Offseason moves help Bills address needs on D to close gap on Patriots

by | Senior NFL Columnist

Dave Wannstedt takes over the Bills' D, and his focus is on putting the squeeze on QBs. (Getty Images)  
Dave Wannstedt takes over the Bills' D, and his focus is on putting the squeeze on QBs. (Getty Images)  

PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- If you play in the AFC East, you have one objective, and that's to catch New England. Somehow, some way, you must line up a team, devise a strategy, produce a formula ... something ... that makes you competitive with the perennial division champions.

And Buffalo just did.

Now let's get something straight: I'm not saying the Bills are going to the top of the AFC East, because they're not. New England is. But the Bills could be headed to the playoffs for the first time since 1999 because they're built to defend ... and, yes, overcome ... the mighty Patriots, a club that's defeated them 18 of 20 times when Tom Brady is throwing the football.

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And there's the problem: Tom Brady.

If you're going to beat New England, you'd better flummox its star quarterback, and the Bills haven't. Brady has 46 touchdowns and 17 interceptions against them, and, granted, the Bills sacked him 38 times in his career -- or nearly twice a game. They almost always lose.

But start squeezing him, and Buffalo just might squeeze the Patriots, too. It worked for the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI, and it worked in Super Bowl XLII.

Those games proved that great pass rushers can trump great quarterbacks, and Buffalo took notes. The Bills last year produced only 29 sacks -- including 10 in one game -- which means they had 19 in the other 15, and that's not good. So something had to be done, and something was: The Bills spent the big bucks on free-agents Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, and now ...

Well, now maybe Buffalo can pressure Brady and others with its front four, which is the idea with Dave Wannstedt taking over as the team's new defensive coordinator. Wannstedt was there when Dallas built a defense to catch San Francisco in the 1990s, and while the target has changed in two decades the objective hasn't.

It's all about taking down the top dog, and New England is it.

"We've got to beat New England," said general manager Buddy Nix. "That's the M.O. There's no use in lying about it. I used to say, 'We don't pay attention to what other people do,' but we pay attention to who's winning. And I admire what New England has done. They're at the top of the heap, and that's where we want to go."

The Bills have the ammunition to get there, and New England should know. They were victims of a furious Buffalo comeback last year that ended their 15-game winning streak over Buffalo. It was a signature victory that demonstrated to Nix, coach Chan Gailey and the Bills' players that maybe there's not that much that separates the two teams after all.

OK, and maybe there is.

Buffalo's defense stunk last year, and, yeah, OK, so did the Patriots'. But they have Tom Brady. The Bills have Ryan Fitzpatrick. Buffalo can win with Fitzpatrick -- and did, when it jumped to a 5-2 start -- but only if the defense is doing what it didn't a year ago.

I'm talking about making big stops. If the Bills can't, they don't budge in the AFC East. If they can, they start closing in on New England. It's as simple as that.

"The Patriots are the team we're all chasing," Wannstedt said. "That's obvious. With the philosophy that we're going to use, I see the whole blitz-zone, the zone-dog stuff, and I don't know how many quarterbacks are getting fooled anymore. I'm watching tape, and I'm not so sure the way to go isn't being able to make the quarterback get the ball out of his hands quick and put steady pressure on him.

"The great ones aren't going to take sacks, and that gives you an ability to do things coverage wise. I remember sitting there watching the Super Bowl, and I'm watching the Giants. I don't know how many times they sacked Brady, but I do know the ball was coming out fast."

That's the idea now in Buffalo: Squeeze the pocket, hurry the quarterback, force the turnovers and shorten the field for Fitzpatrick and the offense. Oh, yeah, one more thing: Catch New England. No, I don't see the Bills doing it, either, but I do see them winning more than they lose and maybe, just maybe, returning to the playoffs.

"When people say, 'I think the Buffalo Bills are going to make the playoffs,' the reaction usually is, 'Yeah, right,' " wide receiver Stevie Johnson said. "So, instead of that, we want it to be: 'They just might -- they've got a pretty decent team.' "

Mission accomplished.


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