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A Tale of Two Kelsays
The most controversial player on the Buffalo Bills roster at the moment is probably DE/OLB Chris Kelsay. Mentioning Kelsay’s name in a Buffalo living room, Bills message board, or any Western New York watering hole is generally the quickest way to elicit a chorus of groans. This results from a variety of reasons, such as the facts that Kelsay is one of the two main defensive holdovers from the Jauron era, Kelsay’s career sack numbers have been underwhelming (yet consistent), and the biggest one: Kelsay was extended last fall to a 4 year, 24 million dollar contract while appearing to struggle to make the transition to OLB. Personally, I certainly wasn’t thrilled at the notion of rewarding a defensive end who had failed to standout throughout mediocre defensive seasons, but I also realized there was some (if not enough) validity to Nix’s justification that Kelsay was a leader the team needed to set the tone for the younger players.
With all this in mind, I made a point to pay attention to how Buffalo deployed Kelsay this preseason. I wanted to learn if there was perhaps merit in Nix’s first big extension, and if Kelsay was really a better player than he was given credit for. After watching two games, I’ve seen Chris Kelsay used completely differently between the two evenings, leaving me with two very separate, distinct feelings about the same player.
We’ll start with game one in Chicago. Most Bills fans were focused on Shawne Merriman’s attempted career resurgence and the shiny new toy, Marcell Dareus. Rightly so, as those two players kicked ass. But to explain Kelsay’s role, we must first discuss the defensive formation. The Bills came out using a 4-3 under as their base set, with Merriman as the Sam (strongside linebacker), and Kelsay as the weakside end (I’ll have a post later this preseason breaking down the Bills defensive alignments where we’ll go more in depth on the topic). Kelsay excelled in this role, using his size and strength to close out the backside of the play and attack the gaps correctly every time. This greatly contributed to the Bills ability to shut down the Bears rushing attack. On passing plays, Kelsay was pretty much what we’ve come to expect from him. He has to be blocked, will push the pocket and cause pressure if the pocket breaks down despite not being the terror that causes lines to shift protection in a certain direction(i.e. Merriman). In fact, on Merriman’s second sack, Kelsay had pushed the opposite side of the pocket almost as much as the former Charger, denying Caleb Hanie the ability to escape Merriman from the back door. Had he not pushed, Merriman doesn’t get that sack. In Chicago, Kelsay was a contributing, functional part of a very good unit.
Fast forward to Saturday night in Denver, and the personnel situation had shifted significantly due to Merriman’s absence. Kelsay filled in at the Sam position, with Carrington stepping up to Kelsay’s vacated weakside end position in the same 4-3 under set. Initially, it didn’t look much different. The weakside end and the Sam both have similar contain responsibilities against the run, and the only difference appears to be the end puts his hand on the ground. But on the very first snap, the major difference made itself very clear. Kelsay dropped back into a zone coverage, while Carrington plowed toward the quarterback.
The ball went to the opposite side of the field on that particular play, but it became apparent that Kelsay was being asked to be a pass defender; which, if you recall, the veteran’s adventures in coverage last year, often ended in disaster. Several plays later, Kelsay played linebacker in a 3-3 nickel formation, showed ‘blitz,’ dropped back into coverage, and couldn’t get to his coverage responsibility 25 yards down field in time to make a play on the ball, which was caught by the Bears receiver. The play wound up being negated due to technical penalties, but it was clear that Kelsay hadn’t improved his abysmal pass coverage since we saw it last year. Suddenly, memories of Kelsay being a serviceable player a mere week before gave way to images of the former Cornhusker tripping in an attempt to cover Jermichael Finley 40 yards down the sideline, and the often grating invectives used to describe Kelsay seemed much more valid.
It’s clear, than, that we have two very different football players with one Chris Kelsay. Kelsay is efficient, if unglamorous, playing opposite Merriman; while grossly inadequate attempting to replace him at the Sam.
The question that begs is why? Why do the Bills try to force this? Wouldn’t it make more sense to keep Kelsay at his natural end position, and give players like Danny Batten or Antonio Coleman the opportunity to fill in at Sam? If I’m optimistic, there’s a justifiable rationalization. Perhaps the coaching staff wanted to see how Carrington (the most similar player to Kelsay on the roster) played with the first team at weakside end while wondering how Kelsay could handle the additional coverage responsibilities of playing linebacker. After all, it is the preseason, where experimentation largely is without consequence.
However, a darker fear still lingers. The chance exists that Edwards and Wannstedt actually consider Kelsay the next most viable option to play that linebacker position if Merriman goes down. If that’s the case, we had better get used to getting shredded in the flats often (that is, if you’re not used to it after last year). Honestly, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle of these two theories. It is just absolutely striking to me how a defensive player with a well defined, invariable skill set can take on such different personas depending on how he lines up. But if there’s one thing I’m sure about this early in the offseason, it’s this: as Bills fans, we are much better off with the first Kelsay.