The Buffalo Bills made incredible strides as a team last season. The roared out to a 5-2 record, including their first win over the Patriots in nearly a decade, before fading down the stretch for a 6-10 finish.
After the promise of the early part of the 2011 season and an offseason full of major moves, highlighted by the signing of Mario Williams, the Buffalo Bills have placed some major expectations on themselves for the 2012 campaign.
Chan Gailey's offense is returning largely intact. The Bills have their quarterback of the present if not the future in Ryan Fitzpatrick, one of the best backfield tandems in the league in Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller and a top wide out in Stevie Johnson.
Their offense, which ran up 23.2 points per game and 5624 yards (both good for 14th in the league) will be improved based on familiarity alone.
But the defense is where things get intriguing. To meet their expectations, the Bills have to be better on defense. That unit has gotten the bulk of the help through the draft and free agency and should be improved.
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They were 26th in yards allowed with 5,937, and gave up 27.1 points per game, third worst in the league. The 2,224 yards given up on the ground (139 per game) was especially galling.
But the new look defense is poised to change all of that, and make the Bills a stingy team. Take a look at a unit by unit breakdown of the defense to see where and how the Bills have made changes that could make 2012 their first playoff season since 2001.
The Bills defensive front is legitimately one of the most terrifying in the league on paper. Obviously the key upgrade for the defensive front is Mario Williams.
Williams has 53 sacks in 82 career games. He is a two time Pro Bowler and a legitimate force on the defensive front. He gives the Bills the type of pass rushing threat they have not had since Hall-of-Famer Bruce Smith left the team in the late 1990s.
Opposite him at the other end spot, the Bills will hope to start Chris Kelsay. Kelsay is a tenth year veteran who has played his entire career for the Bills. He has been one of the most reliable Bills, playing in all but 6 games during his tenure. Kelsay's numbers aren't eye popping, but as the fourth piece of the line he will be a beast.
The Bills will look to spell those two with Shawne Merriman and Mark Anderson, especially in passing situations. Merriman is hardly the player he was when he had 14 sacks in each of his first three seasons with San Diego, but he is healthy coming into a season for the first time since 2009.
Anderson has also been an excellent pass rusher over the course of his career with 35 sacks in six professional seasons.
Up the middle, the Bills are also exceptionally formidable thanks to the tandem of Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus. Williams is a two time Pro-Bowler who has been a revelation for the Bills since he was drafted in the fifth round in 2006.
Dareus is in his second season after being drafted third overall out of Alabama last season. He impressed with his drive and motor as a rookie and will be that much better this season with a year under his belt.
At linebacker, the Bills will feel somewhat familiar as they are looking at starting the trio of Kirk Morrison, Nick Barnett and Kelvin Sheppard up the middle.
Morrison was a six year starter in the NFL before he came to Buffalo last year and saw his snaps cut considerably. After six years in which he did not record less than 89 tackles, he only managed to register seven in his first Bills season.
But the way has been paved for him to move back into a starting role, a role he excelled at in the past and that he should be comfortable in for the future.
Barnett was also part of the two-year defensive overhaul in Buffalo. He joined the team fresh off a Super Bowl win as a member of the Green Bay Packers and stepped in to become a very consistent performer. He made 130 tackles and got three sacks and three interceptions in his first season in Western New York, and he should continue to be effective.
Sheppard was the Bills third round selection in 2011 out of LSU and though he started the season as a reserve, he established himself as the starting middle linebacker by the end of 2011. Sheppard showed flashes of his capability when he racked up 14 tackles in a loss to the Chargers in week 14 last season and he will be called upon to really lead this defense this season.
The secondary is mostly unchanged for the Bills, at least among the starters. Terrence McGee and Leodis McKelvin will start at the corners and Jarius Byrd and George Wilson will take up the safety duties.
Bryd is one of the leaders on the defense and will continue to be. McKelvin and McGee are proven NFL starters with 22 interceptions between them. Wilson is in his eighth season, all as a member of the Bills.
Bryan Scott and Drayton Florence are gone, but the secondary has been one of the few areas the Bills have excelled in during their dark decade of missed playoffs and poor records.
Bills first round draft pick Stephon Gilmore will also look to insert himself in the conversation at cornerback. Though McGee and McKelvin are entrenched as starters, Gilmore could supplant one of them.
More importantly for Buffalo, as offenses around the league become more and more pass happy, five and six defensive back sets are becoming more and more important. Gilmore gives the Bills an excellent fifth back.
Gailey said after the rookie minicamp that he feels Gilmore is in a position to challenge outright for a starting job.
The defense is much improved. The work Gailey and his staff have done over the past two season, especially in the front seven, looks as though it is beginning to bear fruit. For the first time in years, the Bills look like a playoff team on paper, only time will tell if that appearance is reality.