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It was September 25th, 2005. The Bills were 1-1 and were just entering the JP Losman era. Ugh, I know. The team was ready to take on the Atlanta Falcons in Buffalo. There was still some optimism in the air, as there always seemed to be with the Tom Donahoe's squads. I was watching this game from McFaddens, as I usually do in NYC, and the crowd was, also as usual, rowdy and wasted. I don't remember what specifically happened on the play. I do remember the HUGE UGHHHHHHH that came over the crowd, followed by a hush.
On our TV screen, it looked like Takeo Spikes had been shot with a rifle. #51 was lying face first on the ground. He ripped off his helmet in disgust and slammed it into the ground. We all knew something was wrong. Next thing you know, Spikes got carted off the field with tears in his eyes and a towel draped over his head. It looked as if he was some knocked out boxer whose career was ending. Spikes was never the same after that and neither was the Bills' LBing corps.
Since I've been watching the Bills play football, for a good 15 years or so, the one position that the Bills have had an influx of talent at has been the linebacking unit. Go back to the Super Bowl teams and you had Bennett, Talley, and Conlan, all Pro-Bowlers and leaders. Then in the mid-90s, the Bills had to remake the unit with Bryce Paup and Chris Speilman. Soon after, they brought in Sam Cowart. In 2003, the Bills had Takeo Spikes and London Fletcher. You could make the case that in his prime, Spikes was the best guy of the group. When his injury cost him the season, the Bills' LB position ceased to exist. Since then, we are talking Angelo Crowell, John DiGiorgio, Kawika Mitchell, Keith Ellison, Chris Draft, Andra Davis, converted guys (Spencer Johnson, Chris Kelsay and Bryan Scott), and Poz. Again, none of these guys are close to the Pro-Bowlers I listed earlier.
As for today's group of LBs, they are either too long in the tooth or are unproven youngsters. Others might try to spin this unit into a positive training camp story, but they're not very good. As of now, the starters are Barnett, Sheppard and either Morrison or Moats. It is such a weak unit that I'm left to wonder if these guys are nothing more than stopgaps. The problem is that I don't know if the the next guys are on this team right now.
Battle for Weakside LB
I don't like either Morrison or Moats at OLB. With Morrison, you are talking about a guy who has played inside linebacker for his career. Unless you are Ray Lewis, MLBs aren't known to make the switch to the outside. MLBs are the gritty guys who are supposed to be big enough to throw fullbacks and OL off of them at the point of attack. They aren't exactly known for pass coverage. They are run stuffers, and they almost always lead teams in tackles. Morrison is not fast enough to be the weakside LB. The weakside LB is often called into pass coverage to cover the flat, and Morrison isn't that guy. As for Arthur Moats, he's just too small. I know he's a fan favorite, but he's not a favorite when it comes to playing well. There's a difference in playing OLB in a 4-3 than a 3-4. In a 3-4, Moats was only asked to rush the passer for the most part, and he wasn't exactly good at it. In a 4-3, he'll have more responsibility in the passing game and if you get a Guard/Fullback coming at him, I don't like his chances. He's just too undersized. Truth be told, I'd rather the Bills moved Sheppard to the outside because he's more athletic and put Morrison in the middle. But really, does it matter at this point? I think Morrison wins this battle, but look for Moats to get a lot of reps.
How much is left in the tank?
I like Nick Barnett. I thought he was an upgrade over Poz and pretty much delivered last year when it came to expectations. Barnett posted the 3rd most tackles for his career (130) and led the team in that category. He also chipped in with 3 sacks and 3 picks (His INTs Tied for 3rd most in the NFL for LBs). He was only LB in the NFL last year to accomplish 130 tackles, 3 sacks and 3 INTs. He was a jack of all trades. He was decent, not a game breaker, but decent enough. The problem is how much does Nick have left in the tank? Nick is 31 now and he's only a few years removed from blowing out his ACL and having a severe wrist injury. Will those old injuries catch up to him because he's getting older? Maybe they won't. London Fletcher is still doing his thing. Same with Ray Lewis. Of course, they don't have a list of serious past injuries. The deal with Barnett is that he's a good player, but he probably shouldn't be your best LB. Even still, if he goes down, the linebacking unit goes from average to crap. Funny, but can you name another position on this team that if one guy went down, the position would completely flounder? Maybe Stevie and the WRs, but after him, I go with Barnett because the LBs are so depleted.
How the front four will help and hurt the LBs
For one, the Bills won't have to blitz as much. They can rely on the billion dollar front four to get after the QB. With the D-line getting great penetration through the line of scrimmage, the LBs will have bigger lanes to run through to make tackles on running backs. Of course, with the Bills strenght being with the front four, look for offenses to attack the Bills LBs. I'm pretty sure we will see a lot of quick passes, usage of the TEs, and running backs out of the backfield. You will also see screen passes and draws to slow down the Bills pass rush. In order to stop these ways of attack, you need the secondary and LBs to do their job and fend off lineman who will be blocking them on screens/draws. Tell me, do you think the LBs can do this? We all know how much trouble the Bills have had defending the TE over the years. If anything, at least going from a 3-4 to a 4-3 takes pressure off the LBs. Also, if you wanna look at the Giants defense, they don't exactly have a who's who of LBs, right?
Byran Scott is a LB?
Up until about 2 weeks ago, I had absolutely no idea the Bills had moved Scott to LB. None. I saw it on Twitter and I was like, really? Did Bryan want to compete with George Wilson when it came to switching positions? I could really kill this move, but it would be too easy. Here's the deal: The Bills don't have enough athletic LBs to cover the pass. It is their biggest problem and maybe Scott can fix that. Scott played in 60% of the Bills defensive snaps last year. However, they have to be obvious passing downs. I don't like Scott battling in the trenches when a running play is in development. Look for Scott to get a lot of playing time in nickel situations.
I'd like to be the one to tell you that guys like Kelvin Sheppard, Nigel Bradaham, and Tank Carder will be the heir apparents, but none of us know for sure. We are talking about 3rd, 4th and 5th round picks. Of the top 20 players in tackles last year, only four of them weren't 1st or 2nd round picks. Of the 12 linebackers selected to the pro bowl last year, 9 of them were 1st round picks. Keep in mind the last time the Bills' developed anyone in the 3rd round who turned out decent, was Jonas Jennings, which isn't saying much. In fact, the Bills have never drafted a pro bowler in the 3rd round. Again, we have no clue. I can't recall too many..scratch that..any plays Sheppard made last year besides driving Mike Vick into the ground. I know some will say if he started all 16 games, he would have had 130 tackles (Had 70 in nine starts), but it is all about where you make the tackle. Poz used to get like 120 tackles a year for us, but they would be like 5 yards past the line of scrimmage. I wanna see a LB who will shoot up the gaps and kill the RB. I think Sheppard needs to work on his pass defense and going lateral on run plays. Straight ahead, he's fine at pursuing, but just doesn't have the speed to go sideline to sideline. Could it change this year? Of course. He's young and could get better.
Final word: Yeah, I'm pretty hard on this unit for the Bills. They are probably the weakest position on the team. Sure, a constant pass rush and two beefy DTs up front could help the LBing group. However, they are just not that impressive by themselves. I think they will do OK against the run, but when it comes to pass defense, look for offensive coordinators to be targeting the guys in the middle of the defense. I could see us having 2-3 new starters for next year. Next to QB, I could see this position being the most scrutinized on the team by fans.
This seems to be a position we have all been in. Did you ever have a job where you just didn't have any idea what was going on? What is your first impulse? You just try and blend in and not screw up. You hope that the main people at your job will carry the company and you'll just fill in when needed. You just hack your way up. That's pretty much how I feel about the linebackers. Don't screw up and I'll be fine with you not making any plays.