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Bills Mailbag: Rush defense is tougher problem to solve than rush offense

Bills Mailbag: Rush defense is tougher problem to solve than rush offense

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Josh Allen hands the ball off to running back Devin Singletary in Las Vegas.

The Bills are an impressive 7-3 at the bye, but there’s plenty for fans to worry about. Here’s what’s keeping you awake in this week’s Bills Mailbag:

Keith Pascucci asks: To me, the O-line and D-line have to man up and start winning battles for the Bills to take the next step. Hopefully, they will because it would be a shame to waste the great QB and receiving corps play. Your thoughts?

Mike Canfield asks: Is there any hope for the running game going forward?

Mark: I think you’re right on, Keith. Success is most dependent on the quarterback and the trenches.

I think the Bills’ run-defense issues are more of a problem than the offensive line’s run-blocking issues.

The Bills’ run game should be fixable because they have the people up front when fully healthy to get the job done – or at least be more successful than we’ve seen.

I thought Mitch Morse was having a strong season before he got the concussion. His pass protection has been consistent. His run blocking was strong in the second game vs. the Jets, and against the Chiefs, Raiders and Rams. I expect him to go back to the starting center spot. With Cody Ford back from injury, he can join Jon Feliciano at guard. Presuming that’s the starting five for the game against the Chargers, it will be the first time all season the Bills have had their preferred starting five on the field together. Let that five try to build some continuity.

Dion Dawkins and Daryl Williams have been exceptional at tackle. Obviously, the coaches liked Brian Winters better than Quinton Spain. But Winters still has been the weakest link on the line.

The Bills face two dominant defenses remaining on the schedule – San Francisco and Pittsburgh. The Chargers and Patriots rank 12th and 13th in yards allowed, respectively.

The stoutness of the run defense is another matter. The Bills don’t have a good solution at the 1-technique position – Star Lotulelei’s spot opposite a shoulder of the center.

Nobody they have rotating there is an ideal fit. Vernon Butler has the size at 330 pounds but he was signed to be mostly a 3-technique player subbing for Ed Oliver. I think Butler has been the best of the bunch at 1-technique, but it’s not his best role. Quinton Jefferson, 291 pounds, is more of a situational pass rusher at defensive tackle and defensive end. He has been the least stout of the bunch when asked to hold his ground at defensive tackle. Justin Zimmer is an athletic 300-pounder who has given the Bills more than expected. He has made some splash plays but too often also has been moved well off his spot. Then there’s Harrison Phillips, who has been on the bench for four of the last five games. Maybe late in the season and next year, as he gets farther removed from his major knee surgery, Phillips can give the Bills better production. But that’s a real rose-colored-glasses hope at this point.

The Bills are just going to have to piece it together as best they can on the run-defense front. One thing the run defense has going for it is the Bills’ explosive offense. That makes it harder in some games for the opposing offense to grind it out.

The Bills don’t face a brutal string of rushing offenses down the stretch. New England is the runningest team, ranked third on the ground. The Chargers have good balance. San Francisco loves to run but has been depleted by injury.

Rick McGuire asks: Could the problem with the Bills running game lie with the running backs themselves? Zack Moss is performing as expected but Devin Singletary doesn't seem to have the same explosion and moves this year as he did last year. I'm a big Motor fan, but he's had times where he looks lost.

Mark: I believe in Singletary and Moss. Ten of Singletary’s 14 runs vs. New England were successful. He got only two carries vs. Seattle and four vs. Arizona. However, Moss’ power allows him to run through tackles better than Singletary. When the blocking is iffy, Moss will grind out more yards. Moss has had 16 carries the past two games, Singletary six.

Ed Helinski asks: What’s your take on the recent Gabriel Davis funk? Not much of a factor or contribution lately.

Mark: Davis had no catches on two targets vs. New England, four catches for 70 yards on five targets vs. Seattle and no catches on three targets vs. Arizona. Given how well Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley are playing – and how often they’re both open – Davis’ numbers are understandable. On the third-quarter interception for Davis in Arizona, Allen probably should have taken the underneath throw to open Dawson Knox, as News contributor Jim Kubiak wrote this week. The throw to Davis on the crosser was late. Dre Kirkpatrick, a good cornerback, covered Davis well a couple of times in the fourth quarter. Allen might have had a little quicker trigger on a broken-up slant route for Davis in the fourth quarter, but that could come with more experience between the two of them.

Luigi Mike Speranza asks: Do you think it would do any good if coach McDermott took over defensive play calling duties? Seems like the defensive issues are not going away soon. Desperate times.

Mark: Actually, I would not call it desperate times. I think the defense showed signs to be encouraged about vs. Seattle and Arizona. The Bills have added wrinkles defensively, putting Tremaine Edmunds on the line as a stand-up edge player on a five-man front in order to contain the zone-read quarterback runs and add variety to the blitz game. They did that 11 times vs. the Cardinals.

Sean McDermott is intimately involved in the direction of the defense. The plan gets his seal of approval every week. Leslie Frazier is a proven, successful defensive coordinator. The problems on defense are not the defensive calls. They start with the absence of Lotulelei and Matt Milano. That being said, certainly there can be some value in changing it up, just for the sake of change and to maybe break some tendencies. We’ve seen McDermott do it at times, and he might do it again. But I think it’s just a change-up tactic.

Bill from North Buffalo asks: Looking ahead to the draft, who should we keep an eye on at offensive tackle in college games the rest of the way, if the Bills can’t keep Daryl Williams?

Mark: Some tackles who might project in the latter part of the first round include: right tackle Jalen Mayfield, No. 73 for Michigan; right tackle Alex Leatherwood, No. 70 for Alabama; left tackle Samuel Cosmi, No. 52 for Texas; left tackle Liam Eichenberg, No. 74 for Notre Dame; and left tackle Christian Darrisaw, No. 77 for Virginia Tech. Tennessee guard Trey Smith, No. 73, plays the physical style the Bills like.

Mike Busch asks: With the Bills on the bye getting a well-deserved break, please rank the following breaks: “Achy Breaky Heart” (Billy Ray Cyrus), “Break on Through” (The Doors), “Break Stuff” (Limp Bizkit), the movie “Point Break” and Ales Kotalik on a breakaway.

Mark: 5. Billy Ray Cyrus. Demerits for the fact that list-man Lou Stromberg used this two weeks ago. 4. Kotalik. I don’t have time in my life to follow the NHL. 3. "Point Break." Didn’t see it but I’m a fan of Keanu Reaves in “The Matrix.” 2. Limp Bizkit. There’s something to be said for letting off steam on occasion. 1. The Doors. The lone great entry in a weak group of five.

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Bills/NFL writer

Mark Gaughan is in his 37th year at The Buffalo News. He is past president of the Pro Football Writers of America and served as a selector for the Pro Football Hall of Fame for 12 years.

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