Getting Defensive

With a strong core of young talent, Buffalo's defense should greatly improve on last season's 31st ranking. Veterans like Angelo Crowell (left) join a slew of rookies and newcomers to form a promising unit. BFR's J.P. Butler explains...

After finishing 31st, 18th and 29th in total defense the last three seasons, the Buffalo Bills – with two key free agent acquisitions, a draft targeted to helping the secondary and the words "injured reserve" no longer a regular part of Buffalo lexicon – look poised to join the upper-echelon of NFL defenses in 2008.

The reason for the Bills' recent string of defensive inability has been equal parts injuries and old age. Fans forget Buffalo's D was second in the NFL in yards allowed in 2004, giving up just 264.3 yards per contest, while nearly leading the team to its first playoff appearance since January of 2000. But Father Time eventually hit the star players of that unit like a ton of bricks. And the injury bug followed shortly thereafter.

Suddenly, Bills' higher ups began disposing of veterans such as Lawyer Milloy, Troy Vincent, Jeff Posey and Sam Adams because of their high mileage, lack of production, or both. Takeo Spikes suffered the dreaded Achilles injury and, like many before him, never was the same player. The Bills defense then had to start fresh.

Last season, it was the injuries. Nearly every starter on last year's unit missed action at some point in the season, some more than others. Fans never did get a chance to see how good rookie linebacker Paul Posluszny was going to be after going down for the season in just Week 2. And the secondary was ravaged so badly, you and I could have been given a turn at the free safety position.

But it's 2008 now. A new year and new opportunity. And for now, defensive coordinator Perry Fewell's unit is both young and healthy, not to mention anxious to prove last year's No. 31 ranking was nothing more than an aberration.

Particularly intriguing about this year's defense is the linebacking corps, led by sixth-year standout Angelo Crowell. The Bills' defensive co-captain is entering the final year of his contract – a year in which players are known to go the extra mile – and is excited about the offseason moves made by the organization.

"We've got a real good looking front seven with the additions they made on the front line and bringing Kawika Mitchell in," Crowell said. "Kawika and I came in together in the same draft class and I always kept an eye on him when he was in Kansas City. Guys you come in with you always keep your eye on and see what their numbers are and how they're playing. I saw he was playing great ball and now he's my teammate so it's definitely a great plus."

Mitchell could be the ball-hawking playmaker the Bills have lacked on the weakside for some time. Posey never lived up to expectations while Keith Ellison is simply a good back-up but nothing more. The 6-1, 253-pound South Florida product Mitchell finished third on the Giants with 76 tackles last season to go along with 3.5 sacks and six passes defended.

Bills followers may remember Mitchell was the one who had the 20-yard interception return for a touchdown against Buffalo two days before Christmas. He also notched eight tackles and a sack against the "unbeatable" Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. The acquisition of Mitchell plus a healthy Posluszny, who hasn't shown any ill affects of a broken forearm, could give Buffalo its best group of linebackers since Spikes' first year on the job in 2003.

Then there's a matter of preventing the run. Buffalo finished 25th in the league in stopping the ground game, allowing nearly 125 rushing yards a game, in 2007. It seemed at times last year, the Bills played musical chairs with their defensive tackle combinations. Sometimes it would be Larry Triplett and Kyle Williams, other times John McCargo and Jason Jefferson. Bills suits addressed this problem with their biggest free agent splash of the offseason in three-time Pro Bowler Marcus Stroud. True, there are character issues with Stroud, but his performance on the field trumps those issues. Stroud is a 6-6, 310-pound behemoth of a man who will certainly help in plugging the holes up the middle. Stroud led a Jaguars front four that allowed only 11 100-yard rushers from 2003-2006 while guiding Jacksonville to a ranking of No. 2 in total defense last season despite missing the first four games of the year for violating the league's substance abuse policy. McCargo, who showed flashes of brilliance last season, figures to start alongside Stroud while bookends Aaron Schobel and Chris Kelsay return to their posts injury free.

Perhaps the Bills' biggest weakness a season ago, their secondary was addressed through the draft with the selections of cornerbacks Leodis McKelvin and Reggie Corner.

Buffalo was devastated by injury at the defensive back position in 2007 as corners Jason Webster, Ashton Youboty and Kiwaukee Thomas and safeties Ko Simpson and George Wilson all missed major parts of last season, if not virtually all of the season.

Focusing on fleshing out the DB position was the top priority for the front office at draft time.

"It was very much by design," said Bills head coach Dick Jauron of the team's cornerback acquisitions. "Actually going into free agency we felt like we had to get a veteran corner and in the draft we had to find three."

Buffalo covered all of those bases, signing FA Will James in March before grabbing McKelvin (1st), Corner (4th) and Kennard Kox (7th) in the April draft. With the influx of new talent comes additional competition to a unit that, at times, lacked any and all when it came to 3rd and long situations. McKelvin is expected to compete right away with Jabari Greer for the starting right cornerback job, while the veteran James is not far behind.

The Buffalo Bills look improved from top to bottom on the defensive side of the ball, with the most depth they've had in years, and a nice blend of savvy veterans and talented newcomers.

I've always been a best-defense-is-an-explosive-offense kind of guy, but in 2008 it might just be the Bills' actual defense that could lead them to their first playoff berth in nine seasons.

BFR's J.P. Butler can be reached at

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