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In so many ways, the Buffalo Bills’ turnaround on defence this season has been remarkable.
With only a few changes in manpower, first-year coordinator Mike Pettine has taken a Bills unit that last season got carved and crunched almost every week, and turned it into one of the most dangerous, attackingest defences in the NFL.
“They’re right up there. They are as good as anybody,” Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan told me this week..
The Bills are tied for the NFL lead with both 37 sacks and 16 interceptions. What’s more they rank third in opponent pass-completion percentage (57%) and seventh in red-zone defence, allowing foes to score touchdowns only 47% of the time after advancing inside the 20.
If you prefer the traditional yardage-total benchmark, these Bills are 16th in total defence, allowing 348 yards per game, after languishing near the bottom of the league in three years under head coach Chan Gailey.
“We are happy with our progress,” Pettine said this week in a sitdown interview at Bills headquarters in Orchard Park, N.Y. “We just wish it was reflected better in the win total. Because that’s the bottom line.
“I don’t like it when things are disappointing win-wise when someone says, ‘Well, we have our stats to fall back on.’ I’m not like that.”
The Bills, 4-7, cling to a shot at the second AFC wildcard playoff berth, and can goose their chances with a win on Sunday against Ryan and the 2-9 Atlanta Falcons in Bills-in-Toronto VI at the Rogers Centre (4 p.m., Sportsnet/Citytv).
The Bills’ defensive stats would be that much better if it weren’t for (1) a wave of injuries that ravaged the secondary in September and October, and (2) injuries and inexperience at quarterback and wide receiver that have continually hamstrung the offence.
But now virtually everyone’s healthy, on both sides of the ball, and Buffalo’s 37-14 thrashing of the New York Jets two weeks ago sent the Bills into the bye week with their confidence bubbling. Especially on defence.
“I just think that we’re in a good place now,” Pettine said (My photos of him, accompanying). “We’re having our best practices of the year.
“The energy with how we’re playing, the attentiveness in meetings, I think our guys know that, hey, the playoffs aren’t out of question. We’re just a game out of being tied for that last wildcard spot, so just keep playing. You can tell our guys really enjoy coming out to work every day.”
Under coordinator Dave Wannstedt last year, it was thought the Bills would have one of the most ferocious pass rushes in the league, with star free-agent pass rusher Mario Williams joining interior penetrators Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus.
But Wannstedt’s 4-3 schemes were a disgrace. The unit surrendered 45+ points four times, and allowed Alex Smith — Alex Smith – to become the first San Francisco quarterback ever to lead a 49ers offence to 300 yards both in the air and on the ground in a single game.
The Bills run defence was especially putrid, ranking 31st in the league.
But Doug Marrone, upon being hired as Gailey’s replacement as head coach in January, wooed Pettine from the New York Jets staff, where he’d coordinated Rex Ryan’s multiple, attacking 3-4.
Pettine has installed the same aggressive schemes, and wrung the most from the talent at hand — most surprisingly in the secondary. For years Bills fans had agonized as any quarterback with a pulse shredded the Buffalo secondary, which couldn’t cover man-to-man, and served up spirit-killing, game-costing completions week after week.
While no one is mistaking this year’s back end with, say, the 1985 Niners, Buffalo defensive backs have thrived in Pettine’s system. (OK, other than corner Justin Rogers, who got abused in September — even by Geno Smith — while filling in for injured starter Stephon Gilmore, and was released earlier this month.)
The shocker has been Leodis McKelvin, previously viewed as a huge draft bust and liability. But the 2008 first-rounder has played quite well. He led the league in pass breakups after two games, with seven, and still ranks 21st with 11, despite missing a game to injury.
“He has had an outstanding year,” Pettine said, “and nobody’s noticed. When you consider how many times people have thrown at Leodis, and just the plays that he has made, I just think people have overlooked just how solid he has been for us.”
And the Bills safeties? They’ve been downright ball hawks in Pettine’s system, intercepting 10 balls. Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd (out with injury until October), Jim Leonhard and converted corner Aaron Williams have three apiece, and backup Da’Norris Searcy has one.
Is this Bills secondary one of the most undervalued in the NFL?
“I think so,” Pettine said.
So how has he done it?
First, by putting the talent at hand in positions that maximize their abilities, such as switching Aaron Williams to safety from corner, where he struggled for two years. Turns out he’s a much better player when facing the quarterback.
“And the thing you love about Aaron is he raises the level of competitiveness of the whole secondary,” Pettine said. “He is SO competitive. He hates it in practice when he gets a ball caught on him. But you needs guys like that. The other guys feed off that energy. It’s contagious.”
Also by way of talent identification, Pettine recognized the exceptional coverage abilities of diminutive, undrafted rookie Nickell Robey and found an ideal role for him: nickelback. The 5-foot-8 Southern Cal product has been in the ear of slot receivers all season long.
“When you find a guy after the draft to play the number of plays that Nickell Robey has played, that’s like finding an old pair of jeans with $20 in the pocket,” Pettine said. “He’d have been a second- or third-round pick if he was four inches taller.
“I think he’s played with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, because he didn’t get drafted. He wants to prove to teams that he’s very thankful to us for taking a chance on him. Right from the beginning I was like, ‘I don’t know how this kid didn’t get drafted.’
“He’s special. With some guys, the ball just finds them, and they make plays. And he has just quietly done that.”
Another way Pettine has improved the secondary is through empowerment. He cited McKelvin in this regard.
“He’s very gifted physically, but we’ve simplified some things and let him be him,” Pettine said. “A lot of what we play is, once his receiver gets a certain distance downfield, he’s all yours — man-to-man. And we do a lot of that. We challenge our corners that way.”
The premier corner, last year’s 10th overall draft pick Stephon Gilmore, “finally now has his confidence back” after sitting out the first five games with a fractured wrist. In his first couple games back, Gilmore wore a huge pad to protect his tender wrist and hand.
“A big part of his game is getting his hands on guys. He’s very physical, and when he had that cast on — that club — it slowed him down,” Pettine said.
“It took him a week or two to get the confidence in to really, fully put his hands on guys. I think he and Leodis now are as solid a tandem of corners as there is.”
That’s quite a statement.
The new linebackers have been significant upgrades for the Bills. Inside, Kiko Alonso is a strong contender for defensive rookie of the year. He’s the NFL’s second leading tackler (with 112), is tied for third in interceptions (with four) and has made some of his most impactful plays with games on the line.
Outside, Jerry Hughes has been a terror as an edge pass rusher, while Manny Lawson has done well as a two-way backer. Even veteran Arthur Moats has thrived; as of last week he was the last linebacker in the league without a missed tackle, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
Up front, Pettine loves to switch up the alignments of Buffalo’s standout tackles and ends, and the juggling has paid off. Mario Williams is third in the league with 11.0 sacks, while Kyle Williams (my photo, left) is second in sacks among D-tackles, with 7.0. Third-year tackle Marcell Dareus has become the dominant inside force the team envisioned when it drafted him third overall in 2011.
At all three levels, Pettine has instructed his assistant coaches to limit what they ask of players each week. He explained.
“We don’t overload our guys. If you emphasize everything, you emphasize nothing, which is so true in football.
“If you can just tell a player, ‘Listen, these are just the four or five things you need to worry about to do your job this week, and just make sure you take care of those,’ then the other details aren’t as important.
“You don’t want to give them too much on their plate. And I think we’ve done a good job, as a staff, of compartmentalizing everybody’s job.”
They players see the results, and that’s always huge. The defence’s lofty team and individual stats serve to validate Pettine’s system in their eyes.
“What we’re doing works, and we can be that much better, especially when we’re at full strength,” Pettine said.
“The players bought in from Day 1. We’ve never had that issue, but I think the successes just further cement the belief that we’re headed in the right direction.”
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Year-over-year defensive improvement by the Bills:
CATEGORY 2012 2013, thru Week 12
Sacks 36 (18th) 37 (1st-T)
Interceptions 12 (20th-T) 16 (1st-T)
1st downs allowed 349 (29th) 217 (8th)
3rd-down conv % 49 (31st) 37 (12th)
Total defence 363 ypg (22nd) 348 (16th)
Rush defence 146 ypg (31st) 119 (23rd)
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