The statistics paint a pretty heady picture for the Buffalo Bills’ defense to carry into this week’s bye.
No. 1 in the NFL with 28 sacks. No. 1 in the league with 12 interceptions. Top 10 in multiple major categories. Top five in others.
“Numbers don’t lie,” safety Aaron Williams said.
Not in this case. The Bills’ defensive dominance, which reached its apex through the first half of the season in the six-takeaway performance (including three in the first quarter) that produced a 43-23 victory against the New York Jets on Sunday, is the driving force behind the team’s 5-3 record.
“We have a lot of good players on that side of the football,” coach Doug Marrone said. “I never put a ceiling on where those guys can be. I really think they can be as good as they want to be. It’s not going to be a matter of talent. I think that the coaches are doing a very good job, along with the players, of stepping it up when it’s time to step up.”
For Jim Schwartz, midway through his first season as the Bills’ defensive coordinator, the numbers in the win and loss columns matter most. When he was defensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans, he recalled Tuesday, he was part of a game similar to Sunday’s where his team prospered from an avalanche of early turnovers, yet still had to hang on for a close triumph.
“I’ve been around the NFL long enough to know that it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” Schwartz said. “I think the story of our defense will be written in the second half of this year, not the first half of the year.”
Still, it’s a pretty compelling story so far.
The main characters constitute one of the better defensive lines in the NFL. The Bills have top-level starters in tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, and ends Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes. Besides being extremely stout against the run, Dareus leads the team with seven sacks, followed by Mario Williams (six) and Hughes (5.5). The Bills also have solid backups that allow Schwartz to frequently rotate the group to make sure fresh bodies are on the field late in the game.
It’s the strength of that line that permits Schwartz to, at times, rely almost solely on the front four to generate pressure while leaving seven defenders in coverage. That was the strategy that went a long way toward allowing the Bills to intercept Jets starting quarterback Geno Smith three times in eight passes Sunday and get another interception from his replacement, Michael Vick, who also fumbled twice, in the second half.
“With our D-line, we don’t have to blitz you at all,” said linebacker Preston Brown, who had one of the interceptions. “So we can sit back there in zone and pick off passes. With the D-line, the way they’re playing great so far ... this could continue the whole year, hopefully.”
Nevertheless, the Bills are able to produce pressure from their linebacking corps, which has held up remarkably well despite losing its best player, Kiko Alonso, to a season-ending knee injury he suffered while working out before training camp. They’re getting particularly strong play from Nigel Bradham – his three personal-foul penalties against the Jets notwithstanding – and Brown.
“It’s been different each week,” Schwartz said of the methods the Bills have used to get after the quarterback. “The week before, against Minnesota, we brought a lot more pressure” from beyond the line. “And I had a little different results.” The Bills sacked Vikings rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater five times and intercepted him twice.
“Some weeks we don’t blitz very much, some weeks we blitz a bunch, some weeks we play a lot of zone defense, some weeks we play a lot of man defense,” Schwartz said. “It’s all just designed to try to service that week, trying to match up against particular opponents, trying to take away what they do best, and also trying to accentuate what we do. But that being said, I think we do have a very good four-man pass rush and it does put you in position that if you can put pressure on the quarterback with four and you don’t have to devote extra guys to rush, then you don’t give up very many big plays. And when we’ve been at our best this year, we haven’t given up big plays.”
The longest play from scrimmage the Bills allowed against the Jets was a 20-yard pass from Vick to tight end Jace Amaro, who actually gained most of the yards after a short catch.
Through the first half of the season, Schwartz seems to have eliminated concerns that Buffalo’s defense would suffer from the loss of last year’s coordinator, Mike Pettine, who departed to become the head coach of the Cleveland Browns.
The Bills ranked second in the league last year with 57 sacks, and are on pace to finish this season with 56. But they were 28th in the league against the run, 20 spots below where they currently rank.
Run-stopping has been a point of emphasis for Schwartz, who uses as much emotion as he does technical guidance in his coaching.
“He really drives us to be great,” Aaron Williams said. “He gets mad when the other team rushes for a 4-yard gain. I mean, he expects us to have zero yards or tackle for a loss. And he’s really emphasized how much he wants that run game to be perfected” over “what it was last year.”
Dareus said the biggest difference between this year’s defense and last year’s unit is that Schwartz is “more demanding” than Pettine, especially when it comes to “crowding the ball.”
“He doesn’t take it easy on us at any point in the day,” Dareus said. “He’s always demanding the best and wanting the best out of us.”
Schwartz has no intention of pulling back, especially through a stretch of games during which the Bills are scheduled to face three of the game’s top quarterbacks in Denver’s Peyton Manning, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and New England’s Tom Brady.
The Bills didn’t fare well in their first meeting with Brady this year and also struggled against the only other elite quarterback they’ve seen so far, San Diego’s Philip Rivers.
“I think the biggest thing is we weren’t able to get turnovers in those games,” Schwartz said. “Both of those guys did a really good job of taking care of the football. We don’t judge ourselves in stats, but turnovers can help us accomplish a lot of things – put our offense in position to score, stop drives, things like that. …
“We have to be at the top of our game when we play quarterbacks like that. We have to improve in those areas.”