Return to Relevance – Defensive Line

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Updated: July 18, 2013
carrington

Previous Return to Relevance Posts: Offensive Line Running Backs Defensive Backs

Definition of RELEVANCE:
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 Donte Whitner throwing his coaching staff under the bus: 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, and that this year’s crop of running backs should vastly outpace their predecessors, scheme permitted. 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.

If the ’99 team’s success was so reliant on assembling the right personnel, then how does one explain the woeful performance of the team’s strongest unit on paper in 2012, the defensive line? Could the front line of the 2013 defense be poised for a breakout capable of dominating entire games the way the 1999 line did? Let’s find out, shall we?

Predominant 1999 starting defensive line:
LDE – Phil Hansen (14 GS, 14 GP, 39 tkl, 17 ast, 6 sacks, 1 fumble forced, 2 fumbles recovered)
NT – Ted Washington (16 GS, 16 GP, 35 tkl, 10 ast, 2.5 sacks)
RDE – Bruce Smith (16 GS, 16 GP, 30 tkl, 15 ast, 7 sacks, 3 ff, 1 fr)

Primary reserve 1999 defensive line:
DE – Marcellus Wiley (16 GP, 18 tkl, 8 ast, 5 sacks, 1 int)
DT – Pat Williams (16 GP, 25 tkl, 7 ast, 1 ff)

What jumps out about this unit:
1999 was somewhat of a curtain call for the defensive line and by extension, the Super Bowl guard in Buffalo. This would be Hansen’s last truly productive campaign, while Washington posted virtually identical numbers in 2000 before leaving town in 2001. Then of course there’s BRUUUUUCE, who took his talents to Washington in 2000 and proved that the front office wasn’t infallible after all, posting a blistering stat line and missing only two games for the Redskins over the next four seasons.

What really sticks out to me about the line however, is the main pair of reserves waiting in the wings. Wiley and Williams were brought into the fold in 1997 under very different circumstances, but with common back drops. Wiley was a second round selection at a position of strength for the team, while Williams was brought in as an undrafted free agent at a time when Ted Washington was developing into a player about to make four out of five Pro Bowls.

While both players panned out for the Bills to different extents, what is so impressive to me is the foresight of General Manager John Butler and his staff to recognize that the team’s success was built on the defensive line, pinpoint exactly when they felt their current unit was set to expire and bring in young, affordable replacements with just enough time to adequately develop them. Winning begets winning, as spending a second round pick on a position presently occupied by a future Hall of Famer is a luxury enjoyed only by those with both job security and a well-rounded roster. Even still, Butler and company had a blueprint that they followed to a tee. Watching this rudderless organization flutter from one philosophy to the next with no contiguous plan in sight over the last decade should drive home just how valuable that quality is.

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

This is a defense that tied for 22nd in sacks and had the 5th lowest interception-per-attempt rate in the league. These were not pass-rushing specialists backed by ball hawks in the secondary putting together highlight reel plays to turn the tide of games. They were what every elite defense strives to be; they were boring.

Bills opponents averaged the 3rd lowest yards per attempt in both passing and rushing. The play at the line of scrimmage was simply stifling. This was a unit built on veteran leadership, savvy and intelligence, bolstered by a pair of up-and-coming juniors hitting their stride as starting linemen. Thanks to admirable foresight from the front office, the 1999 defensive line featured both the brick and the mortar it takes to comprise the kind of unit that can single-handedly push an entire team toward relevance.

Predominant 2012 starting defensive line:
DE: Mario Williams (16 GS, 16 GP, 37 tkl, 9 ast, 10.5 sacks, 2 ff, 2 fr)
DT: Marcell Dareus (16 GS, 16 GP, 26 tkl, 13 ast, 5.5 sacks, 1 fr)
DT: Kyle Williams (16 GS, 16 GP, 27 tkl, 19 st, 5 sacks)

Primary reserve 2012 defensive line:
DE: Alex Carrington (15 GP, 12 tkl, 7 ast, 2 sacks, 1 ff)
DL: Spencer Johnson (15 GP, 10 tkl, 9 ast, 2 sacks, 1 ff

What jumps out about this unit:
The depth of this unit was nonexistent thanks to an injury-shortened season for free agent prize Mark Anderson, who underperformed in six games before hitting the shelf. Of course with relics like Chris Kelsay and Shawne Merriman penciled in for feature roles with the reserves, depth was always a pipe dream with this unit. Kyle Moore did his damnedest to serve as a pass rushing one-trick pony when called into duty, but the cupboard was essentially bare after the five aforementioned players (authorities are still searching for any information regarding the whereabouts of former college football player Torrell Troup).

Johnson has always been a space-eating stop gap to suck up reps on the line, whereas Carrington has shown talent in bursts that continue to leave Bills fans and personnel with a lingering sense of untapped potential. The book on the 2012 Bills in the preseason was that Buffalo would host one of the best starting defensive lines in the NFL. That book was full of lies and frankly, I demand a refund.

Kyle Williams hummed along at a borderline-Pro Bowl pace as always. Mario Williams has been overanalyzed both on and off the field to a disturbing degree, so to not beat a dead horse, I will simply state that in a blind sampling with no contract figures attached, his play would have satisfied even the most cynical fan. The guy registered the most sacks for a Bills player in a season since 2006. He nearly outpaced the sack leaders of 2010 and 2011 combined. Defensive linemen cannot be measured on sacks alone (trust me, we’ll get there), but pinning the struggles of the unit on Mario is shortsighted.

The real problem with the line in 2012 was Marcell Dareus. The turmoil of losing his brother in such a gruesome manner as soon as the season began took an unfathomable toll on his psyche and the fact that he didn’t miss a single game is a testament to his grit and dedication to both his team and his craft. As someone who thought at the time that he should have taken a leave of absence, I am absolutely sympathetic to how the tragic events affected his performance.

Tactically speaking however, he simply failed to show the progression the team was counting on last year and will need even more in the coming seasons. We have established in the Return to Relevance series that relevant franchises don’t whiff on top draft picks. Dareus was selected number three overall, the fifth highest pick in franchise history and the highest since Bruce Smith was taken number one in 1985. The Bills used a once-in-a-generation opportunity to add Dareus to the fold. Declining tackles and matching sack totals will not suffice. Anything less than a franchise-defining talent will set the team back years (hello, Mike Williams).

As is often the case though, the numbers say it all. Children, shield your eyes.

Performance and ranks:
Passing defense: 217 ypg (10th)
Rushing defense: 145.8 (31st)
Points: 27.2 ppg (26th)

The Bills have been in the bottom five in rushing defense each of the last four seasons, rewriting their own franchise record books for futility. They’ve given up the most rushing first downs in the league two of the last three years. They’ve switched from a 4-3 base to a 3-4 and back to a 4-3, with each change barely moving the needle. Advanced metrics show that the line was just below league average at the point of attack, but dreadful in short distance third and fourth down situations. We will discuss their problems handling runners in the second level in our linebacker breakdown, but as the first line of defense against opposing backs, the defensive line did not get the job done, especially relative to preseason expectations.

Former defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt was left completely dumbfounded by the line’s underwhelming performance, having crafted a safety-first defensive scheme in the summer and refusing to adapt in the fall. The Bills ranked last in blitzing the quarterback in 2012, hoping to mimic the same style used by the New Jersey Giants, relying upon the defensive line to create pressure on its own. Mario Williams tied for the 8th most hurries among defenders last year, with only five lineman ahead of him. Kyle Williams was the next highest ranked on the line, tying with a multitude of players for 42nd.

The conservative approach employed by Wannstedt will be a distant memory once new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s kitchen sink mentality is manifested on the field. The point remains that the 2012 Buffalo Bills were constructed to win on the defensive line of scrimmage, much like the 1999 team. The ’99 players lived up to the challenge. The ’12 squad did not.

The State of the Union:
Pettine’s defensive philosophy centers around versatility and athleticism. Linebackers and linemen will be asked to move from stand-up positions to spots on the line on a play-by-play basis. This will affect Mario’s positioning more than anyone else, as he will be rotated all over the field in an effort to find the most effective route to the quarterback. In terms of new additions whose hands will consistently be in the dirt when the ball is snapped, I believe there are 1.5 names in play for 2013.

The 0.5 in this equation is Jay Ross. I thought Senor Fenton did a great job convincing fans to pump the brakes on the Ross-over-Dareus rumors trickling out of NFL.com. As I detailed earlier, turning the page on Dareus – which a shift to a completely unproven Ross would spell out in plain English – would mean that the team has completely given up on their highest draft selection in over 20 years. Do I think that Dareus will need to prove his worth over Alex Carrington in certain three man fronts? It’s plausible. Do I think that Dareus could use a reminder of his mortality in the league and on the team? It can’t hurt. Do I think he’s at risk of losing snaps to Jay Ross? Absolutely not.

While I know many fans are clamoring for more Carrington, which certainly seems to be a refrain heard by the new coaching staff, he will need to prove himself on the field before anyone should consider him a turning point for the squad’s line. So the real addition to the mix on the field this year is former Seahawk Alan Branch, who is roughly the size of Amherst. The space-eater is clearly a response the franchise’s prolonged struggles against the run, and at the very least, he will add a proven body to the rotation up the middle that will add the most glaring quality absent in 2012: depth.

All told however, the top end of this defensive line is too talented to be judged on one poor year. Blame it on Mario’s nagging wrist injury. Blame it on Dareus’ personal turmoil. Blame it on Anderson’s no-show. Blame it on Wannstedt’s scheme. Whichever options you choose, there are too many mitigating factors at play to write off this unit solely based on the debacle that was 2012. With a new year bringing a healthy start on the field and a philosophical overhaul on the sideline, the defensive line has arrived squarely in the middle of put-up or shut-up time. Can the 2013 Buffalo Bills defensive line match the output of their 1999 counterparts? No. I believe the ’99 unit set the bar too high. Can the 2013 Buffalo Bills defensive line play a major, if not the most significant role in the team’s quest to return to relevance? They certainly can, and now is the time to prove it.

Dan Murphy is very relevant on Twitter (as is BuddyNixon).