DL Review: Time to Step Up

Aaron Schobel (Getty Images)

Defensive ends Aaron Schobel and Chris Kelsay signed big contracts before the 2007 season, and combined for only 8.5 sacks. This off-season, the Bills reloaded at defensive tackle, with the additions of Marcus Stroud and Spencer Johnson. With a ton of money tied up on the defensive line, the unit must deliver in 2008. Here's the breakdown...

Notable Stats

Aaron Schobel - 57 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 5 FF

Chris Kelsay - 44 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss, 1 TD

Kyle Williams - 41 tackles, 2.0 sacks

John McCargo - 29 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss

Marcus Stroud (in nine games with Jaguars) - 22 tackles, 3.0 sacks

Spencer Johnson (with Vikings) - 22 tackles, 3.0 sacks, 1 FF

Grade: C

Review:

In today's game, defensive coordinators aren't just building game plans around a steady pass rush.

General Managers are building entire franchises around the defensive line.

First overall picks. Fifty-million dollar contracts. Twenty-million dollar hunches. All with the hope of emulating the New York Giants, who led the league in sacks (53) in the regular season, upset three NFC division champions and Bustler Douglased the nation in the Super Bowl.

Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck can do all this? Most teams think so.

The blueprint is out. Create pressure at each of the four defensive line spots.

On Free Agency Eve, Oakland re-signed Tommy Kelly – who? – to a seven-year, $50.5 million contract. Not to be a pass-rushing threat on the edge, but to create a push on the interior as a DT. Granted, Al Davis isn't the wisest decision-maker, but the fact remains: Defensive pressure is taking on a life of its own.

After all, Mario Williams sure looks a lot better than Reggie Bush and Vince Young right now.

The Buffalo Bills have joined the party.

In two seasons, the Bills have invested a combined $73.5 million to their starting defensive ends, signed a backup defensive tackle to a five-year, $17.5 million investment, and inherited a five-year, $31.5 million deal for another DT.

Four defensive linemen. $122.5 million.

Give Buffalo credit for trying hard to re-haul a horrid line of defense. Starting ends Aaron Schobel and Chris Kelsay combined for only 8.5 sacks last year. In two seasons, head coach Dick Jauron's ‘Tampa 2' scheme has been a failed, forced strategy. The team's platoon of small defensive tackles was routinely bench-pressed into the second level, carving rushing lanes.

The Bills' rush defense was 25th in NFL, and the unit ranked 29th in sacks. The Giants had more than double the amount of sacks Buffalo did, while the top five sack teams all made the postseason.

The finger can't be pointed at a single culprit.

None of Buffalo's defensive tackles had more than 41 tackles. The ‘Tampa 2' – revolutionized by Tony Dungy, Monte Kiffin and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the late ‘90s – relies heavily on forcing turnovers through constant pressure from all directions with the defensive tackles beating pulling linemen to the spot. But that cause-and-effect was rare. Nine running backs had 100-yard games against Buffalo last season, including Ahmad Bradshaw (17 att. 151 yds, TD) and Brandon Jacobs (24-145-2TD) in one (long) game.

Larry Tripplett was a flop, and was cut. John McCargo has been a bust in two seasons. And the high-priced ends had the clichéd contract-letdown season.

After 2006, Schobel appeared completely worthy of the richest contract in Buffalo sports history. There was no anti-Thomas Vanek outcry that the city endured a few months prior. Schobel was reportedly unhappy with his current three-year, $21 million deal, and received a generous (and deserved) raise.

Despite making the Pro Bowl for a second straight year (via injury replacement), Schobel's '07 season was a major disappointment. His 6.5 sacks tied for the lowest output in his seven-year career. Considering the Bills lack of a fifth-gear, designated pass rusher, they need Schobel to be a productive two-way end – especially considering who is on the other side of the line. A classic overachiever, the high-character Kelsay is what he is: mediocre against the run, a stalemate against the pass. Kelsay has only 15 sacks in five seasons, while eclipsing 50 tackles once.

It would smart for the team to sign free agent James Hall (who visited One Bills Drive two weeks ago) or draft a hybrid OLB-DE to spell Kelsay on third downs. Buffalo must get to the quarterback more often next season.

Far too often, the Bills failed to generate pressure when it mattered most in ‘07.

No case was more maddening than the Monday Night Meltdown in Week Five against Dallas. Tony Romo threw five interceptions but never seemed fazed – largely in part of Buffalo's nonexistent pass rush. Buffalo had zero sacks on the night. An inflated, comfortable pocket was probably the biggest reason Romo was somehow able to mentally rebound from each successive pick. Romo knew he had all day throw. This peace of mind allowed Romo to lead the Cowboys to nine points in the final 20 seconds, utterly shocking Bills fans in Frank Wycheck-surrealness

A career-suicide game became a 309-yard dissection in the blink of an eye.

Looking Ahead

As much as Schobel and Kelsay need to improve, the biggest concern along Buffalo's defensive front is Marcus Stroud's right ankle. When healthy, Stroud is unquestionably a top five defensive tackle in the league.

When healthy.

In January 2007, he underwent major ankle surgery. The ensuing season he played in only nine games, missing four due to a violation of the NFL's steroid policy. On the reconstructed wheel, Stroud wasn't the three-time Pro Bowler he was from 2003-05. He finished with 22 tackles and three sacks in his final season with Jacksonville. Stroud has missed 12 games combined in the past two seasons and will turn 30 in June.

Ankle injuries rarely disappear anyways, but when 300-plus lb. is consistently exerted into the ground, recurring problems are almost guaranteed. Ask Shaquille O'Neal.

Did the Jaguars wisely dump off damaged goods to Buffalo for third- and fifth-round picks?

The Bills don't think so.

"We put him through all the paces, and there was zero concern," said the Bills' chief operating officer, Russ Brandon.

Added Jauron, "We've checked him out, and we feel really good about this whole deal."

Stroud is a bargain compared to Schobel and Kelsay. He is slated to make $5 million this season, and $16.5 million over the next three years. The 6-foot-6, 310-pound Stroud is four inches taller and 20 lb. heavier than his predecessor, Tripplett. If he returns to the space-eating, 60-tackle, six-sack man-beast he was for five of seven seasons with the Jaguars, Stroud is a steal.

"I've been hurt the past two years and a lot of people have been asking me questions about this ankle," said Stroud after joining Buffalo. "So I just want to go out and get ready to show everybody I still know how to play ball and do it at a high level. A change of scenery just makes it that much sweeter. Now I'm in a new uniform in a new city. It definitely motivates me that much more to do better."

Next to Stroud, Johnson and McCargo may split duties at the "three technique," the tackle who mans up on the opposing guard's outside shoulder.

The Bills will probably give Johnson every chance to win the job – his contract includes $6 million guaranteed. In four seasons with Minnesota, Johnson rarely saw the field as the Vikings' third defensive tackle behind Pro Bowl twin towers, Kevin Williams and Pat Williams. He had 22 tackles and three sacks last season, occasionally playing defensive end.

How defensive coordinator Perry Fewell utilizes the defensive tackles may dictate the defense. Stroud should demand plenty of attention, which would free up others and keep blockers off of middle linebacker Paul Posluszny. If Stroud's ankle injury resurfaces, though, Buffalo may be in trouble. On deck for '08 are LaDainian Tomlinson, Larry Johnson, Steven Jackson, Jamal Lewis and Denver's zone-blocking scheme, among others.

Tyler Dunne is the Publisher of the Buffalo Football Report. Contact him at thdunne@gmail.com

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