It was really a tale of two seasons for the Bills last year. In their first 7 games, they went 5-2, with a win over New England. Their only two losses came by a field goal against eventual playoff teams Cincinnati and the New York Giants (on the road), and their other 4 wins were at Kansas City, vs. Oakland, vs. Philadelphia, and vs. Washington.
They outscored their opponents 211 to 147, which extrapolates to 482 points for and 336 points against for a 16 game season, totals that would have ranked 4th and 12th respectively if sustained over the whole season. Those numbers also translate to a Pythagorean Expectation of about 11.2 wins. However, the Bills won just 1 of their final 9 games, finishing 6-10 with 372 points for (14th) and 434 points against (30th) and a Pythagorean Expectation of just 6.6 wins.
So what happened? Did the Bills prove their first 7 games were a fluke? Maybe, but injuries also had a lot to do with it. Ryan Fitzpatrick, whose breakout performance in the team’s first 7 games earned him a shiny new contract extension, suffered a rib injury week 8 against the Redskins, cracking 4 ribs and injuring his sternum, and was not the same afterwards.
In his first 7 games, Fitzpatrick completed 155 of 229 (67.7%) for 1739 yards (7.6 YPA), 14 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. In his final 9, he completed 198 of 340 (58.2%) for 2093 yards (6.2 YPA), 10 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions. That’s a big part of the reason why their offense went from 30.1 points per game in their first 7 to 18.1 points per game in their final 9.
Of course, Fitzpatrick was not helped by injuries to members of his supporting cast. Fred Jackson, an early MVP candidate, went down for the season week 11, after rushing for 934 yards and 6 touchdowns on 170 carries (5.5 YPC), while adding another 442 yards on 39 catches in the air. Meanwhile, key offensive linemen Eric Wood and Demetress (then Demetrius) Bell also suffered injuries with Wood going down for the year week 10 and Bell missing 9 games from week 4 to week 14.
After surrendering just 8 sacks, 13 quarterback hits, and 28 quarterback pressures in their first 9 games, they surrendered 11 sacks, 8 quarterback hits, and 42 quarterback pressures in their final 7 games. This is significant because Ryan Fitzpatrick’s under pressure accuracy percentage (doesn’t count drops, throw aways, hit as throwns, spikes, or batted passes) was just 53.3% last season, 29th out of 35 eligible quarterbacks. In 2010, his first season as a full-time starter, he ranked 33rd out of 34 players under pressure, by being accurate of 50.0% of his under pressure snaps. He also threw 8 picks to 2 touchdowns under pressure.
This doesn’t necessarily mean Fitzpatrick’s performance in their first 7 weeks wasn’t somewhat fluky. After all, Fitzpatrick’s career before those 7 games was not exactly dominant, completing 679 of 1175 (57.8%) for 7104 yards (6.0 YPA), 44 touchdowns, and 42 interceptions in his career prior to last season, numbers that look eerily similar to how he played in his final 9 games last season. There’s also no guarantee he won’t get hurt again.
Still, it’s no coincidence that Fitzpatrick’s play, and the play of the team, got much worse when he got hurt and had to start playing injured and when several other key offensive players got hurt. They won’t score the 30.1 points per game they scored in their first 7 games, but they should be improved over the 23.2 points per game they finished with. He’s got a limited arm, completing just 17 of 58 passes deeper than 20+ yards in the air and going deep on just 10.2% of his attempts, but in Chan Gailey’s system, he’s capable of game managing a team to victory so long as he’s protected well.
One of the reasons to believe in Fitzpatrick this year is how good his offensive line is. Fitzpatrick has proven that he can lead an effective offense if given time in the pocket and the Bills have one of the best offensive lines in the league at doing that. Even with two major injuries, the Bills ranked first in pass blocking efficiency and allowed Fitzpatrick to be pressured on just 21.8% of his drop backs, 2nd best in the NFL.
Fitzpatrick also helps himself out with a quick release, taking a sack on just 15.6% of his pressured snaps, 8th best in the league, but his completion percentage plummets when pressured and he can get very erratic with the football (8 interceptions to 2 touchdowns). And they were even better before injuries struck, allowing just 8 sacks, 13 quarterback hits, and 28 quarterback pressures in their first 9 games. Over 16 games, that’s an incredible 14 sacks, 23 quarterback hits, 49 quarterback quarterbacks if they could keep that up. They also ranked a decent 15th as run blockers on ProFootballFocus.
Eric Wood is back. Despite only playing in 9 games last season, he finished the year as ProFootballFocus’ 7th best center, run blocking well, allowing just 1 quarterback hit and 2 quarterback pressures, not allowing a sack and committing only 2 penalties. The presence of the 2009 1st round pick in the lineup undoubtedly helps and,if he can play all 16 games this season, it would be a huge boost.
Demetrius Bell is not back, but he never could stay healthy anyway. To replace him, the Bills used a 2nd round pick on Cordy Glenn. Glenn was not seen by many as someone who could stay at left tackle at the next level, which is why he fell to the 2nd round, but the Bills think he can and he’ll start there week 1. He’ll be an upgrade over Chris Hairston, who allowed 4 sacks, 6 quarterback hits, and 9 quarterback pressures, while run blocking poorly and committing 4 penalties in essentially 7 starts. The Bills also tried Andy Levitre at left tackle. He played better than Hairston, but he’s much better as a left guard.
Making 12 starts at left guard (3 at left tackle, 1 at center), Levitre was ProFootballFocus’ 6th rated guard, allowing 4 sacks, 1 quarterback hits, and 7 quarterback pressures, while committing 4 penalties and run blocking well. He was only average at left tackle, where he allowed 1 sack and 4 quarterback pressures in 3 starters and he also made a start at center, showing off his versatility, though he was his worst at center. He’s never missed a start in 3 seasons after going in the 2nd round in 2009 and having him for 16 games at left guard will definitely be a boost.
At right guard, Kraig Urbik and Chad Rinehart will compete for the starting job. Urbik was the week 1 starter last year, but also played some left guard and center when needed and missed two games himself, which allowed Rinehart to get a good amount of playing time. In fact, Rinehart played more snaps than Urbik did and outplayed him according to ProFootballFocus.
Both are excellent pass protectors, as Rinehart allowed 0 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, and 8 quarterback pressures and Urbik allowed 0 sacks, 0 quarterback hits, and 3 quarterback pressures, but Rinehart was the better run blocker and overall player. Urbik was better at guard than at center, but Rinehart should win this job. It’ll be close in Training Camp though and whoever wins should be an above average starter and whoever loses will provide solid depth as both players are good enough to start.
Right tackle Erik Pears is another solid player, especially in pass protection, allowing 4 sacks, 4 quarterback hits, and 27 quarterback pressures, while committing 7 penalties, though he struggled as a run blocker. The Bills don’t have the biggest names up front, but they play very well as a unit, especially in pass protection, which is more important, especially with Fitzpatrick under center. The one question mark is Cordy Glenn at left tackle, but they should rank among the top-5 pass blocking lines in the league at least, after being the #1 rated pass blocking line in the league last year, in spite of injuries.
While they don’t run block that well, they run incredibly well, averaging 4.9 YPC last season, 5th in the league. They missed Fred Jackson when he went down, obviously, because he was an MVP candidate prior to his injury, but not too much because CJ Spiller, the 9th pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, played almost as well in his absence. Spiller averaged 5.2 yards per carry on 107 carries last season, giving him 561 yards and 2 touchdowns, while catching 39 passes for another 269 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Bills have two legitimate #1 backs right now and will use both of them.
Fred Jackson rushed for 934 yards and 6 touchdowns on 170 carries (5.5 YPC) in 10 games, while adding another 442 yards on 39 catches in the air. He’s heading into his age 31 season, but he does only have 817 career carries after spending so many years working his way up as an undrafted free agent out of Division-III Coe. He certainly didn’t look like an older back last season and Spiller has proven himself worthy of a larger workload, which will help keep Jackson, who doesn’t have much of a prior injury history, healthy. They’ll be one of the best running teams in the league and that, along with their offensive line, will really help Fitzpatrick.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Ryan Fitzpatrick is also helped out by #1 receiver Steve Johnson. Johnson broke out in 2010, once Fitzpatrick became the starting quarterback, catching 71 passes for 930 yards and 10 touchdowns in 13 games with Fitzpatrick as the starting quarterback. Over 16 games, that’s 87 catches for 1145 yards and 12 touchdowns.
In 2011, he caught 76 passes for 1004 yards and 7 touchdowns, despite playing through a groin injury for most of the season. In his first 7 games last year, when Fitzpatrick was healthy, he caught 39 passes for 439 yards and 4 touchdowns, good for 89 catches for 1003 yards and 9 touchdowns over 16 games. Now fully healthy, with Fitzpatrick fully healthy, he could have a career best season in 2012 and catch upwards of 85 balls for 1100 yards and possibly double digit touchdowns.
Unfortunately, the rest of his receiving corps is not quite figured out yet. The Bills essentially have 4 guys competing for the #2 receiver spot. David Nelson was their 2nd leading receiver last year, playing both on the slot and outside and catching 61 passes for 658 yards and 5 touchdowns. Even if he doesn’t win a starting job, he’ll probably be the slot guy. Donald Jones, a 2010 undrafted free agent, might be the favorite to start opposite Johnson this season, but he’s caught just 41 passes for 444 yards and 2 touchdowns in 2 seasons.
Derek Hagan is another option. He spent part of last year in Oakland as well, where he was a preseason standout and caught 5 passes for 61 yards in a loss to the Bills. When the Raiders let him go, the Bills, undoubtedly remembering his performance against them, decided to give him a shot. He caught 7 passes for 89 yards in the season finale, but did little else all season, catching just 24 passes for 252 yards and a score. He’s a career journeyman who hasn’t had much success anywhere.
The 4th candidate is 3rd round rookie TJ Graham, who has an outside shot right now at both a starting job and a slot job, but he’ll probably end up working his way up the depth chart as the season goes along. He should start the year as the 5th receiver. He’s incredibly athletic, but incredibly raw with only one year of starting experience at wide receiver at the collegiate level. He’s also a deadly return man, but the Bills don’t seem to want to use him there, even as a rookie. CJ Spiller could also see some action at wide receiver, as they try to figure out creative ways to use their backup running back.
The Bills don’t use tight ends very often, but when they did last year, it was primarily Scott Chandler, who played just 533 snaps, primarily as a blocker. He’s a good run blocker and a solid receiver, who caught 38 passes for 389 yards and 6 touchdowns last season. He’s especially useful around the goal line at 6-7 263. The rest of their tight ends totaled just 256 snaps played.
The tight end position isn’t a position that Chan Gailey’s offense uses much as they prefer to spread it out and use multiple wide receivers. They also pass to the backs frequently, as Spiller and Jackson combined for 78 catches last year. The Bills do have multiple receivers, but only one who is above average, Steve Johnson. They do run the ball well and have a strong offensive line though and they should be a solid offensive squad, provided Fitzpatrick doesn’t get hurt or prove that his strong start to last year was a complete fluke. As long as they can protect him well, which they should be able to, he should be able to game manage this offense well.
Even if the Bills aren’t improved offensively (which I think they will be), they’ll definitely be improved defensively. The Bills ranked 30th in the league last year, allowing 27.1 points per game. The biggest problem was that they couldn’t get to the quarterback at all, managing just 29 sacks. Only 2 teams had fewer and 9 of those 29 sacks came in one game against Washington’s terrible offensive line. No one had more than 6 sacks and only 3 players had more than 3 sacks. After the addition of Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, that won’t be a problem in 2012.
The Bills also get back Kyle Williams from injury, one of the league’s best defensive linemen when healthy, and they might actually get something from Shawne Merriman, who missed most of last season with an Achilles injury after teasing Bills fans with a strong Preseason. On top of this, they have several young players who could make a major impact. This could actually be a pretty strong group this season.
The Bills are moving to a full time 4-3 scheme this year. They get Kyle Williams back at defensive tackle and add Mario Williams and Mark Anderson at defensive end. Williams was ProFootballFocus’ #1 rated defensive tackle in 2010, over 16 points ahead of any other defensive tackle. In fact, only 4 defensive players finished the season with a higher rating than Williams did and they were all edge rushers. However, his 2011 season consisted of only 225 snaps before going down for the season with a broken foot week 5.
He’ll play inside at defensive tackle with Marcell Dareus and, barring a struggle adjusting to a pure 4-3 scheme from a hybrid, he should be one of the better defensive tackles in the league this season. Dareus could also be one of the best defensive tackles in the league this year. As a rookie, the 3rd overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft was ProFootballFocus’ 12th rated defensive tackle (he also played some 3-4 defensive end).
He played the run well and rusher the passer well and had 6 sacks, 7 quarterback hits, and 24 quarterback pressures on 407 pass rushes, good for an impressive 9.1% rate. He could be even better in his 2nd season in the league and the sky is the limit for this #3 overall pick. Spencer Johnson, who started in Williams’ absence last year and played pretty poorly, will provide depth, but won’t be needed much, barring injuries, which is a good thing.
Outside, the two big additions are Mario Williams and Anderson. Williams missed 11 games with injury last season, but the 2006 1st overall pick had missed a combined 3 games in 4 seasons before last year, so he should be pretty reliable. In 82 career games, he has 53 sacks and plays the run incredibly well, as you would expect out of a 6-6 292 pound defensive end.
Last year, he had 5 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, and 17 quarterback pressures on just 126 pass rush snaps, an incredible 19.0% rate. That’s obviously not sustainable over a whole season, but from 2008-2010 he had 33 sacks, 43 quarterback hits, and 102 quarterback pressures on 1537 pass rush snaps, good for a 11.6% rate that ranks among the league’s best over that time period. He was a top-15 defensive end on ProFootballFocus in each of those 3 seasons.
Opposite him, Mark Anderson is not quite as proven. He had 15 sacks, 6 quarterback hits, and 36 quarterback pressures on 420 pass rush snaps last season, an incredible 13.6% rate, but in 5 years prior he managed just 25 sacks and only surpassed 5 sacks once, when he recorded 12 sacks as a rookie in 2006. He also wasn’t an every down end in New England last year and could get tired out and become less efficient in a larger role in Buffalo this year.
Still, after the season he just had, he was definitely worth the risk on a deal with only one year’s salary guaranteed (8 million). He’ll see plenty of single blocking with defenses forced to focus on Mario Williams, wherever he’s lined up (Williams could play defensive tackle on passing downs), and he could definitely have another 10+ sack season. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Bills had two pass rushers in double digits this year.
Another player who could be a significant addition to their pass rush is Shawne Merriman, who is competing for the nickel rusher job. Merriman has just 5 sacks in the last 4 seasons, but he had 40 sacks in 3 years from 2005-2007 in San Diego. He can’t seem to stay healthy, playing in just 23 games over the last 4 years, but he’s healthy now and reportedly putting on quite the show in practice. That was also the case last offseason, before he ended up getting hurt again, but he might be able to give them something as a situational player this year, though he definitely will never be his old self again.
If not, Chris Kelsay will probably be the nickel rusher. He was sadly one of their best pass rushers last season, but only by default as he had just 5 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, and 16 quarterback pressures on 277 pass rush snaps, an 8.3% rate. He’s heading into his age 33 season so he’s not getting any better. It would obviously be better if Merriman could give them something this year, but Kelsay is adequate depth if needed.
With the additions of Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, the return of Kyle Williams from injury, Marcell Dareus heading into his 3rd season, and Shawne Merriman possibly coming back, this defensive line could go from one of the worst in the league in 2011 to one of the best in 2012. They ranked 27th in the league allowing 4.8 YPC and only 2 teams had fewer sacks than their 29. They could have one of the highest sack totals in the league this season and they could be one of the best run defense teams as well.
The Bills are switching from a hybrid 3-4/4-3 scheme to a pure 4-3 scheme so their linebacking corps will look a little different. Nick Barnett will remain an every down linebacker, only he’ll play 4-3 outside linebacker rather than 3-4 middle linebacker. He’s an above average starter, but he’s heading into his age 31 season and he’s spent the last few seasons in a 3-4 in Green Bay and Buffalo. Still, he should be a solid player in coverage and against the run once again.
Kelvin Sheppard will remain in the middle and play an every down role this season, unlike last season. The 2011 3rd round pick has slimmed down about 10-15 pounds in order to drop into coverage better, something he struggled with last season. He admits he was out of shape last season, but still played very well, especially as a run stuffer. He managed 70 tackles (46 solo, 24 assisted) last season and ranked 21st among all middle linebackers on ProFootballFocus against the run, despite only playing 442 snaps.
Sheppard was even better in his final 9 games, where he had 59 of his 70 tackles, despite still only playing in 369 of his team’s 592 snaps over that period. Perhaps most impressive, Sheppard only missed 1 tackle, fewest among eligible middle linebackers. He could have a breakout season in 2012 as an every down linebacker now that he’s back in shape.
Kirk Morrison will be the 3rd linebacker and only play two-downs and come out in two-linebacker sets. He barely played at all last year, playing just 60 snaps. He wasn’t hurt or anything, but the Bills’ coaching staff just really didn’t like the way he fit in their 3-4 defense. Back in a 4-3, which he played in for the rest of his career before last season, he should become a decent starter once again. He’ll only really need to stop the run, something he used to be one of the best in the league at doing. He ranked 24th in 2010, 4th in 2009, and 5th in 2008 against the run on ProFootballFocus among middle linebackers. That shouldn’t change now that he’s playing outside. This is a solid group of linebackers.
One of the biggest reasons that the Bills couldn’t stop anyone was because they allowed 7.7 YPA, 25th in the league. A much improved pass rush will really help, but they did need to upgrade their talent in the secondary as well. With that in mind, the Bills used the 10th overall pick on a cornerback, Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore has immediately been inserted into the starting lineup and many people have raved about his performance in the offseason, but defensive backs normally take a year or two to adjust to the NFL. Even Patrick Peterson struggled mightily in coverage as a mere rookie last season. He will be helped by their strong pass rush.
Starting opposite him will be Aaron Williams, a 2011 2nd round pick. Williams struggled in coverage in a limited role last season, allowing 22 completions on 39 attempts (59.5%) for 356 yards (9.1 YPA), 5 touchdowns and 1 interception, while deflecting 3 passes and committing 4 penalties. His QB rating allowed was 4th worst in the NFL (120.0). However, he was just a rookie so you can’t really hold that against him. He finished the season in the starting lineup in place of an injured Leodis McKelvin and will start this season there.
With two young and highly drafted cornerbacks, the future looks bright at cornerback and, while they’re young, they should be an upgrade over Drayton Florence and Leodis McKelvin, the starters last season. McKelvin allowed 27 completions on 45 attempts (60.0%) for 455 yards (10.1 YPA), 3 touchdowns and 1 interception, while deflecting 7 passes and committing 1 penalty. Florence meanwhile, ranked 89th out of 98 cornerbacks on ProFootballFocus, allowing 44 completions on 73 attempts (60.3%) for 714 yards (9.8 YPA), 6 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while deflecting 5 passes and committing 9 penalties. With a better pass rush, they should be an average team against the pass this season.
Florence is gone, while McKelvin will compete with 3 other guys for the nickel cornerback job. McKelvin, a bust as the 11th overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, will compete with Terence McGee, who is heading into his age 32 season and coming off an injury plagued season in which he barely played, Justin Rogers, a 2011 7th round pick who is impressing this offseason, and Ron Brooks, a 4th round rookie. Rogers is considered the favorite right now, while either of the two veterans, McKelvin and McGee, could be cut if that happens because they make the most money. Brooks’ roster spot is obviously safe as a 4th round rookie. Rogers may be impressing this offseason, but he’s still inexperienced, playing just 216 snaps as a rookie last year.
At safety, things are better looking, thanks to Jairus Byrd, one of the league’s best safeties and most underrated players. Byrd, a 2009 2nd round pick, was ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked safety last season, playing the run well and covering well. He’s improved in every season of his career according to his ProFootballFocus rating and now is a complete safety, rather than just a pure ball hawk which he was in 2009, when he had 9 interceptions. Opposite him is George Wilson, a solid starter who is better against the run than in coverage and who is heading into his age 31 season. There’s a lot of talent on this defense, a lot more than last season and this should be a much improved unit from last season to this season for many reasons.
Chan Gailey hasn’t had a lot of success with the Bills, going 10-22 in the last 2 seasons, but then again, no one has had success with the Bills recently as they haven’t made the playoffs since 1999, the longest streak in the NFL. He does look poised to take them to the playoffs sometime soon, possibly even this season, and he went 18-14 in 2 seasons with the Cowboys in the late 90s. He also has a 68-41 record at the collegiate level as a Head Coach.
Every year there’s one team who makes it to the playoffs on the strength of a strong running game and defense, a game managing quarterback, and a weak schedule. Last year it was the 49ers and the Bengals. In 2010, it was the Chiefs and to some extent the Jets. In 2009, it was the Jets again, etc. The Bills have the look of that type of team this season.
They have a much improved defense with one of the league’s best defensive lines, two legitimate starting running backs, and a very strong offensive line that will give Ryan Fitzpatrick the time he needs to game manage this offense to success. Barring any major injuries or complete regression by Fitzpatrick, they will be in the playoff race and I have them making it, sneaking in from the inferior AFC, and snapping a 12 season non-playoff streak.
The schedule is a big part of it too. They rank tied for 3rd in terms of easiest schedule in 2012, based on opponent’s 2011 records. They play just 4 games against teams I have making the playoffs as they face the NFC West and AFC South, in addition to their own pretty easy division. Outside of those 3 divisions, they also face Kansas City and Cleveland.
Aside from New England, their divisional schedule is not hard. They could go 4-2 or 3-3 in the division. Outside of the division, they host Kansas City, Tennessee, St. Louis, Jacksonville, and Seattle. The best two teams in that bunch might be St. Louis and Seattle, who struggle on the road. Tennessee is a big unknown this season because we don’t know who their quarterback will be and how he’ll play. They could take 4 of those games. Their other 5 games send them to Cleveland, San Francisco, Arizona, Houston, and Indianapolis. I have 3 of those teams winning 6 or fewer games so even though they’re road games, they could take 2 or 3 of them. I have the Bills at 10-6.
Projection: 10-6 2nd in AFC East