The current market leaders could run into some challengers.
Aug. 30--The Buffalo Bills made several changes on defense, some by choice.
Jim Schwartz is their fifth coordinator in the past six years. They lost Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd in free agency. Defensive rookie of the year runner-up Kiko Alonso likely is gone for the season because of injury. They added free agents Brandon Spikes, Keith Rivers and Corey Graham.
And, given all that, Buffalo's defense is its most stable unit for 2014.
With so much youth on offense and sophomore quarterback EJ Manuel failing to engender much confidence throughout the summer, Buffalo's defense cannot afford to take any steps back from an impressive 2013 campaign.
The Bills last year set the club record for sacks and finished second in the NFL in interceptions, but defensive coordinator Mike Pettine spun that season into a head coaching job with Cleveland.
With added emphasis on stopping the run, the Bills should be better at it. Schwartz has decorated veterans up front. Spikes is a run-stuffer.
But will Buffalo's defense attain such prominence that it gives the offense room for error? Can the defense mitigate a bad turnover or come up with enough game-changing plays? Will it become the kind of unit to bail out the entire team in clutch situations?
Let's examine the most significant aspects of the upcoming Bills season:
Defensive line: Three of the four starters (Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus) went to the Pro Bowl last season, and the other (Jerry Hughes) had 10 sacks. After two days of scrimmaging against them, Steelers offensive line coach and Hall of Fame guard Mike Munchak described them this way:
"This is a special group. They can get after you pretty good. ... They're not just speed rushers. They're bull rushers. They can run you over. They can run around you. They're great with their hands. That's why they're confident. They should be."
Running back depth chart: The Bills have a seemingly bottomless backfield. C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson are 1,000-yard rushers. Each might be the focal point of the game plan any given week. Free-agent acquisition Anthony Dixon could be a force in short-yardage and goal-line situations. The trade for Bryce Brown adds insurance. Depth: GM Doug Whaley has assembled what appears to be a strong roster that could withstand injuries at almost every position. Quarterback and linebacker are two exceptions, but there are several quality backups on both sides of the ball. This also will help special teams perform better than they did last year.
EJ Manuel: We don't know much more about how Manuel can help the Bills win than we knew when they drafted him. The most prominent adjectives for Manuel have been "uninspiring," "injured" and "inaccurate." The Bills have insulated him from competition, declining to carry another quarterback with experience or pedigree before signing Kyle Orton on Friday. Manuel's best preseason moments came against backups. His stats have been buoyed by checkdown throws to his running backs and tight ends. Jim Kelly publicly bemoaned Manuel's ineffectiveness. Manuel and his coaches, though, have praised his steady progression and point out he played only 10 games last year. But asking for patience will be too much to ask of a frustrated fan base.
Discipline: The Bills endured embarrassments this summer. Dareus was arrested for synthetic pot possession, claimed it was a wake-up call and then crashed his car while racing with Hughes. The NFL could eventually suspend Dareus and receiver Mike Williams for repeat transgressions. Linebacker Nigel Bradham is suspended for the season opener from his 2013 marijuana arrest. Players fought at the end of training camp, when they're supposed to be most unified. Coach Doug Marrone and Hughes got into a shouting match. Released defensive tackle Alan Branch was arrested for drunken driving the morning after camp broke. Marquise Goodwin has ripped the fans on Twitter for booing.
Offensive line: The Bills could be good up front, with Eric Wood as the anchor. The concern, however, is that it was a mishmash for most of the summer. Franchise left tackle Cordy Glenn missed much of camp with an undisclosed illness. Left guard Chris Williams has been out with a back injury. Second-round pick Cyrus Kouandjio was earmarked for right tackle but has been a disappointment. Making up for Kouandjio, seventh-round pick Seantrel Henderson has been terrific.
Limit Manuel's liability: The Bills' offseason mission was to surround their young quarterback with help. They hired quarterbacks coach Todd Downing and senior offensive assistant Jim Hostler. The Bills spent two first-round picks on Watkins and took a chance by trading for Mike Williams. They're two receivers who can battle for jump balls and compensate for Manuel's off-target throws. The Bills bolstered their backfield to make sure they can run first and throw when they need to. The Bills made changes to three-fifths of their offensive line to keep Manuel safe.
Stopping the run: The Bills have been awful at this for a long time. Second- and third-string running backs have career afternoons against them. They've ranked better than 25th in run defense once the past nine years. Last year, they ranked 28th in rushing yards allowed, 23rd in yards per carry and dead last in runs of at least 20 yards.
47.7 percent: That's how often the Bills scored touchdowns when they reached the red zone last year, ranking 29th in the NFL. They actually posted the best red-zone scoring percentage at 95.5 percent, but that's because they kicked so many field goals. And they got there only 44 times, eighth-fewest in the league. In other words, they didn't get there often, and when they did, they couldn't generate touchdowns.
The Bills have the feeling of a fragile team. A couple bad breaks early in the season, and who knows how they'll respond? But perhaps they'll catch some breaks, too, and establish some desperately needed confidence. As redundant as it may sound, there's no getting around Manuel being the critical factor.
Projected record: 7-9.
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