Linebacker is the Buffalo Bills Weakest Position

Last year, the Buffalo Bills had a myriad of problems on both sides of the ball as they concluded their season with a 4-12 record.

The Bills ranked near the bottom of most major statistical offensive and defensive categories. Buffalo’s offense was 28th in points, 25 in total offense and last in turnover differential while the defense was last in rushing defense (169.6 yards per game), 28th in points allowed (26.6) and 24th in total defense (361.1 yards per game).

The best thing that can be said about the Bills, who are 3-1 on the season, defense through four games is that it has been average at best and extremely opportunistic. The Bills, who lead the league with eight interceptions including two that were returned for touchdowns, have given up an average of 24 points (16th in the NFL) and allowed 405 total yards (27th). In addition, Buffalo is 25th in passing yards allowed (275.5), 25th in rushing yards (125.5) and last in sacks (4).

Although the Bills defense has improved they still have a few issues which includes depth, their 3-4 hybrid scheme, pressuring the quarterback and cornerback. However, linebacker is Buffalo’s biggest weakness.

The first issue with the Bills linebackers has to with their personnel not fitting defensive coordinator George Edwards 3-4 system. The biggest problem with Edwards 3-4 scheme that specifically applies to the linebackers is that the Bills two starting outside linebackers Shawne Merriman and Chris Kelsay are better suited for the 4-3. Merriman, Kelsay, nose tackle Kyle Williams as well as end Spencer Johnson and rookie Marcell Dareus are the Bills only proven pass rushers.

Kelsay, who isn’t nimble, in particular is better with his hand on the ground as a pass rusher where he can use his strength and hands to get by an offensive tackle on the edge. Although Kelsay is decent in zone pass coverage because his motor his constantly running, he doesn’t have the speed to stick with running backs or tight ends in one-on-one coverage.

Merriman, who can create havoc with his speed when healthy, has the ability to play either with his hand on the ground or standing up. Merriman, who is adept at both the 3-4 and 4-3, is an excellent tackler and pass rusher. However, Merriman has a tendency to over pursue on runs and screens which would leave the Bills vulnerable particularly in a 3-4 alignment.

Another issue with the linebackers is pass coverage. Although the Bills run defense has slightly improved their pass coverage has taken more than a few steps back. The Bills, who don’t get much pressure on the quarterback, have been torched by opposing tight ends and running backs through the air in each of their four games. Out of 62 targets, opposing running backs and tight ends have caught 44 passes (70.9% completion) for 366 yards and five touchdowns against the Bills.

Although the Bills linebackers aren’t always responsible for pass coverage of running backs and tight ends they don’t have many linebackers that are playmakers or have the ability to play in pass coverage. This however does not include Nick Barnett, Andra Davis, and Kirk Morrison. Barnett, who is a big time playmaker, is better defending against the run but he does possess adequate ball skills and excellent range to be a factor in pass coverage. Davis, who may be past his prime at the age of 32, is still capable of making the occasional big play in both the running and passing game. The veteran Morrison, who is a key backup to both Davis and Barnett, has only played two games this year.

Another issue for the Bills linebacking core has been health as the Bills have used defensive ends Alex Carrington and Spencer Johnson as outside linebackers. Chris White, Reggie Torbor (placed on injured reserve) Arthur Moats and Kelsay (who was ruled out for the Philadelphia Eagles game and may be out longer) have missed time.

In order for Bills, who have surrendered 129.5 yards per game (25th in the league), to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1999 they will need production from their young linebackers including third round pick Kelvin Sheppard, Moats and Danny Batten . Sheppard, who was expected help solidify the run defense, has only four tackles. While second year players Batten and Moats, who like to get after the quarterback, have combined for eight tackles and 0 sacks.

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