Yet, even with the many improvements that they made, they still play in the ultra-competitive AFC East. Home to the defending AFC champion Patriots, a Jets team looking to bounce back, and a Dolphins unit that needs to impress with a new Head Coach running the show.
Can they take another step forward? Are the playoffs a possibility? Or will they get found out as has been the case so often recently? Khaled Elsayed looks at five reasons to be confident, and five to be concerned.
Five Reasons to Be Confident
1) Here comes Super Mario
Let me be honest. Mario Williams isn’t likely, when you compare him to his defensive end peers, to warrant the six-year $96m deal he signed. The reality is Buffalo was always going to have to overpay to sign the best available defensive player in free agency, and it’s a sign of where they think they are that they went out and landed him. Capable of demolishing offensive tackles with an unmatched blend of speed and power, Williams has never played on a line with as much talent as the Bills have assembled. By bringing in the former Texan (and Mark Anderson), Buffalo has turned one of their biggest weaknesses (pressure off the edge), into possibility it’s greatest strength.
2) A Dynamic One-Two Punch
It was a crying shame when Fred Jackson broke his leg, curtailing an extremely impressive 2011. Despite his season finishing early, we still ranked him as our top running back for the season with a +23.7 grade. Still, his going down wasn’t bad all round, because it gave C.J. Spiller a chance to get more touches of the ball, with the versatile back coming along nicely as the season developed.
It’s not just having two weapons who can spell each other while still offering the same threat that makes this an exciting combo, but the fact the Bills can get both men on the field at the same time. Last year Spiller spent 40.9% of plays split out wide, a number that would have been higher if he hadn’t been thrust into the role of feature back (before Jackson went down it was 72%). Teams of the AFC East you have been warned.
3) Return of…Meatball
I recently declared that of all the players who missed chunks of 2011, there was no defensive player I was looking forward to seeing return more than Kyle Williams. Lets go back to 2010 when the Bills had a pretty horrible front seven. That is except for one player, who by himself was causing all sorts of problems. That man was the guy some Bills fans have taken to calling “Meatball”, with the defensive tackle dominating our defensive tackle ratings with a grade (+45.9) the likes of which we’d never seen at the position.
What’s remarkable about Williams is the consistency of his play. He shares a motor with someone like a Justin Smith, where despite rarely coming off the field he’s as dangerous on the last play of the game as he is the first. When you have that, an ability to penetrate through gaps and fling blockers off you, you’re going to make plays. Now, with a line that has added pressure off the edge and high draft pick Marcell Dareus from 2011, teams won’t be able to focus as much resource to stopping Williams. That can only spell good things for Buffalo.
4) Negating Pass Rush
Some quarterbacks have to help out their offensive line to hide their weaknesses. Some offensive lines help out their quarterbacks to hide their weaknesses. However it works in Buffalo, the formula is reaping the right results as the Bills have rapidly gone from one of the worst pass protecting units in the league, to one of the best.
The line finished the year ranked our second best pass protecting unit with only Chris Hairston ending the year with a negative grade for his pass blocking, while the starting offensive line gave up just 98 sacks, hits and hurries combined (the best in the entire league). Some credit needs to go to Ryan Fitzpatrick for doing an excellent job of getting rid of the ball. His average time in pocket of 2.5 seconds was the third lowest in the entire league for 2011. Everything on this front is working in harmony.
5) Sheppard-ing the Flock
It’s always good when a rookie comes along and makes an immediate contribution. That was the case with Kelvin Sheppard, the 68th overall pick from the 2011 NFL draft. Sure, he looked a little ropey in coverage and was never trusted with an every down role, but coming forward the Bills look to have found a guy who can get off blocks and knows how to tackle. It’s rare for a linebacker on the field for over 400 snaps to miss just one tackle, but Sheppard did, and now he’s primed to take his game to another level with a full off season.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1) Can a Receiver Step Up?
In locking up Stevie Johnson, the Bills can be confident they’ve got themselves a number one receiver in the prime of his career. However, after Johnson just where should Fitzpatrick be looking to throw the ball? In the slot David Nelson is a nice option, but he doesn’t scare teams. On the outside, Donald Jones had some opportunities but failed to do much with the ball in his hands while Naaman Roosevelt struggled to make an impression and Derek Hagan doesn’t inspire confidence.
The Bills run a lot of 11 (40.3%) and 10 (31.4%) personnel, way above what other teams do. For that to work consistently in 2011, they must get more consistent production out of their receivers.
2) Outside Corner Lottery
So just who will be starting for Buffalo at corner? Right now the competition seems it will boil down to Stephon Gilmore, Terrence McGee, Leodis McKelvin and Aaron Williams. Are you going to tell me that there aren’t question marks about all of them? That you’d feel comfortable with them matching up with the Patriots assortment of weapons?
Take the likely starters, Gilmore and Williams, for instance. With Gilmore, the Bills first round pick from 2012, none of us can tell just how he’ll look on an NFL field. Will he adjust to life in the NFL like a young Joe Haden, or have his ups and downs like a rookie Patrick Peterson? Then there’s Williams who didn’t inspire much confidence in earning a -8.1 coverage grade in his rookie year (highlighted by giving up five touchdowns).
That they’re favorites for the spot owes something to the veterans they’re competing against. Terrence McGee is going to turn 32 in October and has missed extensive action in each of the last four seasons. McKelvin has never lived up to the billing of a former first round pick from the old regime, despite flashing talent. As sure as you are in production from the defensive line, you’re riddled with questions about the corners.
3) Which Fitzpatrick Turns Up?
After praising Ryan Fitzpatrick earlier for his ability to get rid of the ball, it’s only fair to look at some of the flaws in his play since his performance will play such a large part in determining how successful the Bills are.
It’s telling to me that Fitzpatrick finished the year with the 21st highest passing grade of all quarterbacks, in large part to a second half slump that many attributed to rib injuries. He’s a quarterback with sure handed, if not explosive, receivers (just 27 dropped passes last year). Despite this he is among the least accurate passers going deep (just 31% of passes complete here), and struggles when pressure does get to him (finishing 29th out of 36 in our accuracy percentage in this regard).
There is upside to a guy who isn’t scared to make hard throws (especially after the Trent Edwards years) but there’s also the possibility you could lead the league in interceptions as he did. His play needs to get more consistent if the Bills are to move forward.
4) Divisional Woe
There’s no point sugar coating it, the AFC East is one tough division to get out of. You only have to look at the New England Patriots and what they have done since a heart breaking defeat in the Super Bowl to know they’re going to be back stronger than ever. Then you have a New York Jets team that got their trash talk rammed down their throats last year and will be wanting to make up for that. Even the Miami Dolphins need to be contended with. They finished the season a lot better than their record would suggest and were competitive against good teams.
The bottom line is it’s a tough division to get out of, and for all the work the Bills have done they don’t have the dominant offense the Patriots have, or the creative defense Rex Ryan brings to the table. They’re a work in progress, and there’s no telling when the payoff will be.
5) Relying on Players Coming Back from Injury
It may seem odd, since I mentioned all three players as positives, but the Bills have an awful lot invested in three players who are coming off serious injuries. Their offense took a big hit without Fred Jackson, while the defense requires the two Williams boys, Mario and Kyle, to return quickly to their pre-injury form. I’d say that the three men are, on their day, the most talented Bills on the roster and players coming back from injury can take some time to find their form. It’s asking a lot from the football Gods and medical people to get all of them up to speed for Week 1.
What to Expect?
Simply put…improvement. It may be a little early for the playoffs, but then we saw what happened in Houston once their defense clicked. Don’t underestimate the value of Dave Wannstedt as the defensive coordinator this season. If the front four can play to its talent level things could get very interesting, but it will likely need to surpass that to make up for some shortcomings on offense. As it is, this team will live or die by how careful Ryan Fitzpatrick is with the ball; a prospect that should scare Bills fans. In a relatively weak AFC they could sneak into the playoffs, but it’s hard to see them being able to match the most explosive offenses or score enough points on dominant defenses to go any further.