By Sal Maiorana - Rochester D&C
ORCHARD PARK - During the disappointing and inefficient coaching era of Chan Gailey, the Bills put up some awful defensive numbers, most glaring being the second-, third- and fourth-highest season point yields in team history.
There were myriad reasons for the week to week implosions, but one that often shone the brightest was the inept play of the Bills' linebackers.
Throughout the defensive coordinating tenures of George Edwards (2010, 2011) and Dave Wannstedt (2012), the Bills had no one in the second level of their defense who could make game-changing plays. Well, let's rephrase: They made game-changing plays, but they usually resulted in a negative rather than positive outcome.
"I wasn't here, I don't want to get too much into last year," new coordinator Mike Pettine said.
A wise choice, because looking at that film would have given him the night sweats as he embarked on the task of rebuilding the Bills.
This past offseason, the hierarchy realized how weak the linebacking corps was and took steps to address it.
• Free agent outside linebacker Manny Lawson was signed to help with the run defense and to add some depth to the pass rush.
• Jerry Hughes, a former first-round pick of the Colts who flopped in Indianapolis, was acquired via a trade for a fellow flop, Kelvin Sheppard. Hoping that a fresh start would do Hughes good, the Bills believe he can be a force as a stand-up edge rusher.
• Marcus Dowtin, a versatile depth player, was brought in from Pettine's old team, the Jets, and he was able to help his new teammates learn Pettine's system.
• And the team used its second-round pick in the draft on Oregon's Kiko Alonso, and immediately plugged him into the starting lineup and gave him the responsibility of quarterbacking the defense.
Adding those four to join with holdovers Nigel Bradham and Arthur Moats has upgraded the unit across the board and provided hope that the Bills can be harder to score against this season.
One week into the season, there's not a whole lot to complain about as the Bills held Tom Brady to two touchdowns and nearly pulled off a major upset before falling 23-21 in the final seconds.
Alonso played all 91 defensive snaps and was in on nine tackles and forced a Brady fumble at the goal line, then recovered it, to quell a New England scoring chance; Hughes played 62 snaps and made three tackles and generated some heat on Brady; Lawson played 37 snaps and made four tackles; Moats played 24 snaps and had three tackles, one for loss; and Bradham had 19 snaps and had a tackle and a deflected pass. Dowtin played only on special teams, and he had one tackle. Moats and Bradham also logged 19 plays each on the kicking teams.
"When you look overall at the production that those guys had, I'm pleased with the direction we're going," said coach Doug Marrone.
Obviously, it wasn't perfect. The Patriots scored only 23 points, but they also rolled up 431 yards, 26 first downs, and converted 11 of 20 times on third down.
Still, playing against one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history on opening day, with so many new faces trying to get accustomed to a new scheme, it was a better performance than many outside the team anticipated.
Next up is an equally daunting task as the Bills must deal with one of the NFL's most dangerous dual threat quarterbacks, Carolina's Cam Newton.
Newton has proven at times to be an effective passer, but when he gets out of the pocket and scrambles, he puts an inordinate amount of pressure on the linebackers who have to break off coverage and try to track him down.
"I think he presents a great challenge," Marrone said. "You're talking about someone who is big and strong. It's amazing when you look at how well and how fast he throws the football. Just his arm strength. I think it's the same sense that he can extend plays and make them go. He can run, he can beat you a lot of different ways."