Though the Buffalo Bills had an offense that was ranked first for several weeks in 2011, it was their much improved defense that stole this show the first week of OTAs in 2012.
Sure, quarterbacks coach David Lee was tweeting about the “confidence in Fitz’s eyes” and the receiving corps looked deep even with their leader, Stevie Johnson, nursing a surgically-repaired groin in street clothes, but it was the defense that provided the most promising news after the first week.
First year Bills defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt may have been sporting a neck brace this week after minor surgery (he’s had neck problems since 1974, when he was drafted by the Packers and spent his only NFL season on the injured reserve), but that didn’t mean he was interested in talking about last year’s injury plagued campaign, instead focusing on the potential he’s seeing for the upcoming season.
After a 2011 campaign that saw Buffalo ranked in the basement defensively almost across the board (their INTs aside, they were in the bottom half of just about every other category), fans must have been surprised and pleasantly reassured about the positives coming out of Orchard Park.
“It’s obvious that we’ve added talent, that’s no secret,” Wannstedt said. “The thing that excites me as much as anything is the talented guys that we brought in are good people that want to win and are willing to work.”
GM Buddy Nix seems to have truly examined the problems of last year and taken the proper steps to give his coaches what they need to succeed, putting the right pieces in place to make a run of it this season.
This includes offseason acquisitions Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, both of whom were impressing all week, with Mario looking as super as his price tag promised and Anderson being labeled the “quickest defensive feet” Wannstedt has on the squad (as well as bringing 88.5 combined career sacks to a team that ranked 25th).
Perhaps most surprising, though, was Shawne Merriman, looking better than anyone expected (without pads, that is) and leading many to hope that his Achilles problems are behind him (finally), so that he may be ready to start playing like he did his first few years in San Diego (2005-2007: 187 tackles, 39.5 sacks… that was the reason Buffalo picked him up in 2010). As an edge rusher in the 4-3 scheme, a healthy Merriman could see some real, impactful time on the field and be the weapon he’s been promising fans since coming to the Bills.
Even with Kyle Williams limited to mostly individual drills as he heals from foot surgery to remove bone spurs, the talented depth on display was impressive. With Williams healing much faster than expected and looking “to be 100 percent” come training camp, coach Wannstedt was nothing but enthusiastic while praising how the new 4-3 is working out so far in Buffalo and how well the Bills look suited to run it in 2012.
“It’s going to be a defensive line-friendly scheme, and by that I mean we’ll be as good as our guys up front play,” he said, adding, “The guys up front, it all starts there. If we can get a good rotation going, keep some guys healthy, you know that kind of sets the foundation.”
The foundation he speaks of looks solid, with talent all over the front four ranging from 2011 standout defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, looking to improve on his 43 tackle and 5.5 sack rookie season, to returning veteran defensive end Chris Kelsay, entering his tenth year in Buffalo and currently working out with the first team over Anderson at left end (Wannstedt said of Kelsay, “he’s a winner… there’s nobody that wants to win more than him”). This is in addition to Dwan Edwards (52 tackles, 2.5 sacks last year), and Spencer Johnson (47 tackles, 2 sacks).
Even the defensive backfield appears more lethal, with first-round selection Stephon Gilmore added to the mix and making real strides in his first pro week. He was already showing the type of speed and talent that will have him playing up to the expectations of a No. 10 pick and has him looking to fit well with this new attitude of winning on display in the Queen City.
“[Stephon’s] got the right mindset,” said Wannstedt in his press conference. “He’s got size and he can run. He’s got, and I use the word great, but he’s got great hand-eye coordination ball skills. If the ball’s in the air he’s going to go after it… nobody runs by him.”
Though there may still be some competition for that right end spot come training camp (Anderson? Kelsay?… Merriman???) and Gilmore isn’t guaranteed a starting role yet (Terrence McGee and Aaron Williams may still begin the year, or even Leodis McKelvin), the defense as a whole seems to be falling into place with relative ease (after observing padless drills, that is).
According to Wannstedt, the 4-3 transition is moving along swimmingly, saying, “We’ve got it organized pretty good…I think when we get to about day 11 or 12 we’ll be about ready to play a game really to be honest with you. The key will be to come back in training camp and start over again.”
With this much buzz after one week of OTAs, Bills fans should be salivating come training camp time and will be rabid with expectation come preseason games where they can finally see if all this spending, ado, and work will result in something they haven’t seen in Buffalo for 12 years: a shot at the playoffs. For a fanbase that has spent almost their entire existence mired in the mistakes of four straight Super Bowl losses, it’s just good to hear all positives coming out of Western New York in 2012.
How long that lasts… well… at least Bills fans won’t be complaining about a boring offseason.
Joshua Bauer is a writer at Football Nation