Return to Relevance: Linebackers

Updated: July 25, 2013

Definition of RELEVANCE:
1 – a : relation to the matter at hand
b : practical and especially social applicability : pertinence

If you are a first time reader of the Return to Relevance series, I’ll bring you up to speed faster than a college-aged Jim Kelly could sign a USFL contract; 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, apply reasonable projections to the 2013 roster and determine just how far we have left ahead of us in our effort to return to relevancy.

So far we’ve found that this year’s defensive backs will likely pale in comparison to the ’99 squad, the offensive line should provide the same slightly-above-average performance put forth in 1999, the 2013 crop of running backs, scheme permitted, should vastly outpace their predecessors, and that this year’s defensive line will be just fine even if they don’t live up to the ’99 crew. We’ve also established that the front office of the late 90’s possessed a keen eye for talent in the draft that has been disturbingly-absent from the franchise in more recent years.

With training camp – sweet, sweet training camp – arriving like Christmas Day, I thought this the perfect time to examine a unit that will command a tremendous amount of attention at St. John Fisher; a unit we can reasonably project from a personnel perspective, but one that is full of intrigue from a schematic and performance standpoint. Perhaps no group has more potential to shore up a recently porous defense than the 2013 linebackers, but just how good do they need to be in order to meet the gold standard set by the ’99 defense?

Predominant 1999 starting linebackers:
LOLB – Sam Rogers (16 GS, 16 GP, 52 tackles, 16 ast, 3 sacks, 1 interception, 2 fumbles recovered)
LILB – John Holecek (14 GS, 14 GP, 44 tkl, 19 ast, 1 sack, 1 int, 2 ff)
RILB – Sam Cowart (16 GS, 16 GP, 79 tkl, 46 ast, 1 sack, 2 int, 1 ff, 2 fr)
ROLB – Gabe Northern (16 GS, 16 GP, 26 tkl, 9 ast, 3.5 sacks, 2 ff, 1 fr, TD)

Primary 1999 reserve linebackers:
LB – Marlo Perry (16 GP, 21 tkl, 6 ast, 1.5 sacks)
LB – Joe Cummings (16 GP, 9 tkl, 1 sack)

What jumps out about this unit:
Lightning in a bottle. While Rogers’ sack total would fluctuate year to year, eclipsing his ’99 output on multiple occasions, this was far and beyond his most complete season in a 10 year career. He never broke 40 tackles prior to ’99 and would barely break 30 once after. Northern virtually mirrored his only other statistically-reputable season while flashing a big-play ability he never hinted at during the rest of his time in the league. Holecek had a down, albeit respectable year as the outlier of the group, but his performance was rendered moot by Cowart bursting onto the national scene in his second year as a pro. While he would reach higher peaks in his injury-plagued career, 1999 was a coming out party for the sophomore, serving as the heart and soul of a linebacking crew that developed as individuals at the right time. Much like the team’s safeties, they were as a unit greater than the sum of their parts.

Except for Cowart. That was just a REALLY good part.

Performance and ranks:
Rushing defense: 85.6 ypg (4th)
Passing defense: 167 ypg (1st)
Points: 14.3 ppg (2nd)

This unit featured three of the team’s four leading tacklers, an interesting stat when you consider that Rogers, playing on the outside, greatly outpaced all lineman. Where the ’99 linebackers failed to produce, especially given the propensity for a 3-4 front, was in the backfield. Considering the fact that the Bills boasted the top passing defense in the NFL, it is shocking to see that they ranked in the middle of the pack in sack percentage on a per-attempt basis. Northern leading the crew in sacks says it all; this is a unit that simply didn’t harass the opposing passer enough. While they were a reliable and successful cog in the larger machine, this was not the unit that the 1999 defense hung their hat on.

Predominant 2012 starting linebackers:
SLB: Nigel Bradham (11 GS, 28 tkl, 21 ast, 1 fr)
MLB: Kelvin Sheppard (15 GS, 53 tkl, 24 ast, 2 sacks)
WLB: Nick Barnett (16 GS, 72 tkl, 40 ast, 2 sacks, 3 ff)

Primary 2012 reserve linebackers:
LB: Bryan Scott (16 GP, 44 tkl, 19 ast, 4 int, 1 TD, 8 passes defended, 1 ff, 2 fr)
LB: Arthur Moats (14 GP, 13 tkl, 5 ast)
LB: Chris White ( 14 GP, 2 tkl)

What jumps out about this unit:
Flashbacks that no amount of counseling will ever be able to erase. Moats and White were largely non-factors at a position that was sorely in need of depth with the disappointing play higher up the pecking order. Barnett took undue criticism last year, but he would be the first one to tell you that he let the team down in 2012. As the veteran anchor of a young unit, he posted the second fewest tackles of any healthy season in his career and failed to live up to the gold standard he set in pass coverage during his first year in town.

For Bills fans who found Bradham’s play both impressive and worthy of increased responsibility (count your author as a charter member of this group), I offer you Kelvin Sheppard as a cautionary tale. So much of the 2012 defense’s success hinged on Sheppard’s abilities as a run stopper and signal caller, but much like his fellow 2011 draft class alumnus Aaron Williams, he was simply unable to develop, mature or progress. Much of the faith that was placed in his ability to serve as a defensive quarterback and bruiser is indicative of the loser’s mentality that has plagued the franchise and, in turn, its fan base for the better part of a decade. To think that such a one dimensional player, who ranked only 29th in tackles among middle/inside linebackers according to Football Outsiders, would make a leap from role player to feature backer was just hedging the team’s bets, and even that hedge fell short of its intended safety net.

On a team led by coaches devoid of creativity however, Bryan Scott emerged as the shocking pleasant surprise of the 2012 linebackers. In 2011, he could barely effect a play enough to cause a tight end to acknowledge his existence in coverage. Serving as the world’s faultiest Swiss Army Knife, he was simply not big enough to play safety or quick enough to cover receivers one-on-one. When he was heavily inserted into the linebacking rotation, it seemed like a desperate attempt to conjure some kind of useful play out of a lost cause. As a matter of fact, it probably was just that, but hey, it worked. Scott managed to notch more passes defended at linebacker than in any of his nine seasons in the defensive backfield, which is all the more valuable in a unit devoid of backwardly-mobile teammates.

Yet, if the most positive thing we can say about the 2012 linebackers is that Bryan Scott was surprisingly-not-terrible, I don’t think this unit should be considered cause for celebration.

Performance and ranks:
Passing defense: 217 ypg (10th)
Rushing defense: 145.8 (32nd)
Points: 27.2 ppg (26th)

As bad as the Bills were at the point of attack in 2012, the numbers only get worse as you move further downfield. The team was dead last in second level yards allowed, quantifying an opposing ballcarrier’s success between five and ten yards past the line of scrimmage. When you look at the group as a whole, no one possessed exceptional skill in a single area, and no one provided above-average production in multiple areas. That is not a recipe for success in new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s philosophy. Luckily for Pettine and Bills fans, the 2013 linebackers will hardly resemble their disappointing counterparts of 2012.

The State of the Union:
The release of Mark Anderson makes the 2013 linebacker equation all the more interesting. Let’s examine the projected starting unit as two pairs, linked as much by their positioning as their circumstance.

On the outside, newcomer Manny Lawson will be flanked by Mario Williams, who will be asked to attack from a stand up position far more than he was in 2012. Per Football Outsiders, Williams generated 13 quarterback hurries in five games at linebacker in 2011 compared to 18 in 16 games at defensive end in 2012. Finding the right matchup to spring Williams, constantly monitored and almost always double teamed by opposing offenses, will be the key to maximizing his output. Creating situations for him to attack in one-on-one situations with a full head of steam will rely on his teammates absorbing blockers. Enter Lawson, once a feared presence for the 49ers defense whose play significantly dropped off over the last two seasons in Cincinnati, eventually losing his starting job to renowned head-case Vontaze Burfict. Examining Lawson’s plummet during his time as a Bengal paints him as exactly the kind of player that would have fit in among last year’s crop of linebackers; lacking in any exceptional singular skill or proficiency in multiple areas. While his ability to emerge as a backfield threat in the passing game essentially evaporated in 2011, he also saw his stop rate against the run fall from 71 percent in 2010 to 47 percent in 2012. For as much respect as I have for Pettine’s ability to squeeze blood from a stone, color me skeptical on Lawson’s ability to become a difference maker in 2013.

The interior of the linebacking corps presents an entirely different set of questions. Nigel Bradham will be asked to progress from fifth round stop-gap to three down stalwart. I was thrilled to nab him in the 2012 draft and believe he has the physical tools and mental wherewithal to make that leap. Unfortunately, only the eye test backs up this assertion. He registered only 4 defeats in the run game, a stat used by Football Outsiders to track a players ability to blow up a third or fourth down play. That’s three less than Kelvin Sheppard’s rookie total at ILB, who started two fewer games than Bradham. The unproven Bradham will be joined up the middle by presumed-defensive quarterback Kiko Alonso, whose third Google image search result is his mug shot. All of the measurables are there for Alonso; he plays with the versatility, speed and aggression required of the prototypical man in the middle, especially in Pettine’s seek-and-destroy system, and he displayed big-play ability with 14 tackles for loss as a senior at Oregon. The sky is the limit for Alonso, as could well be the case with Bradham. The fact of the matter however, is that the pair has two arrests and zero NFL sacks between them. Asking for such an inexperienced combo to provide 16 starts of playoff-caliber football is a tremendous undertaking.

Among the linebackers, Christmas came early for Jerry Hughes, the Indianapolis castoff acquired in exchange for Kelvin Sheppard. It was a curious trade for the Colts, who spent a first round pick on him in 2010 and watched him flounder at defensive end for two seasons before finally showing signs of life in 2012 as a linebacker. In his first two years as a pro, Hughes registered one quarterback hit and two hurries in 24 games. At OLB last season, he notched six and 16 respectively. Hughes will likely be slotted in as a situational pass rusher, while Lawson will be relied on more in coverage and run defense, but with the exile of Mark Anderson creating a gaping void in the scheme to decapitate Tom Brady, Hughes is the new linebacker in town poised to move the needle for a defense desperate for consistent contribution.

Throw Bryan Scott into the rotation, and you’ve got much more depth to choose from than you did in 2012. Our examination of the 1999 linebacking crew left us with a single stand out performer in Cowart backed by by a group of less-than-spectacular pros who gelled together at the right time. Williams is certainly capable of replicating Cowart’s performance, and if the 2013 Bills are going to return to relevance, he’ll need to do more than that, which he is clearly capable of. The supporting cast consists of high-ceiling youngsters and underwhelming veterans. The 1999 linebackers captured lightning in a bottle, but were also surrounded by top-tier units that vaulted them to dominance. That will not be the case for the 2013 personnel, so they will need to exceed the output of their ’99 counterparts. That means players like Alonso and Bradham will be called upon to fill outsized roles relative to their experience. If even one of them makes the leap, coupled with Williams’ talent and Pettine’s scheme, this unit could be the tipping point for a top ten defense.

Can the 2013 linebackers return the Bills to relevance? I’m not a betting man…but if I were, I’d roll the dice and say yes.

Previously in the Return to Relevance Series:

Defensive Line

Defensive Backs

Running Backs

Offensive Line