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It's back to basics as defense becomes unexpected concern for Bills

Vic Carucci

If you had asked any Buffalo Bills fan in the summer about the side of the ball with the greatest potential for concern by midseason, the universal answer would have been obvious.

An anemic offense.

It's midseason. Although the work of Josh Allen, Brian Daboll, new receivers and a virtually new offensive line has done little to calm the nerves of Bills faithful, an unanticipated worry has surfaced.

The defense once thought to be elite suddenly seems a bit vulnerable, particularly against the run.

Through seven games, the numbers say the Bills rank third in the NFL in total yards and passing yards. Such stats normally reflect a strong defense.

The numbers also say the Bills are 18th against the run. But that has less to do with flipping the script than the 218 rushing yards they allowed in their 31-13 loss against the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday.

The Eagles' offensive line owned the game from start to finish. It overpowered the Bills' defensive front with a physical beating so thorough, Eagles running back Jordan Howard felt comfortable adding some insult by saying Buffalo's defenders were worn down to the point where "they didn't really want to tackle us" by the end of the game.

Tackling is about desire or a lack thereof. Defensive end Shaq Lawson supported that notion when he told reporters immediately after the game, "I guess they wanted it more."

Tackling also is about fundamentals and technique. Those are elements teams address in earnest during the offseason (minus actual contact) and training camp and the preseason (where the contact is only slightly greater, per NFL's collective bargaining agreement), when they have the time to do so.

The weekly routine in the regular season is mostly devoted to preparing for each specific opponent, and the Bills began doing just that Wednesday for their game against the Washington Redskins Sunday. However, with the sting of the Eagles game having yet to subside, Sean McDermott Wednesday said there's a solution to the fundamental problem facing his defense.

"Yeah, reteach," the coach told reporters. "Whether it's run defense or whatever it is, as it relates to performance, it's reteach the fundamentals. That's what I've been around for my career. And that's what we'll do and will continue to do, is reteach the fundamentals.

"Because if we're not getting the fundamentals, then we've got to go back and reteach the fundamentals and make sure it's clear what we expect, with fundamentals and technique and then execution."

On Wednesday, the Bills' defensive linemen went back to basics. They spent time before, during and after practice working on using their hands to separate from blockers, proper footwork and keeping their pad level low enough to gain an advantage in leverage.

"Basically, Day One teaching of football," Lawson said. "Technique and fundamentals lost us that game last week. And that's what we were working on (Wednesday), D-line, we were doing nothing but technique."

The approach makes perfect sense. Pretty much every remaining opponent on the Bills' schedule is going to follow the Eagles' lead and take a physical approach on offense.

At the same time, going back to "Day One" football instruction at the halfway point of the season could also be viewed as the sounding of an alarm. At 5-2, it's probably not accurate to say the Bills are in full-on panic mode.

Nor is it right to think that's necessary with more than enough season left to recover and continue on what looks like a manageable path to the playoffs.

"(The Eagles) got the best of us, that's it," tackle Jordan Phillips said. "We're 5-2. I mean, we're a good team, we're a great defense. We just had a misfit on Sunday, that's it. Nobody's panicking, nobody's doing anything. ... If anybody's worried about our defense, they're worried about the wrong thing."

"Unless you want to let one game beat you twice," said rookie tackle Ed Oliver, "you better let it go pretty quick and you better get your head right for the next week."

However, it's also fair to conclude the Bills can't afford to ignore something as glaring as their inability to slow down, let alone, stop the run last Sunday.

McDermott's coaching roots run deep on the defensive side. He takes such failures more personally because it puts an ugly blemish on his area of expertise.

When McDermott arrived in Buffalo in 2017, he set out to build the defense from back to front, so it's no coincidence the secondary has been the strongest area the past two-and-a-half seasons. Still, he has established the same standard for the front seven. The additions of tackle Star Lotulelei and end Trent Murphy in free agency, Phillips from the waiver wire and middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and Oliver via first-round draft picks were meant to bring dramatic improvement to the whole unit.

Until Sunday, it was hard to second guess the blueprint, even with the loss of 2018 third-round pick Harrison Phillips to a season-ending knee injury.

That's not the case any longer.

"I don't think you ever really stop (focusing on fundamentals and technique)," Oliver said. "There's just more emphasis put on it. That's the only way you can get better, that's the only way you can be successful in this league is to out-technique, because everybody is big, strong and fast. So, you've got to out-technique."

The Redskins are every bit as awful as their 1-7 record indicates. Yet, if they have anything going for them, it is interim coach Bill Callahan's sound thinking when it comes to playing to his and his team's strengths. Callahan is a former offensive line coach. He strongly believes in pounding the football, a formula that would seem more necessary given the potential of rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins starting on Sunday.

Callahan won't hesitate to employ it Sunday with aging but still effective Adrian Peterson in his backfield.

"Can't wait," Phillips said. "That's all I've got to say about that. Can't wait."

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