IN AN ERA of exploding offenses, a good way to vault to respectability is to revamp your defense, particularly the pass rush. Consider the five teams that made the playoffs last season after finishing 6--10 or worse in 2010: the 49ers, Bengals, Broncos, Lions and Texans. Detroit was the outlier—thank a healthy Matthew Stafford for its improvement. The other four had a lot in common. They averaged 15 fewer yards per game on offense than in the previous year but also allowed an average of 40 fewer yards per game. That stinginess correlated with more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The quartet averaged 14 more sacks than in '10, which translated to an average jump of 17 spots up the NFL sack rankings.
The Bills took note. On March 15 they signed defensive end Mario Williams, 27, the most talented pass rusher to hit the open market since Reggie White. The news sent shock waves around the league and even down to a remote Costa Rican resort where Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick searched for updates on the lone Internet-connected computer. Six days later Buffalo added defensive end Mark Anderson, whose 10 sacks tied for the Patriots' lead last year.
The impact was immediate. "Mark's quickness speaks for itself, but Mario surprises you," says center Eric Wood. "He's almost 300 pounds [6'6", 292], but he's got the fastest first two steps I've seen. We have plays that we simply can't run to his side—or even away from him, based on blocking schemes. It just doesn't work with that caliber of player. It's awesome having one of those on our team."
Williams will play on the left and Anderson on the right in the new 4--3 scheme installed by first-year defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt. Teamed with skilled incumbent tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, they will instantly give the Bills one of the league's best defensive lines. Buffalo should quickly surpass last season's meager sack total of 29, and coach Chan Gailey believes the pass rush's impact will be felt everywhere. "It'll make our coverage better," he says. "And when the defense gets better, the offense gets better. It all fits together."
Everything flows from Mario Williams, whom the Texans made the No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft. Williams found it painful to watch as Houston reached the playoffs for the first time last January—he had suffered a season-ending torn pectoral muscle in October—and he says it was a "shock" to him that Texans G.M. Rick Smith chose not to try to re-sign him. Once he got over it, Williams made the unusual decision for a top free agent to make Buffalo, with its frigid weather, small-town lifestyle and recent losing tradition, the first place he visited.
That Buffalo also proved the last place Williams visited had something to do with the contract the Bills offered him. It is the richest ever for a defender, six years and up to $100 million, with $50 million guaranteed. But his insistence that he chose Buffalo for reasons that extend beyond the financial seems genuine. On his first night in town, he sat with defensive line coach Giff Smith and Kyle Williams—like Anderson, an old friend from the '06 draft combine—in the team's practice facility until three in the morning, but it took only a fraction of that time for him to become convinced that he'd fit in well with the Bills' scheme. What he really wanted to discuss was his potential new hometown. "You play football, yes, but half the time you're going to be at your house, at the grocery store, walking around," he says. "I saw how laid back things are here. I felt like I was back in the country in North Carolina, where I'm from. It was home."
So all the things that have so often kept free agents from signing with Buffalo gave the Bills their biggest prize, a player who will terrorize opposing quarterbacks and the local fauna in equal measure. ("There's deer everywhere," says Williams, a bow hunter.) The result should be a long-awaited return to relevance for a team that hasn't made the playoffs since the 1999 season. "When people talk about the AFC East, they shouldn't just be talking about the Jets and the Patriots," says safety George Wilson. "They need to start considering us."
WITH 2011 STATS
OFFENSE 2011 RANK: 14
(N) New acquisition
(R) Rookie—College stats
TTD Total touchdowns
SACKS Sacks allowed
HOLD Holding penalties
FALSE False starts
2011 Record: 6--10
9 at New York Jets
16 Kansas City
23 at Cleveland
30 New England
7 at San Francisco
14 at Arizona
4 at Houston
11 at New England
15 Miami (Thu)
25 at Indianapolis
9 St. Louis
23 at Miami
30 New York Jets
During the Bills' 5--2 start last year, Fitzpatrick, 29, threw 14 TDs and seven interceptions and had a 97.8 rating. His numbers for the rest of season: 10 TDs, 16 picks and a 66.5 rating, as Buffalo lost eight of its final nine. Cynics looking for an explanation might point to the six-year, $59 million extension ($24 million guaranteed) Fitzpatrick signed last Oct. 28. That is what makes them cynics.
More likely, Fitzpatrick's struggles came down to injuries—the cracked ribs he suffered in a win over Washington on Oct. 30 and season-ending blows to center Eric Wood (who tore his right ACL on Nov. 13) and running back Fred Jackson (who broke his right leg the next week). All three are now healthy, and Fitzpatrick should further benefit from the mechanical refinements he worked on in the off-season with new QB coach David Lee. "My footwork was all over the place," Fitzpatrick says, "but David's very big on fundamentals, and now I'm not throwing across my body as much. I've noticed a big change." With their suddenly formidable defense, the Bills don't necessarily need Fitzpatrick to play like the elite quarterback he was through last October. Average might be enough.
League-leading number of plays that Buffalo ran in four-wide-receiver sets in 2011, twice as many as second-place Arizona's 153.
Opponents' rushing attempts when the Bills were in a dime package, more than seven times the NFL average. Buffalo yielded 6.0 yards per carry on those rushes.
Yards after contact per rushing attempt by running back Fred Jackson (who played only 10 games), tops in the league.
SCOTT BOEHM/AP (WILLIAMS)
Super Mario joins three other standouts to give Buffalo one of the league's most formidable lines.
HEINZ KLUETMEIER (FITZPATRICK)