The obvious was blaring at heavy-metal decibels all weekend. It was a double-whammy the Buffalo Bills couldn't possibly ignore.
On Saturday, the NFL's all-time sacks leader --- former Bills defensive end Bruce Smith --- was inducted into the Hall of Fame. A no-brainer reflection of what used to be. Smith was more than the defense's anchor. He was a one-man wrecking crew that disturbed the flow of a game every possession in some way, shape or form.
On Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Arizona Cardinals in large part because of James Harrison. The league's defensive player of the year had Mike Gandy's friends and family wincing all Sunday. Gandy had two choices: risk a false start or get posterized. Harrison didn't finish with any sacks, but he was that lingering elephant in the room that refused to go away. Not to mention that 100-yard interception return for a touchdown, which was arguably the best single play in Super Bowl history (for all of two quarters).
Buffalo won't find a Harrison on the market this spring --- 101 tackles and 16 sacks don't seep into free agency that often. Plus, the Bills defense doesn't even run a 3-4.
That's not the point. Smith had and Harrison has the innate ability to change a game. Offensive coordinators need to be conscience of guys like Smith and Harrison. Glaring needs at wide receiver and tight end shouldn't cloud the fact that Buffalo is starving for a game-breaker player on defense. It's a solid unit. Give Russ Brandon props --- last season's additions of Marcus Stroud, Kawika Mitchell, Spencer Johnson and Leodis McKelvin elevated the unit of the AFC doldrums. It's a solid unit. Last season, the Bills ‘D' finished 14th overall and showed glimpses of promise in December.
But there is no pass-rusher on the roster worth extra attention from offensive coordinators. Not many opposing coaches feel the urge to have their tight end chip Chris Kelsay. Buffalo's emerging secondary had to work overtime all year in coverage. The Bills' push up front was a notch above pathetic. No single player had more than four sacks. Hiring former Green Bay Packers' defensive coordinator to coach the defensive line should help, but it's hardly the shot of adrenaline the unit needs.
Ralph Wilson blamed a lack of personnel for the Bills' collapse. He's right. The Bills must seek a Harrison/Smith type of weapon in free agency.
If the uncertainty surrounding Aaron Schobel's foot injury didn't bump up the cell phone number of Terrell Suggs' agent a few notches on Brandon's speed dial, this past weekend had to. Yes, there are already existing multi-million dollar contracts tied up in Schobel and Kelsay. That shouldn't matter. Every NFL team has money to spend this time of year (unless you're the Washington "Back-ended contracts" Redskins). Schobel and Kelsay have been fringe ends the last two seasons providing little-to-no consistent pass rush. And in this year's annual drool-over-what-the-champ-did-right-and-compare-to-your-team analysis, it's clear that the Bills must pursue a pass rusher that foams at the mouth on passing downs.
Unloading a mega contract to Chris Canty could be a necessary evil for the Bills this spring.
In today's era of locking up studs before they hit free agency, this spring is an anomaly. Suggs, Julius Peppers, Ray Lewis, Karlos Dansby and Chris Canty are all available. In fleeting sound bites here and there, all four have shown an interest to test the market. Even Canty's agent said the emerging his client is looking for a deal in the range of the contract Oakland's Tommy Kelly received last year (seven years, $50.5 million).
Go ahead, laugh now. But that's the price these days. The waiting period for Kelsay and Ryan Denney to become legitimate pass rushers has passed. Schobel vows to return to form, but that's a major ‘if' the team can't depend on. Last season, Canty had moments of brilliance. He wasn't called on the rush the passer much in Dallas' 3-4 alignment. But in a 4-3, the massive 6-foot-7, 300-pound Canty should bust out.
All season, Harrison was the big-play, clean-up man on Pittsburgh's No. 1 ranked defense. The Bills have a nucleus of young talent and solid starters. In lieu of Bruce Smith getting into Canton, it's clear the defense needs a disruptive force capable of single-handedly changing a game.
The cost will be high. But penny-pinching (letting the likes of Pat Williams walk) has cost the team much greater than any contract.
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