Phil Hansen, the 11th-year defensive end, was puzzled as he sat
in on the first meeting with his new coordinator, Jerry Gray.
He'd heard that Buffalo was going to abandon the 3-4 defense it
had used since 1979, the longest-running 3-4 act in the NFL. The
intricate mesh of read and react that the Bills had employed
while finishing as the league's third-ranked defense last year,
following a year in which they were quietly No. 1, was being
scrapped in favor of a more active hit-the-gap approach. What he
and his fellow defenders wanted to know was why.
"Coach Gray said to us, 'Do you know who had the No. 1 defense in
the league last year?'" Hansen recalls. "That was an easy one.
'The Ravens,' we all said. 'Wrong,' he said. 'It was the
Baltimore set a 16-game-season record for fewest points allowed,
but the league uses yards allowed to determine its team defensive
leaders. Tennessee was tops in that category. The Titans weren't
too shabby in the points department either, permitting only two
more offensive touchdowns than the Ravens had. Tennessee's
defensive coordinator last season was Gregg Williams, who is now
the coach in Buffalo.
The Bills have been top-heavy on defense ever since quarterback
Jim Kelly retired in 1997. So it was only natural for Buffalo to
hire a coach with a defensive background to replace the fired
Wade Phillips, and what the Bills got in Williams was one of the
least known but most respected individuals in the business.
In 11 years with the Oilers-Titans, Williams worked under Buddy
Ryan and Ryan disciple Jeff Fisher, so he got a thorough
education in the Bears' 46 defense. From his first boss in
Houston, Jack Pardee, he got a taste of the George Allen style:
Crash the pocket and pick up the run on the go. As one of the
first quality-control assistant coaches, he says he learned to
look for small hints, "how a lineman plants his hands, how he
positions his feet, which will tip off a draw or a screen." He
became intrigued with the Bud Carson system of crowding the box
with eight men and then having the linebackers and strong safety
fly off into their coverages just before the snap, an approach
that was based on reading the tip-offs. "As soon as I saw that, I
said to myself, That's for me," Williams says. He became what he
calls "a historian, an avid reader of old football books." But he
also became a whipper, "the extrovert and disciplinarian," he
says, for Pardee and Fisher, low-key types.
Williams faced a daunting problem when he took over in Buffalo:
The Bills were $19 million over the salary cap. Defense was
sacrificed for offense. They couldn't afford to match the
Chargers' offer for pass-rushing end Marcellus Wiley. Three more
starters, nosetackle Ted Washington and linebackers John Holecek
and Sam Rogers, were trimmed. There was room for one big signing,
and that was for game-breaking wideout Eric Moulds, who settled
for less money than he could have gotten elsewhere in order to
stay with what he calls "a team that has a chance to win, a team
with a defense that can take the other team's quarterback out of
Williams will have a chance to work his magic with a defense
that, except for a pair of standouts, looks good but not great on
paper. Sam Cowart, an active, athletic linebacker, will be the
middle man in a 4-3 for the first time in his four-year career.
"He'll be on the field for every one of our 13 packages,"
Williams says. Then there's cornerback Antoine Winfield, small
but ferocious. "He plays as if his hair's on fire," personnel
director Dwight Adams says.
On offense, the release of Doug Flutie means that Rob Johnson has
the quarterback job all to himself this year. Johnson will be in
a quick-read, quick-pass system, but no one knows how he'll hold
up. Last year he held the ball while waiting for his receivers to
clear. He went down time and again and finished with the worst
sack-to-drop-back ratio in the league.
Buffalo fans remember the way the season ended. Johnson came
apart in two late games, and the Bills blew a playoff shot. What
they don't remember, however, is that until those unfortunate
outings, Johnson had had his moments. Through 13 weeks he was
among the league leaders with a 91.9 rating.
Running will be by committee, just as it was last season. The
offensive line is a work in progress. The question is whether
Williams's new defense can cover for an attack that survives,
rather than thrives, just as the Ravens did last year.
RCOLOR PHOTO: ICHARD MACKSON After 10 seasons Hansen is having to learn a new scheme, but his primary job is still to stuff the run.
COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON WINFIELD
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Bills
"I think that most of the teams on the Bills' schedule are glad
they'll be facing Rob Johnson instead of Doug Flutie. Johnson's
kind of skinny, and I'm not sure he'll be able to stay
healthy.... The rhythm offense will take away the skills of their
best offensive player, Eric Moulds, one of the top deep threats
in the game.... But with that line, maybe that offense is best
for them. It's not a very talented group. When Ruben Brown came
in as a rookie [in 1995], I thought he'd be All-Pro every season,
but he's been slipping ever since. Losing Jerry Ostroski [out
indefinitely after breaking his right leg], their right guard, is
really going to hurt them. All he does is get people blocked....
They don't have a good blocking back to pick up the blitz. If
they leave Jay Riemersma in to help with protection, they're
losing what he's best at, third-down receptions, especially in
the red zone. If they leave Larry Centers in, well, then what did
they sign him for? ...I'm curious to see how Pat Williams does.
Everybody knew he was better than Ted Washington last year, but
Williams was playing for the big contract. Now that he's signed
long term, will he have the same intensity? ...I respect Phil
Hansen and Henry Jones, even though both are on the downside, and
Sam Cowart is a good enough athlete to excel as a 4-3
linebacker.... I love Antoine Winfield, just as I loved him in
college. His durability might be a problem, though, because he
plays so hard."
Sept. 9 NEW ORLEANS
16 at Miami
23 at Indianapolis
Oct. 7 N.Y. JETS
14 Open date
18 at Jacksonville (Thurs.)
28 at San Diego
Nov. 4 INDIANAPOLIS
11 at New England
Dec. 2 at San Francisco
16 NEW ENGLAND
23 at Atlanta
30 at N.Y. Jets
2001 SCHEDULE STRENGTH
NFL Rank: 27
Opponents' 2000 winning percentage: .469
Games against playoff teams: 5
with 2000 statistics
COACH: Gregg Williams; first season with Buffalo (0-0 in NFL)
2000 Record: 8-8 (fourth in AFC East)
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total): offense 13/11/9; defense 6/4/3
OFFENSIVE BACKS PVR*
QB Rob Johnson 71 306 att. 175 comp. 57.2% 2,125 yds.
12 TDs 7 int. 82.2 rtg.
RB Travis Henry 100 253 att. 1,314 yds. 5.2 avg. 13 rec.
(R)[N] 65 yds. 5.0 avg. 11 TDs
RB Shawn Bryson 166 161 att. 591 yds. 3.7 avg. 32 rec.
271 yds. 8.5 avg. 2 TDs
FB Larry Centers[N] 85 19 att. 103 yds. 5.4 avg. 81 rec.
600 yds. 7.4 avg. 3 TDs
RECEIVERS, SPECIALISTS, OFFENSIVE LINEMEN
WR Eric Moulds 58 94 rec. 1,326 yds. 5 TDs
WR Peerless Price 197 52 rec. 762 yds. 3 TDs
WR Jeremy McDaniel 203 43 rec. 697 yds. 2 TDs
TE Jay Riemersma 152 31 rec. 372 yds. 5 TDs
K Steve Christie 231 31/31 XPs 26/35 FGs 109 pts.
PR Peerless Price 197 5 ret. 5.4 avg. 0 TDs
KR Sammy Morris 290 1 ret. 17.0 avg. 0 TDs
LT John Fina 6'5" 300 lbs. 14 games 14 starts
LG Ruben Brown 6'3" 304 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Bill Conaty 6'2" 300 lbs. 16 games 0 starts
RG Corey Hulsey 6'5" 345 lbs. 0 games 0 starts
RT Jonas Jennings (R)[N]6'3" 320 lbs. 11 games 11 starts
LE Phil Hansen 27 tackles 2 sacks
LT Shawn Price 25 tackles 1 sack
RT Pat Williams 55 tackles 2 1/2 sacks
RE Erik Flowers 20 tackles 2 sacks
OLB Keith Newman 63 tackles 8 sacks
MLB Sam Cowart 130 tackles 5 1/2 sacks
OLB Jay Foreman 63 tackles 0 sacks
CB Antoine Winfield 49 tackles 1 int.
SS Henry Jones 70 tackles 2 int.
FS Keion Carpenter 33 tackles 5 int.
CB Ken Irvin 32 tackles 2 int.
P Brian Moorman[N] 38 punts 45.6 avg.
[N]New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 119)
1998 college statistics
"I think that most teams are glad they'll be facing Johnson
instead of Flutie."