The defensive alignment that triggered Buffalo's demise is coming to town Sunday. After a one-week reprieve, Buffalo's offense must face a 3-4 defense Sunday against San Francisco. The nose-guard-driven front has been a nightmare for the Bills' offense --- particularly the rushing attack.
Facing 4-3 fronts, the Bills are 5-1. Against introverted 3-4 fronts, they're 1-4. Looking for one, defiant answer why Buffalo fell back to mediocrity midseason? This is it.
For whatever reason Buffalo struggles to handle mammoth nose guards and the extra linebacker on the field. Though the Bills did show marked improvement against Cleveland's 3-4, the odd front remains a cause for concern.
Even against a dismal 49ers team.
"I think that we've faced the 3-4s and we've seen the majority of what their defenses can do," quarterback Trent Edwards said. "Hopefully we can handle it. The past couple of weeks the 49ers haven't shown as much defensively as they had earlier in the season. But I've said this about past defenses, they don't show a lot and once we play them they bring the kitchen sink. That hopefully won't happen to us, but if it does we've faced that before and we've got to be able to handle it."
Buffalo hopes the Cleveland game – although a heartbreaking, Norwoodesque last-minute loss – was the wake-up call. Against oak-tree-thick Shaun Rogers and the Browns' subpar 3-4, the Bills rushing game had its best game. Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson combined for 179 yards through some gashing holes.
On Lynch's key 28-yard run late in the fourth quarter to the Browns' one-yard line, Buffalo blocked picked off Cleveland's 3-4 man-for-man in textbook fashion.
Langston Walker latched onto left end Corey Williams and drove him seven yards back. Center Duke Preston effectively turned Rogers to the right, carving out a lane for Lynch. And the key change from the 4-3 to the 3-4 is who accounts for the extra linebacker along the offensive line. On this run, right guard Brad Butler had the block that truly busted open the run. Butler plowed the NFL's leading tackler, linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, into the secondary.
Preston's block on Rogers got Lynch 10 yards downfield. Butler's stick on Jackson carried Lynch 18 more.
So there is a glimmer of light. Maybe Buffalo has picked the lock on this mystery.
And after all, San Francisco nose guard Aubrayo Franklin will feel like a featherweight to Duke Preston after Kris Jenkins and Vince Wilfork. Whereas Jenkins and Wilfork were the catalysts of New York and New England's 3-4's, driving plays into the backfield, San Francisco's Franklin is more apt to stand pat, eat up blockers and let Patrick Willis roam blockerless.
Willis' 97 tackles are the second-most in the NFL.
In the AFC East gauntlet of 3-4 defenses and a win over San Diego, Lynch amassed only 70, 61, 16 and 46 yards. Don't blame the sophomore bruiser. The Bills' offensive line often missed blocks, confused assignments and was flat-out overwhelmed. Penetration was the norm. And Buffalo's rushing game was neutralized.
San Francisco (3-8) – for all of Mike Singletary's motivational pants-dropping and in-your-face rants – remains very average on defense. Fifteenth against the run and 29th against the pass, San Francisco was victimized by Tony Romo last week (341 yards, 3 TD) and Kurt Warner two weeks before that (328 yards, 3 TD).
See the pattern?
Buffalo shouldn't necessarily brush the dust off of Kevin Gilbride's old playbook and pass its way into oblivion. And Trent Edwards isn't necessarily Romo or Warner. Hardly.
But Sunday should be the game Turk Schonert cuts Edwards' leash and spreads the field out with multiple-receiver threats.
To make the playoffs, the Bills need Edwards to match Brett Favre, Matt Cassel and Jay Cutler toe-for-toe. Every game is a must-win here on out. Turk Schonert cannot hide Edwards for five straight games. Sunday's game provides a second-straight tune-up for the passing game.
For all of his talking and all of his massive pay checks, former-Bills Nate Clements is an average cover corner. Blinded by his big plays, San Francisco shelled out an eight-year, $80 million contract to Clements two years ago. Bad call. Terrell Owens embarrassed Clements last week, racking up more yards in one game than he had in his previous five games. Edwards has to exploit a surefire one-on-one matchup between Clements and Lee Evans. Buffalo's No. 1 wideout Evans should be able to get separation and have a big day against Clements.
Outside of this matchup, the Bills do need to get more production from Josh Reed, Roscoe Parrish, Derek Schouman and Derek Fine. Starting tight end Robert Royal has been ruled out for Sunday's game with a hamstring injury he suffered at Kansas City. This quartet of receivers need to be tough across the middle. Reed was sharp in his return last week (50 yards on five receptions), and should be called upon more Sunday.
Opportunities will be there. The 49ers pass defense has leaks all over. Edwards, with his newfound confidence, should have a field day. While the Bills should test the 3-4 waters with a healthy dose of Lynch and Jackson, the game will be won through the airways. Willis and Spikes are very active linebackers that won't let Buffalo run as wild as they have the past two weeks.