defense and rushing the passer. The Bills made only a slight improvement against the run, ranking 29th this season after finishing last in 2010, and the Bills are one of the more conservative blitzing teams in the league. Ten of the Bills' 21 sacks came against Washington seven games ago.

"We're just trying to take the gentlemen that we have rushing the passer and keep hoping and working that they'll improve from week to week," Edwards said. "It's definitely not where we want to be at the time."

Edwards can rightfully be optimistic about how some aspects of his unit have developed. This year's draft class of Marcell Dareus, Aaron Williams, Kelvin Sheppard and Da'Norris Searcy found ample playing time and all have promising futures.

"We're not where we want to be statistically but we've got some good young guys who got some good, valuable experience that they got to go through," Edwards said. "We'll keep pressing on and keep improving fundamentally and technically as we keep working toward the end of this season."

If the mounting criticism is taking a personal toll on Edwards, it doesn't show.

"All I can concern myself with is day-to-day what we've got to get done," Edwards said. "All I'm concerned about is doing the best that we can at that job on that day and go on to the next day."

email: rmckissic@buffnews.com