The Buffalo Bills did some good things on the defensive side of the ball in 2013. Utilizing Mike Pettine’s hybrid 3-4 defensive scheme, the Bills were fourth in passing yards per game allowed, second in total sacks (57) and interceptions (28). With all that focus on the pass rush the Bills struggled against the run, allowing 128.9 yards per game which was 27th in the league.
With Pettine moving on to become the Browns’ head coach and former Lions’ head coach Jim Schwartz brought in to replace him and likely installing a 4-3 defense, many things will change. Here are three players who will need to improve from last season to help the Bills become a more complete defensively.
Stephon Gilmore (CB)
Gilmore is entering his third year in the league and as the 10th overall pick in the 2012 draft, showed flashes of being a top flight defensive back during his rookie year. Playing in all 16 games he had 61 tackles, three forced fumbles, one interception and 16 passes defended. Those numbers slipped quite a bit during second season the due to missing the first five games of the season with a fractured wrist.
When he returned to action, Gilmore looked a step slow and often allowed receivers to get open. Another high draft pick, Leodis McKelvin, got forced to step up in Gilmore’s absence and did admirably after five years of inconsistent play.
McKelvin has never been a no.1 cornerback, so it’s time for Gilmore to reclaim that spot after a disappointing 2013.
Duke Williams (Safety)
With the recent news that contract talks with Jarius Byrd have stalled, yet again it is essential that Williams is ready to contribute at a higher level than he did last year. Taken in the fourth round of the 2013 draft, Williams was billed as an aggressive, hard-hitting downhill safety that was excellent in run support and athletic enough to become a solider coverage player. Unfortunately he didn’t make that impression during preseason and after just five games got relegated to special teams for the remainder of the year.
Williams was on the field for only 2.8 percent of all defensive snaps, significantly less than almost all other defensive backs taken in later rounds as well as key undrafted free agents. He finished the season with just seven tackles. Just prior to the start of the season the Bills added veteran safety Jim Leonhard.
As a rookie Williams was given every opportunities to step up and make an impact especially with early season injuries to Byrd and fellow rookie Jonathan Meeks, who missed the entire year with an ankle injury. Unfortunately for him didn’t perform at a consistent level.
If Byrd and Leonhard leave as free agents the Bills will most certainly need to see Williams take a giant leap forward otherwise they might find themselves once again looking to the draft or free agency to bolster their safety corps. Currently they would have little beyond Aaron Williams, newly converted to the position just last year.
Nigel Bradham (LB)
Bradham, like Gilmore is entering his third year in the league, and was expected to have his breakout year last season. That did not happen as he played less than 25 percent of the Bills’ defensive snaps. Before ceding the GM position to Doug Whaley, Buddy Nix expressed optimism that his speed and power would allow him to play at a high level on all three downs and instead he finished 2013 with fewer tackles and impact plays (stuffs, forced fumbles, etc.) than his rookie season.
One reason is that Bradham did go through a position change, playing as the strong side linebacker in Dave Wannstedt’s 4-3 system in 2012 and then shifting to the weak side linebacker during the 2013 season with Pettine’s 3-4 hybrid. The shift back to the 4-3 under Schwartz actually might benefit him so he can take the next step and forget about last season.
Manny Lawson might get cut as he’s a better fit in a 3-4 scheme. Considering that the Bills linebacking corps consisted mainly of Lawson and rookie Kiko Alonso last year, it becomes essential that Bradham start displaying some of the potential Nix saw in him three years ago.
Honorable Mention: Jerry Hughes (DL)
Hughes had a career high 10 sacks, two forced fumbles, two passes defended, and (unofficially) 39 quarterback disruptions (by ProFootball Focus’ calculations). He finished the year with the highest ‘Pass Rushing Productivity’ score of any edge rusher (including Robert Quinn, Aldon Smith, Von Miller) as measured by ProFootball Focus.
The issue is that Hughes is more of a situational pass rusher and got used mostly in the Bills’ nickel and dime sub packages, making him a one dimensional player. He had little run defense responsibility which is where the Bills’ defense struggled last year.
Making just $870,000 in 2013, Hughes’ level of production made him a veritable bargain. With his contract nearing $4 million for the upcoming season. The Bills need him to add another dimension to his game by making plays against the run.
He will also need to keep up getting to the quarterback as to not become a one-year wonder.