Return to Relevance – Defensive Backs

Updated: July 11, 2013
aaron williams

Previous Return to Relevance Posts

Offensive Line

Running Backs

If you are a first time reader of the Return to Relevance series, I’ll bring you up to speed faster than Willis McGahee running out of a Dave and Buster’s; relevancy in the NFL is defined as postseason play. By that logic, the Buffalo Bills have not fielded a relevant squad since 1999. The purpose of this column is to compare the 1999 and 2012 squads, unit-by-unit, and apply reasonable projections to the 2013 roster to determine just how far we have left ahead of us in our effort to return to relevance.

So far we’ve found that this year’s offensive line should provide the same slightly-above-average performance put forth in 1999, and that this year’s crop of running backs, scheme permitted, should outpace their predecessors. Yes, unlike most things in Buffalo sports, this column has produced nothing but sunshine and roses to this point. Feels good, doesn’t it?

That ends today. Today, we’re going to take a look at the biggest question mark, the group with the most to prove, and the unit that could ultimately sink the 2013 season. No, I’m not talking about the quarterbacks. I’m referring to the defensive backs.

Predominant 1999 starting defensive backfield:
LCB – Ken Irvin (14 GS, 14 GP, 40 tkl, 5 ast, 1 int)
RCB – Thomas Smith (16 GS, 16 GP, 42 tkl, 5 ast, 1 int, 1 fumble recovered)
SS – Henry Jones (16 GS, 16 GP, 63 tkl, 12 ast)
FS – Kurt Schulz (16 GS, 16 GP, 32 tkl, 15 ast, 3 int, 1 fr)

Primary reserve 1999 defensive backfield:
CB – Antoine Winfield (16 GP, 38 tkl, 1 st, 2 int)
DB – Daryl Porter (16 GP)
DB – Donovan Greer (16 GP, 13 tkl, 3 ast)

What jumps out about this unit:
Consistency. Durability. Home grown-y. Lot’s of y’s with this bunch.

All four starters were drafted by the Bills, spanning two separate front office regimes with eyes for talent that have not been rivaled in Buffalo during the 13 year relevancy drought. What’s more, none of the four would spend less than seven seasons in the Queen City, with Henry Jones patrolling the secondary for a decade, starting the full slate six times. This says nothing of rookie Antoine Winfield who, under less cripplingly-frugal management, may well have made a run at Jones’ tenure.

Home grown talent is a trend we’re beginning to establish with the 1999 team, and it’s a trend that underscores the ultimate cost of the colossal draft busts that have defined the Bills’ front office failure through the Aughts. The defensive backs further prove how much relevancy relies on the men in suits rather than the men in uniforms.

Performance and ranks:
Passing defense: 167 ypg (1st)
Passing TD: 12 (2nd)
Points: 14.3 ppg (2nd)

While every secondary contributes to stopping the run, and this unit sported respectable if unspectacular tackle numbers across the board, let’s focus on the aerial side of the equation. Let that passing TD number sink in for a moment…12. 12?! That was bested only by Tampa’s 11 with third place coming in at 17, nearly 42 percent more than Buffalo’s total.

Secondaries do not operate in a vacuum. The Bills gave up the least yards in the NFL in 1999, indicative of a complete defense that forced their will on opponents at every level of the field. That being said, the team notched the third lowest interception total in the NFL. Pair that figure with the staggeringly-low receiving TD number and you come away with men who simply lined up and won the assignment in front of them at a blisteringly-efficient rate. In particular, the duo of Jones and Schultz were incredibly successful at taking the big play off the table for the opposing offense and shrinking the field, which benefited every player in front of them. The 1999 defensive backs were a collection of players who fed off one another and played with accountability on each down. Consistency. That is what is defined this unit on every snap of the season.

Predominant 2012 starting defensive backfield:
LCB: Aaron Williams (10 GS, 11 GP, 7 passes defended, 25 tkl, 8 ast, 1 fumble forced)
RCB: Stephon Gilmore (13 GS, 16 GP, 16 pass def, 51 tkl, 9 ast, 1 int, 2 ff)
SS: George Wilson (16 GS, 16 GP, 5 pass def, 73 tkl, 25 ast)
FS: Jairus Byrd (14 GS, 16 GP, 6 pass def, 52 tkl, 23 ast, 5 int, 4 ff, 1 fumble recovered)

Primary reserve 2012 defensive backfield:
CB: Justin Rogers (16 GP, 5 pass def, 31 tkl, 5 ast, 1 int)
S: Da’Norris Searcy (15 GP, 1 pass def, 22 tkl, 13 ast, 2 ff)
CB: Leodis McKelvin (13 GP, 3 passes defended, 19 tkl, 1 ast, 1 int)

What jumps out about this unit:
Top-heavy is the term that comes to mind. While Byrd saw a heavy drop-off in tackles from 2011 to 2012, his knack for the big play remained and his presence on the field was palpable. Gilmore struggled with penalties, as rookies tend to do, but flashed more than enough poise and potential to leave Bills fans with reason to believe he will be worth the top-ten pick it took to acquire him in the 2012 draft.

Beyond the aforementioned duo, one of who’s roster status is on the panic side of questionable, the 2012 secondary was flat-out pitiful. Watching The Senator’s decline was downright painful, and it’s hard to imagine how a defensive captain ran himself out of town in just a year’s time. Justin Rogers played about as well as a seventh round pick should, which is underwhelming at best. Searcy strung together a forgettable slate, showing just enough athleticism and aptitude to pique Bills fans’ interest for an upcoming year in which he will be relied upon for better or worse.

What truly sticks out about this unit is that the Buffalo brass managed to find a worse on-the-ball defender than Leodis McKelvin in Aaron Williams. While McKelvin made minor strides that, coupled with his electric return skills, earned him another chance to prove his worth to the franchise, Williams managed to cram 16 games worth of lowlights into 11 contests. I doubted that regression from his disastrous rookie season was possible, but he proved me wrong, doing nothing to quell fears about his durability along the way.

The 2012 Buffalo Bills secondary – somehow finding a way to make Leodis McKelvin look good.

Performance and ranks:
Passing defense: 217 ypg (10th)
Passing TD: 25 (18th)
Points: 27.2 ppg (26th)

As with the offensive line, we see a surprisingly-high ranking pop up in passing defense given the lack of talent on paper. However, the disparity between yards allowed and passing TD shows a weakness where the ’99 squad held strong; the ability to line up and beat the man in front of you. Football Outsiders provides interesting insight in their examination of the passing defense on a valued-adjusted scale. While the team ranked 22nd overall, here’s how they fared on a match-up basis:
vs. #1 WR: 26th
vs. #2 WR: 15th
vs. #3 WR: 29th
vs. TE: 2nd

I included tight end for context, as much of that responsibility falls on the linebackers, but the safeties deserve a nod for their contribution. What we find in the receiving rankings is an inability to guard top-level opposition and a truly embarrassing performance against receivers further down the depth chart. Given the amount of time Gilmore spent at right cornerback lining up against a team’s second threat, that above-average ranking highlights how much further along the rookie was than his more seasoned teammates. This is a thin unit anchored by one borderline top-tier corner and one Pro Bowl safety…

The State of the Union:
…and even the most optimistic Bills fan has to think that Pro Bowl ball hawk is about to flee the coup. The Notorious B.R.D. thinks it’s time for him to get paid, and I couldn’t agree more. Re-signing Byrd to a long term deal is one of Whaley’s first major challenges as general manager, and it’s safe to assume he will be unfairly judged postively or negatively based on how this plays out. I will leave the speculation to reporters with ties to the team and sources at One Bills Drive. All I can say is that, when assessing the State of the Union, you’ve got to plan on the Byrd Man spreading his wings and flying away.

If that happens, this could get ugly quick. When the Bills traded down from the ninth pick in this year’s draft, they lost their chance to pair Gilmore with Alabama’s Dee Milliner, which would have given them another chance at an ace young pairing of corners that Williams’ stunted growth has denied. One would imagine the veteran McKelvin has the inside track to line up opposite Gilmore, although he will surely face a wide open competition involving Rogers, Crezdon Butler and Ron “The Walking DPI” Brooks. The potential for these extremely young players to develop is certainly there, but the problem is that there is no margin for error. Mike Pettine’s defense will feature a heavy dose of nickel formations, meaning three of these largely-unproven commodities will be seen on the field at once. In match ups against teams like the Falcons, Saints and Patriots (I don’t care how much talent has departed in New England – they’re still the Pats until proven otherwise), this could be a recipe for disaster.

The Byrd-less safety crop is full of both intrigue and doubt. Searcy has not set the world on fire in his first two seasons, but he has shown talent in flashes that has left many Bills fans curious as to what he could do with more playing time. The selection of Jonathan Meeks was a head scratcher on draft day and after mini-camp, I’m still feeling itchy. #BillsMafia fan favorite Dominque Ellis seems like the kind of player who could earn a roster spot to provide depth for Pettine’s multi-front attack, but wagering on him to make a significant impact on the secondary seems ill-fated.

That brings us to the pair of question marks that I will be watching most closely during training camp. Fourth round pick Duke Williams is, if you’ll allow me to get scientific for a moment, a “bad dude.” His checkered past at Nevada didn’t scare off Bills brass. In fact, when grouped with Kiko Alonso and Da’rick Rogers, Williams seems to fit a philosophical profile for the new brain trust, which is that talent trumps youthful indiscretion. The Bills will be forced to sink or swim with Alonso this year, and anything they get from the undrafted Rogers will be a bonus, so Williams presents the most intriguing potential for value. He does not sacrifice speed or ability to backpedal for his physicality and break-neck style of play. Its clear from organized team activities to this point that Pettine sees a potential lynchpin for his scheme in Williams, lining him up all over the defensive backfield. His progression and overall maturation will be a focal point of training camp and an absolute necessity for this unit.

That brings us, finally, to Mr. Aaron Williams. Many fans thought he was miscast as a professional corner from the start. Many fans were right, and their pleas to shift him to the backline have been heard. His on-ball struggles were difficult to watch during his first two seasons, but he really didn’t show any field vision or feel for the game that would lead one to believe he’d be better suited for tracking deep balls downfield in space. Instead, this move figures to capitalize on his size and stength. He will certainly not replace Byrd’s nose for the ball, but given Pettine’s record of getting the most out of his safeties (see – Landry, LaRon, 2012 Pro Bowl), he has the potential to form a bone-crunching duo with Searcy and/or Duke Williams.

The 1999 defensive backs were a model of efficiency brought in by scouts and decision makers with eyes, noses, ears and spider-senses for talent. They worked with the top-notch talent around them to form arguably the most stifling pass defense in the NFL. To put it mildly, that will not be the kind of performance we see from the 2013 secondary. Instead, they will rely on Gilmore making the leap from promising rookie to shutdown superstar, a whole host of unproven back-ups maturing into serviceable corners, and a crew of safeties whose potential is matched only by their uncertainty. Can the 2013 Buffalo Bills defensive backs return the team to relevance? No. We can only hope they play well enough to give the rest of the team a chance to do the heavy lifting.

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