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Bills’ defense needs to live up to its end of the bargain

PHILADELPHIA – Ah, the drama. Sunday at 1 p.m, the Bills resume their heroic playoff push with another must-win game against the high-flying, first-place Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field.

All right, so the “high-flying” part is stretching things a bit. The Eagles are in a three-way tie for first in the NFC East with a 5-7 record. It doesn’t make them good. It’s like being in a tie for first for smartest Kardashian sister.

Philly is a bad football team, a dysfunctional operation. Yes, they pulled a big upset in New England last week, but that was more a testament to the Patriots’ injury woes than any legitimate surge in competence by Chip Kelly’s crew.

The Eagles have lost three of four, two straight at home. Only one of their seven losses came against a team that currently has a winning record. They gave up 45 points to both Tampa Bay and Detroit in their last two defeats.

Chip Kelly’s squad is 26th in the NFL in defense, 27th against the run, 27th on third down. Over its last three games, Philly has allowed 459 yards a game. Kelly’s genius has unleashed a fast-moving offense that ranks 29th in the league in yards per play.

Running back DeMarco Murray, whose production has gone into the tank after he led the NFL in rushing a year ago, complained to owner Jeffrey Lurie about a lack of touches. Safety Malcolm Jenkins told a radio station that Kelly doesn’t hold his players accountable for mistakes.

Meanwhile, Kelly’s name comes up for every major college job opening. Lurie has reaffirmed his commitment to Kelly. That’s understandable when you consider he gave him a five-year, $32.5 million deal − more than the Pegulas are paying Rex Ryan − to leave Oregon for the NFL.

So for Kelly, the timing couldn’t be worse for LeSean McCoy’s return to Philly, where his relationship with the head coach became frayed last season and resulted in him being shipped to the Bills for Kiko Alonso last March.

There has even been wild speculation that some of McCoy’s close friends on the Eagles might lie down so Shady can get his revenge against Kelly. Considering some of Philly’s uninspired performances this season, it might be hard to tell the difference.

McCoy should have a field day against the Eagles, who gave up 283 rushing yards to the Bucs three weeks ago − 235 to Doug Martin. The Bills have averaged 165 yards rushing in their last five games, with a healthy McCoy running behind an offensive line that’s more in tune with Greg Roman’s complex blocking schemes.

“We’ve got a feel for what we’re doing,” said left guard Richie Incognito, “a feel for what’s working well and what LeSean likes running and what we like blocking. So I expect us to try to get him going a lot.”

The Bills should win handily if they get a solid performance from their 20th-ranked defense, which hasn’t had more than two sacks in a game all year. Who could have imagined it would come to this in Ryan’s first season − wondering if the offense can carry an average defense?

They need to play aggressively today, but also intelligently and under control. That’s been a rare combination for this defense, which has struggled to find its identity and an emotional balance on the field.

Kelly’s offense plays fast (if not effectively), spreading the field and using a tempo that’s more fashionable in the college ranks. That’ll be a challenge for a Buffalo defense that has been slow to communicate and change personnel of late.

“I’m sure Philadelphia saw that play” against Houston “where we weren’t even lined up and they scored a touchdown,” said linebacker Preston Brown. “So they’re probably going to be the most uptempo they’ve ever been. We’ve got to be ready for it.”

Ryan would like to see his players take a cue from linebacker Manny Lawson, a 10-year veteran who has been forced to play multiple positions because of injuries. He even went back to find Lawson’s score on the Wunderlic test, which the NFL uses to measure the smarts of prospective draftees.

“He speaks a different language,” Ryan said of Lawson. “Honest to goodness, he scored a 43 on it. I don’t tell you most of our scores. There’s not a lot to brag about. But this guy, a 43 is one of the highest numbers I’ve ever seen, especially for a defensive player.”

Lawson laughed when he heard of Ryan’s comments. He couldn’t remember what he scored on the Wunderlic. But he agreed that his savvy and experience can help in a rapidly evolving sport, where offenses move fast and defenses need to adjust on the fly − especially against Philly.

“We have to be very sound in our substitutions and in our playcalling,” Lawson said. “Because if we don’t get a play called, they’re lined up ready to run the next play. Their fast tempo will wear down a defense, especially in the later quarters, the third and fourth quarters.”

It’s nice to hear Ryan praising the intelligence of an unheralded veteran. But I wonder if there’s a subliminal message in there. Is he trying to tell us some of his other defensive players haven’t been quite smart enough to pick up his defensive system?

That’s been an implicit notion during a seasonlong debate over Ryan’s defense. His star defensive players said it needed to be simplified. But Rex didn’t back down, which led you to believe he felt they were too slow to absorb the concepts.

Much of the blame for the lack of pass rush falls on Ryan, who is supposed to put his guys in position to succeed. But it can’t all be on the coaches. At some point, the top defensive players need to rise up and perform.

Mario Williams and Marcell Dareus are two of the four highest-paid defensive linemen in the NFL. They both make roughly $1 million a game. Think about that when you’re trying to scratch together enough cash for that extra Christmas present for the kids.

There’s four games left to go, a quarter of the season. The Bills need their superstar defensive players to justify their lofty reputations and salaries if they hope to finish strong and slip into the playoffs for the first time in 16 years.

McCoy’s return to Philadelphia is the big national story today. How long it will be before the Quarter Billion Club’s returns to dominance is anyone’s guess.

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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