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Jerry Sullivan: Crisis time for McDermott and his D

CARSON, Calif. — Sean McDermott is no dummy. He considered appearances when he was thinking of switching quarterbacks. The Bills coach knew he would seem to be deflecting attention from his defense, which had been dominated in two straight games.

"I did," McDermott said Friday. "I looked at everything. You know by now I'm thorough in my approach. I'm a methodical decision-maker. So I weighed everything. Like I said before, it's not about one person or one player. It's never about that. It's about us as a team."

That sounds nice, but he certainly made it about Tyrod Taylor by yanking him as the starter at 5-4. It looked like a classic shell game. Sure, the defense has been dreadful the last two weeks. But look, the answer is lying under that other cup. It's a quarterback problem!

Whatever his motives, McDermott is facing the biggest crisis of a turbulent first season as a head coach. It would have been so regardless. But he's raised the stakes by handing the offense to Nathan Peterman, a rookie, with his staggering squad looking to find itself against the LA Chargers in the StubHub Center on Sunday.

McDermott laughed when I asked about a crisis. But it's interesting how he's recently been making references to this being his first season, a new experience for everyone involved. We didn't hear that when the Bills were 5-2 and he was looking like a candidate for coach of the year.

I'm sure the sense of crisis is especially profound for fans who have suffered through a 17-year playoff drought. The Bills are looking to snap a two-game losing streak and get to 6-4 for the first time since 2000. Getting over the five-win mark has been an Everest for this team.

Consider this: Since the start of the 2001 season, the Bills have played 15 games with a chance to get to six wins by the 10th game of the season. They're 0-15 in those games. They have been 5-1 (2008), 5-2 (2011), 5-3 (2002 and '14), 5-4 (2007 and '13).

Every time, they couldn't stand prosperity and eventually dropped to 5-5. Now, after a 5-2 start, they're staring at the familiar 5-5 barrier of mediocrity. So if the Bills lose a third straight after a promising start, it will be depressingly similar to many other seasons that preceded it in the drought.

"I think fans are already at that point," said linebacker Lorenzo Alexander. "We just focus on getting a win, regardless of the outside noise and regardless of how we played the last two weeks. We know we have the ability to be a good football team, because we displayed it."

McDermott shifted a lot of the public focus to Peterman this week. He has a ready-made excuse if the offense struggles. But he was brought here by the Pegulas as a defensive mastermind, a rising young coach who could fix the mess that Rex Ryan left behind.

But suddenly, it looks alarmingly like Ryan's D. Over the past two weeks, the run defense has channeled last year's group, which was the worst in the league down the stretch. They were humiliated as the Saints rushed for 298 yards last week and ran 24 times in a row.

Ryan's defense allowed an average of 357 yards a game over two seasons. McDermott's has given up an average of 360 through nine games. The average yards per play, a good gauge of a defense, is roughly the same (5.6 in 2016, 5.5 this year). They ranked eighth in sacks last year. Now, they're 30th.

"When you have breakdowns, anything can happen in this league," said tackle Kyle Williams. "We came back in and identified what's going on — eye control, technique, those different things. Sometimes you get caught up in game plans during the season and you back-burner fundamentals."

There was a lot of talk during the week about technique and fundamentals and going back to basics. McDermott said it was like training camp, a time for reteaching. It's the same stuff Ryan preached when his defense was getting smoked. It's never about scheme, always about execution.

But what does it say if players need to go back to school more than halfway through a season? Two weeks ago, we were talking about playoffs and the great team chemistry and suddenly it's back to fundamentals?

If McDermott is such a genius, how come Sean Payton undressed his defense last week? Why can't he figure out how to get to the quarterback? The Bills have four sacks in six games, for minus-14 yards. Atlanta's Adrian Clayborn beat those numbers on his own last week.

How about something more complex than talking about fundamentals and technique? Maybe they need to stop putting so much trust in the front four, which has looked old and soft and slow the last two games, and use some inventive schemes to create more pressure.

McDermott has made his reputation on defense. The move to Peterman has many layers, starting with the fact that the Bills don't consider Taylor a franchise quarterback. But I suspect one of the main reasons McDermott made the change was to help his defense.

The defense needed some sort of relief. Williams and Alexander are each 34 and show signs of wearing down. It doesn't help when they're on the field a lot. The Bills have been at or near the bottom of the NFL in three-and-outs from the moment Taylor became the starter in 2015.

So McDermott figured it was time for a change. Maybe Peterman can get the ball out quicker and move the chains and give his defense more of a breather between possessions. But as he admitted, it's a risk.

"I mean, he's a rookie," Alexander said of Peterman. "He doesn't have a lot of live reps in this league. You just don't know. With Tyrod, he has a body of work and you know what you're getting. That's how most coaches in this league operate. They put guys out there they trust, because they know what they're going to get."

It's clear that McDermott no longer trusts Taylor. I'm not sure he trusts this defense, either. His team has been getting blown up at the line of scrimmage. The offensive line hasn't been much better. They can't run, stop the run, rush the passer or stretch the field in the passing game.

That qualifies as a full-blown crisis, even for a team on the right side of the playoffs. On Sunday, they have a chance to get to 6-4 for the first time since Bill Clinton was president. And if they lose, remember, McDermott and Peterman are only rookies.

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