It's no secret in Buffalo that the Bills' pass rush was virtually non-existent in 2011. Though they had a monster game north of the border when they played the Redskins in Toronto, grabbing 9 sacks and blocking a field goal en route to a 23-0 shutout, that was pretty much the highlight of an otherwise dreadful season for Buffalo's defensive line.
To be fair, losing Kyle Williams after week 5 was a major blow, as the sixth year DT was widely acknowledged as one of Buffalo's top defensive weapons and the perfect compliment to incoming rookie, Marcell Dareus. After a 2010 Pro Bowl season that saw Williams grab 77 tackles and 5.5 sacks, as well as five full seasons previous without a missed start, Williams went down with bone spurs in his left foot and, with him, went much of the front line pass rush.
Operating out of the 3-4 defense most of the year under George Edwards, it's little surprise that losing Williams struck such a blow to the defensive line. Without their huge numbers playing against a pretty terrible Washington squad they would rank last in sacks and only managed 27th in the NFL all told last season. Dareus did look good in his first season with the Bills, a disruptive explosion on the ends and at nose tackle, where he spent most of the year following Williams' departure. He put up 5.5 sacks (2.5 against Washington... man, that was a nasty game) and 43 tackles in his debut NFL season and looks to be well on his way to justifying Buffalo's use of the #3 pick in 2010.
Then, things start to get a little less... let's just say: noteworthy. Spencer Johnson, an eight year veteran in his fourth season with the Bills, looked solid, accounting for the aforementioned blocked field goal (...against Washington), grabbing 47 tackles, 2 sacks, and a forced fumble, while also staying healthy all 16 games. On the other end, Dwan Edwards spent his second year out of Baltimore in much the same way he did his first, with 52 tackles and 2.5 sacks, but that's pretty much where the story ends up front. There wasn't a lot of depth at the position, with no real standouts otherwise, either in single games or throughout 2011. Opposing QB's were given far too much time to pick and deliver to their targets, spending too much time upright and not enough down on the turf. While we'll get into the linebackers next week and their part in this problem, as well new defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt's role for them in the 4-3 defense, let's first address the issues with who'll be laying their fingers on the line of scrimmage.
Dareus and Williams are definitely starters. Williams' rehab is ahead of schedule, with Wannstedt recently stating that "there has not been a setback in any form or fashion... (and) we're looking forward to having a great year". Dareus, then, should continue to improve with the added attention Williams draws, as well as benefit with the increase to a four man front to spread the opposing offensive line, creating open lanes to the quarterback and running back. The Bills, however, were horrid in "setting the edge" in 2011, with runners often scampering for big gains to the outside (see Chris Johnson's 153 yds and Reggie Bush's 203 yds) as well as giving quarterbacks too wide a pocket to relax in. While Edwards and Johnson were both capable, there will no doubt be a fresh infusion of talent and depth in the front four come the start of training camp, especially at the defensive end spot.
GM Buddy Nix has spoken often about the depth of talent for pass rushers in this year's draft (with many "bargains" in the middle rounds), so I don't really expect them to look to free agency to fill this need in 2012. The Bills are sitting on nine picks this year (an extra 4th rounder from the Lee Evans deal and an extra 5th for Marshawn Lynch) and while Nix may not use the top pick on a pass rusher (he's "a little nervous with the 10th pick" being used on a defensive end), I don't think he'll trade away these spots either. It's also pretty fair odds that they'll stay out of the Mario Williams auction (by far the best DE in the free agent market), especially if they continue to pursue a veteran receiver like Vincent Jackson or Mario Manningham to pair with the newly signed Steve Johnson (which will take another big bite out of their cap room).
So, it looks like the depth and talent is going to have to be fished out of the college pool this year, but we get into an interesting discussion here as many of the top outside linebackers in the draft are the perfect fit in the Bills' new 4-3 scheme. Though oftentimes smaller than a typical defensive end, their explosiveness coming off the edge in the pass rush make them ideal candidates to find their place in the 4-3. Nix's nervousness aside, if the Bills decide to use their top pick on defense (rather than on OT Jonathan Martin from Stanford or the like) , it will no doubt be for one of two OLB's: South Carolina's Melvin Ingram or Alabama's Courtney Upshaw.
Based on their performance at the Combine, Ingram has fewer question marks than Upshaw (who had my vote until last week) and looks to be the stronger pick, especially in the 4-3. Ingram's work at South Carolina included stints at both ends of the defensive line, as well as playing tackle. Though measuring 6'1" and weighing 264 lbs might seem to put him on the small end, it allows Ingram to match strength (28 bench reps) with quickness (a 4.66 sec 40 yd), making for a devil of a pass rusher. Even nursing injuries in 2011, Melvin had 48 tackles (15 for loss) and 10 sacks, as well as two INTs, playing just about every position Coach Spurrier could think to put him at up front. Good at both getting to the outside in run defense, as well as bursting through the line to hassle the passer, Ingram could be a major force in the new Bills scheme.
On the other hand, there's Courtney Upshaw, who lost some of his Championship thunder at the Combine, looking slow in getting back on pass defense (though perhaps it better suits him for the defensive line) and just seeming a wee bit less than he was in Alabama. Heavier than Ingram, he still possesses amazing speed and flexibility for 275 lbs, plowing through offensive linemen when he gets a head of steam. He had 52 tackles in 2011 (18 for loss), as well as 9.5 sacks and 2 INTs, which is great, but in comparison to the other OLBs at the Combine, he just seemed a half-step below. Only 22 bench reps, a bit slower than expected in the 40 (4.72), it may just be over-worrying, but if you're going to use a tenth pick to address a true team need, you better be sure.
If they do go pass rush first, Ingram may fit in with less work, but Upshaw will certainly become an equally dominant force and should make a relatively smooth transition to defensive end (his drop back issues make him less attractive in a 3-4 anyway). Additionally, both would help bolster the run defense, with the speed and power to bring down even the Frank Gore's of the league. Look for Buffalo to probably grab another DT late, perhaps with one of their fifth round picks, looking for more depth on a bench that would still have 2011 players like Kellen Heard (21 tackles, 2 sacks) and Alex Carrington (16 tackles, 1 sack). It'll also be interesting to see how (or if) recovering OLB Shawne Merriman would fit as a defensive end in the new scheme, but that's predicated on him staying in Buffalo (injuries and legal issues are still hounding him, so he may not be worth the investment anymore).
Like most other positions in Buffalo (offensive line, wide receiver, defensive back), the Bills seem to need just one more solid piece and they're looking good. Though the pass rush wasn't there in 2011 and the run defense could have been vastly improved (it was 28th, allowing 2,224 yds), a returned Williams, a good sophomore campaign from Dareus, and the infusion of a youthful standout should be all Buffalo needs to repeat their aberration against the Redskins more often come 2012. Nix has been making the moves to improve since taking the reins, spending the offseason with the overall goal of identifying and solving each of Buffalo's 2011 problems. Come draft day, Buffalo fans will hopefully see those problems continue to melt like the snow in March (...okay, April) and will find themselves with a more dominant front four come opening day, 2012.
Maybe it really is starting to come together in the Queen City... but don't tell anyone, you'll jinx it.