How much better is the '03 Bills' defense?

In an NFL world where once the media "blesses" a going mantra, right or wrong, it becomes "truth", very often I have to challenge the premises for certain notions. One of those notions is that this current season Bills' defense is really all that much better than last season's. Well, is it?

OK, before some of you launch off and start screaming at me asking me if I am mad, insane, or simply ignorant, let me first say I believe the current Bills' defense to be quite outstanding. But I also realize that the defense last season took a lot of heat for soft special teams play and opponent scores that the Bledsoe-led offense set up.

As evidence of the latter, let us use the first Jets game of last season as just one of the several cases in point. In that game, of the 37 points that the "D allowed", the first seven came on a kickoff return which was special teams, not defense; the second came off of a poorly thrown Bledsoe interception setting the Jets up at the Bills' 19 yard-line; the first field goal came off of a 59 yard drive down to the Bills' 16; the next three came off of a 42 yard drive down to the Bills' 27; the next came off of a blocked punt setting the Jets up in FG territory with the Bills holding them to three and out; the only touchdown that can be directly attributable to the defense came with the Jets having a short field starting the drive at their own 40; and the last touchdown came in OT off of a special teams blunder.

So, and in review, in that game which led the media charge against "the defense playing poorly all season", of the Jets' 37 points, 7 were set up by Drew and the O inside our own red zone, 14 were allowed by the special teams with another 3 being set up by the special teams, leaving only 13 points which can be directly attributable to the defense. The same is true in several other games for which the defense took all the heat yet for which they actually played fairly well. In fact, in that first Jets game, the defense held the Jets to only 266 total yards and only 73 rushing yards. I would take that against any opponent in any game.

So, what's the point Weiler? Again, with that game being just one example and with additional research being left up to the reader and in the interests of brevity, the greater point here is that last season's defense was not nearly as bad as the media has stated it has been. It clearly improved as the season went on and was not as bad as everyone let on, and in fact, there was a clear demarcation of performance at the six-week mark where over the first 6 games last season's "team" allowed an average of 34 points against them. Of those, 21 points, or 3.5 points-per-game, over 10%, were directly set up by Drew and his interceptions.

Towards the end of the season over the last ten games however, the "team" allowed 193 points, or an average of only 19.3 ppg, a very obvious dropoff of over two touchdowns per game from their inaugural 6-game performance. Yet, all the media sees is the season's average of 24.8.

But there are other reasons why this season's defense appears to be significantly better. I say significantly because I agree that it has improved, yet disagree as to the degree to which it has. No one can argue that the points allowed dropping from 24.8 to only 15.3 ppg is not significant, nor that the rushing/passing yards allowed dropping from 132.6/191.7 to 96.7/170.5 respectively is either.

Is this season's defense good? Absolutely! It is very good in fact. But let's face it, the caliber of offenses faced this season have been a far cry from those faced last season, and that must be taken into consideration.

The "upgrades" in the defense this past offseason ala Donahoe did not address the primary needs to the degree that they should have. Milloy was brought in to bolster the strength of the defensive unit, not the weakness. Spikes was brought in which has been huge. Posey was brought in with only mixed results. The biggest weakness last season has only been addressed by bringing in Sam Adams who has only played well, above average, in only three or four games and against teams none of which rank amongst the top 12 offensive teams and three of which rank amongst the bottom third. Given that, only Spikes has been a very significant impact from last season to this.

So what do I attribute this upsurge in defensive production to? I attribute it to the caliber of opposition faced.

Using 2003 season data through the first 13 weeks, the Bills this season have faced not one running back ranked amongst the top 6 ranked rushers in the league this season. Last season the Bills faced the top 4 rushers five times. The Bills face only the current ranked 12th, 16th, and 29th rushers upcoming in three remaining games.

Last season the Bills faced 6 of the top 10 rushing offenses and 4 of the top 5 rushing offenses in five games. This season, the Bills have only faced 1 of the top 10 rushing offenses in the 8th ranked rushing O and have the 17th, 25th, and 27th ranked rushing Os remaining. The result vs. that single top ten rushing offense: 177 rushing yards allowed en route to a 23-13 loss. This does not exactly scream out "improvement" over last year's squad.

Last season the Bills faced each of the top 4 yardage offenses once while this season they have faced only the 2nd and 3rd ranked yardage offenses once each. Again, the result, a combined 0-2 losing by a combined 55-19 allowing a combined 236 rushing yards (118 ypg) and 592 (296 ypg) total net yards in those two games. Once again, this does not scream out "vast improvement" as the media hype suggests.

Last season the Bills faced top 10 scoring offenses in 7 games whereas this season they have faced top 10 scoring offenses only twice with only the 4th ranked Titans remaining. In both of the games where the Bills faced top 10 scoring offenses this season, the Bills allowed 55 points, an average of 27.5 points-per-game in two losses.

In 7 games last season vs. top 10 scoring offenses, the Bills as a team allowed an average of 29.7 points-per-game going 1-6 in those games. However, 42 of those points were handed to opponents four times due to Bledsoe's turnovers, once by Henry, and once by Price reducing the per game average to 23.7 ppg. In fairness, in the two games this season vs. top 10 scoring Os, the offense was responsible for 10 points reducing the per game average allowed by the D to 22.5 thus leaving the difference in average points allowed vs. top 10 scoring offenses at a nominal 1.2 ppg difference. Again, this is not particularly indicative of the types of improvements that the media is ranting about.

As well, as I have often stated, the play of the D and team in particular in terms of points allowed from the first 6 games last season to the final 10 games was drastic dropping monumentally from 34.0 ppg to only 19.3 using that 6-game mark as the division on the season. Using only the top ten scoring offenses that the Bills played during that stretch, the points allowed by the Bills drops to 23.0 ppg and 17.8 ppg after opponent scores attributable to the offense. Following the bye-week last season, the Bills allowed only 18.0 ppg vs. the 1st, 6th, and 10th ranked defenses, only 11.0 ppg after offensive "contributions" to opponent scoring are deducted.

Contrasting this with play vs. similar caliber opponents this season, one can see that there is little if any practical difference between the way the defense was playing over the last half of last season vice the way it has played this season. Yardage totals reveal approximately a 45 yard-per-game improvement, which certainly is significant, however, and as I have stated in the past, until they begin to award games based on yardage totals, points differentials in games are still what determines winners. As well, it would stand to reason that the reason for these yardage differences is the obvious decline in the caliber of opposing offenses played. Therefore they should be analyzed as such.

The bottom line through all of this is simple. Those using simple aggregate statistics will see a massive improvement in the play of the defense from this season to last in terms of points and yardage allowed. What has not been mentioned in such oversimplified analyses is that the schedule and play of the offense in terms of not contributing to opponent points-allowed. It is clear to me that the defense was playing at a very similar level following the first handful of games last season, yet, the media continued to carry the banner that "the offense did it all" throughout the entire season completely contrary to all indicators. In fact, much as is the case this season, the Bills could not win games over the last half of last season due to the same inability of the offense to put up a sufficient number of points, not as a result of the D playing poorly contrary to the media drivel.

As a result, the Bills, their fans, and the media covering the Bills should not get overconfident in their actual defensive status this season. They should continue to focus on fixing the same issues that existed with the defense last offseason this offseason. To ignore these things and begin to attribute this increase in some of the players added would be shortsighted and shallow and will harm the team next season.

The only notable difference on the defensive line this season is Sam Adams. But the truth be told, Sam has had three, perhaps four very good games this season. In fact, he played three incredible games. However, the remaining 9 games to date have been average to below average to well below average leaving the question how will Big Sam play vs. tougher talent against which this season he has played poorly. Ignoring the defensive tackle position this offseason would be foolish as the Bills can still use a starter there.

Other spots still needing upgrades are the perennial devoid of talent left defensive end spot and an outside linebacker to challenge Posey. Ignoring these needs this offseason due to faulty perceptions may end up costing the Bills next season dependent upon the schedule and for sure in the playoffs should the Bills make them next season. So here's hoping that someone at the staffing/personnel level does not rest on the laurels of simple statistics which have been skewed due to an easy slate of opponents offensively speaking.

If the Bills truly want to know how good their D is this season, then taking a strong look at their performance vs. top ten scoring offenses would be a good start. This season those offenses are Kansas City and Indianapolis, teams that the Bills have allowed 55 points and are 0-2 against largely due to the defense in both cases. The single remaining team to play amongst top 10 scoring offenses is Tennessee led by McNair, a candidate for league MVP. Given that he plays, let's base evaluations of how good the defense is this season on those three games instead of on a slate full of teams with offenses amongst the bottom 2/3 of the league.


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