Which Side of the Tracks?

Updated: September 27, 2013
mike pettine

I work in politics. It’s the only real job I’ve ever had. I went to school for sports journalism. Politics is the perfect landing spot for someone who went to school for sports journalism in the last decade. First of all, it pays more than minimum wage, so you’re already ahead of your classmates and peers. From an intellectual standpoint, the two fields are somewhat similar. When I first interviewed for my job, my boss said something that stuck with me. Looking at my journalism background and lack of political experience, he told me I’d like politics because there were winners and losers and we kept score. In a way, he was right…a much less engaging, compelling, important or relevant way, but a way nonetheless.

In my line of work, polls are my compass. They cut through the noise, partisanship and media bias and give me an actual idea of what resides in the hearts and minds of the voters I’m courting. An age-old tactic to gauge the pulse of your constituents is the “Right Track/Wrong Track” question. It’s a simple concept; if the respondents think their community is on the right track, you double down on current policies. If they think their community is on the wrong track, you swing negative. You drill further down as a poll goes on, but it’s a reliable way to gain top-line information.

If we were to commission a poll of Buffalo Bills fan midway through the 2012 season, I would peg the “Wrong Track” contingent to encompass roughly 97 percent of our sampling. That’s what made the offseason tear-down so appealing; we didn’t know if it was RIGHT, but it was DIFFERENT, which left the door open to move in the right direction. The jury is still very much out on the 2013 offense, with a rookie quarterback executing a first-year offensive coordinator’s playbook. The defense, on the other hand, is in a more reasonable position for judgment. With the battle-tested Mike Pettine taking over a massively-underachieving defense, improvement was expected to be swift and decisive. So what track is the Bills defense on so far?

To put the numbers in context, Buffalo has faced middling-to-poor opposing offenses this year. According to Pro Football Reference, the lowest rated team offense they’ve faced to this point has been the Jets, ranked 26th, with the Patriots at 22nd and the Panthers leading the way at 17th. The defense’s yards per play has dropped from 5.6 in 2012 to 5.3 in 2013. That change would have improved them by five spots in 2012, bringing them into the same range as teams like Miami and St. Louis in the middle of the pack. Against the pass, their net yards per attempt hasn’t budged at 6.1, but their sack percentage has leaped from an above-average 6.3 percent to 7.0, which would have been right on the cusp of a top five finish last year. Conversely, the defense’s yards per completion has spiked from 12.0 to 12.8, a total that would have been third worst in the NFL last year. The much-maligned run defense gave up almost 146 yards per game and 5.0 yards per carry, good for second and third worst in the league respectively. This year, things haven’t gotten any better. The defense is now parting the seas to the tune of 155 yards per game, tied for the second worst figure in the league, with a 4.3 yards per carry total sitting just outside the bottom ten. Overall, the Bills are giving up roughly three less points per game but up almost 50 more yards.

At least part of the uptick in sacks must be credited to Pettine’s scheme and game planning ability. Newcomers to the team have contributed 1.5 sacks through the first three games, but Pettine got more out of Mario Williams in one game than Dave Wannstedt did in the first nine of 2012. The regression in yards per completion can largely be pinned on a downgrade in personnel. Jairus Byrd and Stephon Gilmore have been replaced by Da’Norris Searcy and a combination of Leodis McKelvin and Justin Rogers, the latter of which is wanted in 43 states for the crimes against humanity he committed in New Jersey last weekend. Pettine is not blameless in this regard however, as the defense has given up an average of 302 yards passing in two games in which they averaged 1.5 sacks versus 183 yards in their six sack performance against Carolina. The pass rush is the only thing that can save the Bills from their own secondary. The difference in the run defense, even with the wildly-productive additions of Kiko Alonso and Manny Lawson, has been a wash in a situation where anything but vast improvement should be considered an abject failure. The decrease in scoring but jump in yards allowed is surprising, but explicable. As the anti-Hackett contingent is quick to point out, defensive drives have increased by 1.5 per game. This has not affected the defense’s overall performance however, with plays per drive remaining the same and yards per drive actually decreasing by two, which would have elevated the 2012 Bills defense seven slots in the league’s ranks. The difference in scoring comes down to rushing touchdowns versus field goals. In 2012, the Bills gave up 23 rushing scores, with an expected point contribution of -54. This year, the team is on pace to yield only 4.3 TDs on the ground and has already contributed almost 22.5 points to the team’s cause. This is a completely unsustainable figure, but for a unit that has shown insufficient improvement, a bend-but-don’t-break performance will make a significant difference.

There’s only so much you can ask out of a pass defense missing its only two starting-caliber members of the secondary, so even with mixed, inconsistent results, Pettine seems to have that unit moving in the right direction. The run defense however, for all their red zone fortitude, has failed to turn the page on the team’s recent historically-inept performance. Maintaining the status quo means the team is on the wrong track, leaving Pettine with a long hill to climb if he’s going to turn the Bills’ defense into a playoff-worthy group.