Roster analysis: Buffalo Bills strong at running back, run into problems elsewhere

Sep. 14, 2010

Following is a scouting report on the Packers’ next opponent, the Buffalo Bills, based on interviews with several scouts who have seen the Bills in the preseason or their opener.

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Running offense

The Bills have one of the better trio of running backs in the NFL, at least on paper, but their offensive line is among the league’s worst. They drafted C.J. Spiller No. 9 overall this year, and he has the sub-4.4-second speed to scare in defenses.

In the preseason, new coach Chan Gailey, who runs the offense, also fed him the ball in space with swing passes that substituted for runs. But Miami was all over Spiller in Buffalo’s 15-10 home loss to the Dolphins in the opener. Spiller had only 14 yards on 11 touches — 6 yards on seven carries, and 8 yards on four receptions.

Fred Jackson, who rushed for 1,062 yards last year, had 19 yards on four carries, and former first-round pick Marshawn Lynch had 13 yards on three runs.

“Their best personnel on offense is their running backs, so in terms of taking away what a team does best, that’s where you put a lot of the focus,” one scout said. “At the end of the day, there’s only one perimeter threat in (receiver) Lee Evans. It doesn’t matter who you have in the backfield if you don’t have the horses up front to block for them.”

The Bills are OK at guard with two high picks from the ’09 draft, Eric Woods (first-rounder) and Andy Levitre (second-rounder). But tackles Demetrius Bell, a second-year pro on the left side, and Cornell Green, a ninth-year player on the right, are liabilities.

“The young guards are going to be decent players down the road and decent starters in the league,” another scout said. “But they probably have below-average starters at tackle. They really don’t push the line of scrimmage.”

Passing offense

Against Miami, the Bills scored 10 points, had nine first downs and 166 yards in total offense. Ouch. Fourth-year pro Trent Edwards beat out Ryan Fitzpatrick and Packers castoff Brian Brohm for the starting job at quarterback, but it looks like he’s regressed after a promising 2008 season (85.4 passer rating).

He lacks a noteworthy physical quality, is reluctant to throw down field and is poorly protected by his line. His 73.0 rating against Miami (18-for-34, 139 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions) is in line with his 2009 rating of 73.8 points.

“He’s still a developing player at that position,” a scout said, “but he’s also not the type of player that’s going to raise the level of play around him.” Evans, a former University of Wisconsin receiver, has difference-maker ability — he caught 24 touchdown passes in his first three seasons, has topped the 1,000-yard mark twice in his six previous seasons, and has a 15.7-yard career average per catch.

But the Bills don’t have the quarterback or weapons to help him. Steve Johnson, a third-year pro with 12 receptions coming into this season, starts opposite him. Starting tight end Shawn Nelson is serving a four-game suspension, so second-year pro Jonathan Stupar (six catches in ’09) and David Martin, a 2001 seventh-round pick by the Packers, share time.

“If you try to take away their best bet, that’s Lee Evans and C.J. Spiller in terms of guys that can hurt you,” a scout said. “You try to take away those two (and) they really don’t have any other explosive elements to their offense.”

Run defense

Gailey hired George Edwards off the Dolphins’ staff to run a 3-4 defense and has former Packers defensive coordinator Bob Sanders coaching outside linebackers.

The Bills had ready-made two-gapping ends in Marcus Stroud (6-6, 310) and Dwan Edwards (6-3, 290) for their conversion to the 3-4, and an undersized but game nose tackle in Kyle Williams (6-1, 306), but they’re especially weak at linebacker after losing Paul Posluszny for the next two or three weeks to a knee injury.

With backup Kawika Mitchell out because of a season-ending foot injury, either Keith Ellison or Akin Ayodele, a former Miami starter cut by Denver this preseason and signed only last week, will start alongside Andra Davis.

“If they don’t have Posluszny, the lack of speed and range at inside linebacker will be prevalent,” one scout said. “If they put Akin Ayodele in there with Andra Davis, they’re both instinctive, between-the-tackles type players who can make plays downhill, but they don’t have great perimeter range and they don’t have great range in coverage.”

Pass defense

The Bills have a good secondary but minimal pass rush for support.

Starting cornerbacks Terrence McGee and Drayton Florence are eight-year pros who cover well, and third-year nickel back Leodis McKelvin is an up-and-comer. Also, safety Jairus Byrd, son of former Packers director of player programs and current Bears assistant Gil Byrd, was runner-up for NFL defensive rookie of the year last season, ahead of the Packers’ Clay Matthews.

Byrd tied for the NFL lead with nine interceptions. “(Byrd) is not a physical presence on the back end in terms of explosive hits and strikes,” one scout said, “but he has some coverage skills and some ability to play in space in terms of zone coverage, instincts and awareness.

And he can make plays on the football.” Aaron Schobel’s surprise retirement after getting 10 sacks last season was a blow. Last year’s first-round pick, Aaron Maybin, has been a major disappointment as a defensive end (no sacks in 16 games as a backup last year).

He might be better suited for a 3-4 outside linebacker but did not win the starting job in camp and was a nonfactor as a backup against Miami. Chris Kelsay, the starter on the other side, never has had more than 5 ½ sacks in seven previous seasons and at age 30 plays the run better than the pass. Miami threw for only 182 yards but ran a conservative game plan (36 rushes, 35 drop backs).

“One strong point is their ability to run and mirror and cover (receivers),” a scout said. “But if you can’t put pressure on the passer, it can be a long game for anybody.”

Special teams

The Bills’ return game is potentially its best offense. Spiller is a major threat as a kickoff returner — he set an NCAA record with seven returns for touchdowns at Clemson — and little Roscoe Parrish (5-9, 178) has taken back three punts for touchdowns in his six-year career. Brian Moorman had the fifth-highest gross punting average last year (46.6 yards), and kicker Rian Lindall made 84.8 percent (28-for-33) of field-goal attempts in ’09.

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