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Jerry Sullivan: Bills' run defense minding the gaps

Jerry Sullivan

You know a coach has the attention of his football team when the players start to parrot his pet phrases. Since Sean McDermott took over as the Bills' head man guy, we've heard a weekly chorus of guys talking about respecting the process and being one-eleventh of their unit.

On Wednesday, I asked half a dozen members of the team about the run defense and every one of them stressed the importance of "gap integrity," or being in your assigned hole on the line.

Players have been filling their run gaps since the first pigskin was stitched, and gap integrity isn't exactly a new term. But like "the optics" and "narrative" and "doubling down," its usage has become ubiquitous in the last year or so.

Whatever the case, the Bills' defense has shown admirable gap integrity this season. They've been like Abe Lincoln in shoulder pads in those gaps. A year after the run defense went to pieces under Rex Ryan, it has risen up to be one of the best in the NFL in McDermott's maiden season as head coach.

Through six weeks, the Bills are seventh in the NFL in total run defense at 84.5 yards a game, or less than half what they allowed in the last six games a year ago under Ryan. More important, they're fourth in yards per rush at 3.4. That's more than a yard better than they allowed (4.5) last season.

"It's really just guys understanding their job," McDermott said. "Gap integrity, being gap sound, staying in your gap. there's a lot of ways to say it. It's just doing your job, knowing what the man next to you is doing, knowing what his job is and playing with proper leverage. After that, it comes down to really fundamentals."

McDermott said he watched film of last year's defense. But he wouldn't get into detail about what he saw. The players didn't want to dwell on last year's defense, which had players constantly out of position and at times seemed to feature guys avoiding heavy contact or flat giving up.

"This scheme allows us to be a little more aggressive," said backup defensive end Jerel Worthy. "We want to make it easy for our linebackers. We want to penetrate, get up field, define gaps right away and have our linebackers free flow and play off us.

"It's a mindset, for one," Worthy said. "But two,  it's attention to detail. We got to be accountable to each other, accountable to our gaps and ourselves."

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Middle linebacker Preston Brown was part of that horrid run defense last year. He said the Bills were the place to go if a running back needed a 100-yard day. But things changed during the offseason when McDermott switched back to a 4-3 and preached an accountable group mindset.

And, of course ...

"Just gap integrity," Brown said. "Guys going 'I got this gap.' It's a mentality, something we preach each and every day. 'They're not going to run through my gap.' Those guys up front take great pride in it. All those guys play so well and they make it easier for us in the back end."

As Brown said, it starts with the front four. Jerry Hughes and Kyle Williams are the mainstays, but the Bills have gotten solid production from all their rotating defensive linemen, including guys like Ryan Davis and Eddie Yarbrough. Even Marcell Dareus had a big game against the Bucs.

Teams have been throwing on them, to be sure. The Bills have allowed an average of 350 passing yards the last two games, dropping them to 26th in pass defense. But they're fourth in the most important stat -- points allowed -- and a stingy run defense has a lot to do with it.

The Bills are allowing only 2.67 yards a rush on first downs. More than 40 percent of first-down runs have gone for 1 yard or less, 13 for negative yards. In the big win in Atlanta, they got two big turnovers after stuffing the Falcons on first down -- the Jerry Hughes strip sack that Tre White ran back for a TD and a late interception by Micah Hyde.

"That helps us a great deal," said Davis, who had a key strip sack of Jameis Winston on third-and-10 at the Bills' 32 last Sunday. "Whenever you start a drive off with a second and-long situation, your defense can go hunting now. The defense is in a better position to get the ball back for the offense and create more opportunities for our team."

What They Said: Bills HC McDermott, LB Brown, DT Dareus, RB McCoy, S Poyer, QB Taylor, WR Thompson, CB White, DT Worthy

When the Bills talk about the reasons for their improved run defense -- principled, accountable, simple, collective -- it sounds like a knock on Ryan, whose teams seemed unorganized and defeated late last season. Injuries and shabby coverage in the secondary hurt the defense, but the run D was their true undoing.

They gave up 214 yards to Jay Ajayi in the loss at Miami, which ended their four-game win streak in Week 7, sending them into a tailspin from which they never recovered. Over the last six games, they were dreadful, allowing 176 rushing yards a game and 5.3 yards a carry, which would have ranked last in the league in both categories over a full season.

Their current stats against the run are almost identical to those of the 1999 Bills defense which led the NFL in total D -- 86 yards a game, 3.4 yards a rush. They haven't been close to those numbers since.

The Raiders got 417 passing yards from Derek Carr in a crucial comeback win over the Chiefs last Thursday. They'll attack the Bills' secondary, as the Bucs did on Sunday. But it's hard to win if you can't run, especially on the road. They're 10th in the NFL in average rush, so you know they'll try, even without suspended goofball Marshawn Lynch.

"This is the NFL," Davis said. "Every team is going to think they can run the ball against us, because it's a man-on-man game. So we've still got to be prepared for it. We expect this team to come out and have a real physical demeanor. They're really good up front. We know what we have to do, so this is a crucial week of practice for us.

"However they come out, we'll be ready for it."

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