It’s Over Before It Starts

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Updated: September 24, 2013
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I find coach and player interviews to be the least interesting aspect of sports journalism. Candor between athletes and the media is dead and gone, as prospective stars are trained from an extremely young age to speak in generalities and cliches rather than provide any actual insight into their psyche. In turn, many journalist’s ability to pry blood from a stone has atrophied, as statements often replace questions in media scrums – “talk about this play,” or “walk us through this moment.” The more visceral the emotion is, the more bland and cliche the response must be. That’s why I have little interest in the week-long post mortem after a Bills loss. “We take it one game a time.” “It was a team effort.” “We have to look at the film and work hard this week.” These cliches ring hallow, so I will offer you one cliche that rings true, especially given the state of the union at One Bills Drive after three games:

Championships are built from the lines out.

To this point in the Bills’ season, the entire team’s success and failure has mirrored that of their offensive and defensive lines. On offense, the linemen are charged with providing a rookie quarterback room to operate, which is best facilitated by a healthy run game. Defensively, the men up front are under pressure to hide the horror show that is the secondary behind them through stout run defense and constant harassment of the opposing quarterback. Their success at the point of attack has charted the first three games of the 2013 campaign and, for better or worse, will continue to do so as the season progresses.

The offensive line was a surprising bright spot in 2012. Pro Football Focus (PFF) ranked the unit 13th in the league, impressive for a team who was 20th in points per game. They kept beleaguered signal caller Ryan Fitzpatrick clean, allowing less sacks than eight playoff teams, and helped CJ Spiller record a blistering 6.0 yards per carry over more than 200 attempts. That performance was greatly aided by left guard Andy Levitre, who took his +17.2 grade from PFF to Tennessee, presumably so Fitzy could continue making him those kitschy “Levitre Land” t-shirts. His 2013 replacement, Colin Brown, has gone on to post a -23.7 to this point in the young season, with his abysmal -7.6 against the Jets being his “best” performance of the season. While so much attention is being paid to Justin Rogers – he of the 247 yards and two touchdowns allowed – the cornerback still managed a -5.3 coverage grade and -3.8 overall. Entering Week 3, the Bills ranked 26th in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards when rushing between a center and a guard. That rank jumped to 21 when running to the left tackle and all the way to 14 when running to the right tackle. According to Pro Football Reference, the Bills ran at the left guard once in Week 3 to the tune of zero yards. Take away Fred Jackson’s 59 yard scamper facilitated by Sheldon Richardson’s premature celebration, and they managed a single yard per carry up the middle. That number was nearly four times higher in their Week 2 victory, when they ran away from Colin Brown and toward Kraig Urbik for 89 yards and a touchdown on ten carries through the right guard. This was a game that featured EJ Manuel’s season-best 7.6 yards per attempt, a number that dropped under six in the Jets debacle. Of course, Manuel would be hit with eight sacks in the swamps of New Jersey, compared to none in their victory over Carolina.

Four of those eight sacks came from the Jets’ defensive line, which thoroughly outplayed their counterparts in white and blue. The rush defense has continued to be putrid, allowing 100 yard rushers in both losses, including 149 to 2015 MetLife Stadium Custodian of the Year Bilal Powell in Week 3. However, even the most mediocre of performances in Week 2 yielded a victory, holding Panthers’ starting running back DeAngelo Williams to 85 yards on 22 carries. Marcell Dareus continued to struggle prior to his second half exit against the Jets, with Powell notching 49 yards up the gut on his own. Dareus was outplayed by second year nose tackle Damon Harrison, undrafted out of William Penn. This is more disturbing evidence that the third overall selection in 2011 may set the franchise back years as a sunk cost. While the run defense has been consistently poor, the pass rush has fluctuated wildly. After registering nine hits against Cam Newton, one of the NFL’s premier mobile quarterbacks, they contacted Geno Smith merely three times this week, failing to pressure the rookie into the kind of frenzy Manuel had to contend with all day. This exposed the depleted secondary for the flaming disaster that they are, which should come as no shock to anyone who watched Ted Ginn routinely torch Justin Rogers only to see Newton sail the ball over his head in the face of a successful pass rush in Week 2.

Reviewing the schedule so far, the Bills have faced three tremendously-talented defensive front-sevens. However, writing off the erratic play of the offensive line as the product of bad match-ups simply won’t produce enough victories for a winning season in 2013. The Bills will face the Patriots and Jets again, with two contests against the Dolphins looming in addition to games against the Browns, Bengals, Chiefs and Bucs, all of whom boast intimidating front lines. The Jets have proven through three games that any team who owns the line of scrimmage can win, and the Bills have done the same…in one of three games. Buffalo’s front seven must inspire the same kind of dread in opponents week in and week out. Consistency up front has been elusive, and until it can be established, a season of nail-biters is to be expected.