Preview: Bills live off front four

The Vikings struggled badly with the Detroit Lions defensive line and Buffalo’s is nearly as good. Fortunately for the Vikings, the Bills offense isn’t as good.

The few teams in the NFL are the quiet secret that the Buffalo Bills are. If you’re looking to see them on national TV, good luck. Of their 16 games on the 2014 schedule, they get the obligatory Thursday night game and their only two games outside of 1 p.m. local time all season are road games played in the Western Time Zone (Denver and Oakland). Other than that, they’re a regional broadcast during the early run of NFL games. They’re famous on the Red Zone Channel, but nowhere else.

But despite their relative anonymity, the Bills are building a solid team. At the same time, they are a team with a lot of questions – especially the bizarre decision-making on offense.

There’s no questioning the strength of the team is the defense, but the offense was where the highest aspirations lay.

The team used a first-round pick on running back C.J. Spiller, but, amid trade rumors, his playing time has decreased as the Bills try to protect him from injury to gauge interest from run-challenged offenses around the league. Spiller was supposed to be the main man in the run game. Now he’s looking up at not only Fred Jackson, but former 49er Anthony Dixon.

When Tampa Bay drafted Mike Evans in the first round of May’s draft, another Mike – Mike Williams – became expendable. Buffalo made a trade to get him with the plan of teaming up with rookie sensation Sammy Watkins and second-year pro Robert Woods for the 3-Dub Triangle. It hasn’t worked out that way. Watkins and Woods have combined to catch 47 passes for 545 yards and three TDs. Williams has caught eight passes in six games. After being made a healthy scratch last week, Williams’ agent wanted him traded. It’s just another guy Buffalo appears readily willing to part with.

But the most curious of all offensive moves was at quarterback. E.J. Manuel wasn’t setting the town on fire, but through their first three games, he had thrown just one interception to go with three touchdowns and a strong passer rating. But after a loss to Houston in which Manuel threw two interceptions – both for touchdowns – the hook came out and Kyle Orton came in.

In two games with Orton, they’ve won one and lost one, but the focus has changed to the aerial game. In games against Detroit and New England, Orton has thrown for 607 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions. Once again, out with the old and in with the older.

There seems very little in the way of loyalty from the coaching staff that has systematically removed three component parts of the offense. Granted, Buffalo has the 25th-ranked offense, but Manuel, Spiller and Williams were all brought to the team for their big-play potential. Apparently, it hasn’t come often enough for Buffalo’s liking.

Perhaps the reason for the knee-jerk decisions is because the Bills defense is good enough to be the strength of the team, especially as it pertains the run game.

To see the numbers, you have to put on a special pair of glasses. Buffalo ranks 11th in overall defense, which is based on yards allowed. Vikings fans of old can empathize with what’s coming next.

Buffalo has the top-rated run defense, but the 26th ranked pass defense. That’s not a bad thing. Like the Vikings were during the heyday of the Williams Wall, teams knew they couldn’t run on Buffalo and opted simply to pass. Short chunks of yardage add up. That’s the only reason Buffalo’s defense isn’t higher in the overall rankings.

The Bills have yet to allow a rushing touchdown and opposing rushers are averaging just 2.8 yards a carry. Just as Teddy Bridgewater was under siege against the Lions last week, he and his offensive linemen should be prepared for a similar onslaught from the Bills.

Buffalo has 19 sacks this season – 15.5 of them from the front four. Mario Williams (4.5 sacks) is one of the most dangerous pass rushers in the league. Taken No. 1 by the Texans, big things have always been expected of Williams and, for the most part, when healthy, he has delivered. In the middle, Marcell Dareus leads the team with five sacks and has received high praise from Vikings coach Mike Zimmer this week. Whenever a defensive tackle has sacks numbers like that, pressure is coming up the middle and, at times, sacks come to him. DE Jerry Hughes (four sacks) and run stuffer Kyle Williams provide the octane that fuels the defense.

As a result of the pressure the D-line can produce, the back seven isn’t always asked to do anything other than man their zone. The key to beating a defense like Buffalo’s will be to get players in space. Spreading the field to open space to mitigate what is clearly a front-four dominated defense is what works against Buffalo.

With an offense in flux and a defense a play or two away from being dominant, Buffalo is a wild card opponent for the Vikings. From the offensive turnover, the Bills are capable of putting up limited points. Their defense is capable of throwing a shutout.

In a league dominated by offense, the Vikings-Bills game will almost assuredly be decided by defense. Whoever imposes their will limps away the winner and builds momentum moving forward.

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