Offensive coordinators last season had little reason to suffer those caffeinated, crash-on-the-office-futon weeks before matchups against the Bills. Their game plans were simple: Establish the run, mix in some more runs, then close things out with the run. Buffalo's defense faced 571 rushing attempts, more than any other team had faced in a decade, and it was powerless to stop anyone. On their way to a 4--12 record, their worst since 2001, the Bills permitted an NFL-high nine running backs to rush for more than 100 yards against them, including three 100-yard performances in two games by three Jets backs: Shonn Greene, Joe McKnight and LaDainian Tomlinson. The other three teams in the division, by way of comparison, allowed a combined four 100-yard rushers.
"I think a lot of teams saw an advantage in the run game [against Buffalo]," says Bills newcomer Brad Smith, who as a Jet last season gained 71 yards against Buffalo on only eight carries. "I don't think that's going to be so much the case this year." Bolstering the front seven in their 3--4 scheme was the Bills' central concern over the off-season, and they appear to have found some answers. With the third overall pick in April's draft, Buffalo selected 6'3", 343-pound tackle Marcell Dareus, who made 20 tackles for a loss over his final two seasons at Alabama and was named the defensive MVP of the 2010 BCS national championship game. In the seventh round, for good measure, the Bills added 6'4", 394-pound project Michael Jasper out of Tennessee's Bethel University, an NAIA school. "We call him the Eclipse," quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick says of Jasper, who weighed as much as 448 in college but has a 33-inch vertical leap. "He blocks out the sun."
Three months after the draft the Bills added the player who should be the key to their run-stopping renaissance: inside linebacker Nick Barnett. Buffalo can be a tough sell for top free agents, but Barnett, who spent his first eight pro seasons—including six in which he amassed at least 100 tackles—with the Packers, viewed it as an attractive opportunity. "I had some chances to go to some bigger markets—Detroit, New York, Philly," he says, "but I think you get a certain feeling, a certain vibe with these small-town markets."
Barnett also gets a certain vibe from the prospect of lining up behind the wide-bodied Dareus. "Playing behind that guy, hopefully he eats two [blockers], and I can just run through and hit somebody," Barnett says. More than that, though, Barnett embraces the challenge of becoming the leader of Buffalo's front seven, spiritually and otherwise. "A lot of teams ran because we were losing games last year," he says. "This year, if they try to do it, we have to make them pay for it. Every yard that they gain, we have to punish them."
Obscured by Buffalo's ineptitude against the run last year—the Bills yielded not only more rushing attempts than any other team but also a higher average per carry (4.8 yards)—was the fact that the pass rush was feeble too. The team mustered 27 sacks, the league's third-lowest total. That did not represent a new trend: Since 2001 no Bill other than the now retired Aaron Schobel has had more than 6½ sacks in a season. Every other team has had at least four such players.
Now a bolstered run defense should lead to more pass-rushing opportunities for the Bills. "If we stop the run, we make 'em throw more, and if we make 'em throw more, we get more turnovers and more chances for sacks," says coach Chan Gailey.
And the Bills may finally have a player with the ability to take advantage of those chances. It has been four years since outside linebacker Shawne Merriman turned in his third consecutive double-digit-sack season, with the Chargers. Since then he has suffered injuries to his knees, foot and calf and has played in just 19 games. San Diego, fed up, placed Merriman on waivers last November, and the Bills claimed him the following day. They now seem poised to reap the benefits of that gamble. "A lot of people want to know the [answer to the] big question: Am I back?" says Merriman. "Just come out and watch practice, watch me move around, and you'll know."
Indeed, in training camp—and during the Bills' preseason opener, in which he sacked Bears quarterback Caleb Hanie on consecutive plays—Merriman, still only 27, looked like a savvier (if slightly less explosive) version of his old self. "When you're so athletically gifted, you can do things without worrying about the little stuff," he says. "My injuries made me an overall better football player."
While the Bills' holes were too many to fill in a single off-season—their offensive line, weak for years, remains shaky—their fortified defense should ensure an improvement.