Opponents have bulked up and played more physical with the Buffalo Bills' defense the second half of the season.
The Bills think they're managing the problem a little better, but the proof will come in the final four games, starting with Sunday's meeting with the Indianapolis Colts.
Over the past five games, opposing offenses have used "running personnel groups" on 115 plays, gaining 642 yards (a 5.6-yard average) and breaking 25 runs for 10 yards or more, according to News statistics.
That's a big contrast to the first seven games, when Bills' foes used "running personnel" on 74 plays, gaining 225 yards (a 3.0-yard average) and breaking just six runs of 10-plus yards.
"Running personnel" refers to a regular grouping (a running back, a fullback, two receivers and one tight end) or formations with two or more tight ends or an extra offensive lineman on the field. The News' statistics do not count runs out of the Wildcat formation or runs near the Bills' goal line with no receivers on the field.
"I don't think it's been necessarily the heavier sets that have given us trouble, per se," said defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. "It's just defending the run in general. It hasn't been, well, if we could defend the heavier sets better our run defense will dramatically improve. It's in general. We've had problems staying in our gaps and getting off of blocks sometimes and making plays in our gaps."
Obviously, most teams run a higher percentage out of "heavier" personnel than out of three- or four-receiver sets.
But teams have committed to running more against the Bills and with bigger bodies on the field since the New York Jets gashed Buffalo for 194 rushing yards in the 34-21 Thursday night defeat five weeks ago.
The first seven games that didn't happen as often. Teams ran out of three-receiver sets against the Bills virtually the same number of plays (74) as out of heavier sets (76), not counting goal-line and end-of-half situations.
New Orleans, the No. 3 rushing team in the NFL, followed that up the Jets pounding with a nightmare, 298-yard rushing game on the Bills.
The Bills played superb run defense in the win at Kansas City two weeks ago, holding the Chiefs to 58 yards on the ground. New England rushed for 191 yards on the Bills last week.
What's ahead? Indianapolis is 24th in the NFL in rushing yards and 28th in yards per rush. The Miami Dolphins, who the Bills play twice in the last four weeks, stand 29th in rushing yards and 25th in yards per rush.
The Bills' defensive front gets a little lighter this week. The 6-foot-3, 267-pound Shaq Lawson, out for the year with an ankle injury, gets replaced by 6-2, 259-pound Eddie Yarbrough.
"Eddie doesn't have the size and the length sometimes that Shaq has," Frazier said. "But what he gives us is his athleticism, His ability to get on the edge and rush the passer. I'm sure they're probably going to try to run at him. He's a little bit lighter. But he'll hold his own. And we've got to help him sometimes with the rotation so he doesn't get worn down. He gives us a lot with his quickness, his athletic ability."
Another change for the Bills the past three games has been the addition of 341-pound defensive tackle Deandre Coleman. He has averaged 22 snaps, a third of the downs.
"I think he's helped us," Frazier said. "Having a bigger body there inside has definitely made a difference. You don't always see it statistically in the numbers but we think we've gotten better. His girth, his strength has been a plus for us."
"It's about us up front being physical with guys," said defensive end Jerry Hughes, referring to defending heavy personnel. "When I say physical, I mean keeping the blockers off our linebackers. Giving them the open gap so they can run downhill, make the TFLs."
The rushing yards allowed against New England have to be viewed in the context of the Bills' bigger goal – trying to keep Tom Brady from dominating the game. The defense held New England six points under its season average of 29.0. One could argue any play in which Brady is handing off is better for the defense than him throwing a pass.
"You don't want to give up the yards we gave up in that ballgame," Frazier said. "But at the same time if you can be good on third down, if you can take the ball away, not giving up the explosive plays to Brandin Cooks over the top. If you can be good in the red zone like we were in the first half, you give your team a chance to win."
"That's not why we lost that game," Frazier said of the rushing yards. "It contributed. But it's not the reason."