ORCHARD PARK — It’s a recipe for disaster.
A look at the Bills’ tackling statistics shows exactly why Buffalo’s defense is ranked 29th in the NFL, surrendering a numbing 422 yards per game, only 11 fewer than last-place New England.
The Bills’ leading tackler is strong safety George Wilson, who had a monster game in Sunday’s 31-24 victory over Philadelphia with 11 stops (all unassisted), three pass break-ups and an interception.
On the season, “The Senator,” as Wilson is called due to his eloquence and filibuster answers to questions, has 45 tackles in five games.
Next are free safety Jairus Byrd and inside linebacker Nick Barnett, each with 42.
Then come safety and sometimes linebacker Bryan Scott and cornerback Leodis McKelvin with 24 apiece.
If you’re keeping track, that’s four of Buffalo’s five top tacklers who play in the defensive backfield ... three of them safeties.
And that brings to mind one of football’s oldest clichés: “You’re in big trouble defensively when your safeties are making the tackles.”
It also makes you wonder, other than Barnett, what the Bills’ linebackers, who are supposed to be the tacklers in a 3-4 defense, have been doping.
Outside backer Shawne Merriman had a cheap sack — his second such of the year — against the Eagles, but was credited with only one tackle, giving him 11 on the season, the same number as inside backer Andra Davis.
Chris Kelsay, who plays outside and missed Sunday’s game against Philadelphia with a calf injury, had six tackles — total — in the first four games.
Those stats say the Bills shouldn’t be 4-1.
BUT BUFFALO, off to that unexpected start, is a paradox on that side of the ball.
One of the league’s most vulnerable units in yards relinquished, the Bills lead the NFL in takeaways with 16 and trail only idle Baltimore in average turnovers forced per game (3.5 to 3.2).
It’s a statistic that can make a struggling defense look reasonably sturdy.
Buffalo already has a dozen interceptions, four against New England’s Tom Brady, tying his career high, and the same number on Sunday versus Michael Vick, his worst day as a pro.
For the record, the Bills have endured eight FULL seasons when they didn’t pick off 12 passes.
On the season, Wilson has three picks and cornerback Drayton Florence, Scott and Barnett (both off Vick) have two apiece, the latter three each returning one for a touchdown.
That’s an average of four points a game — of the 33 Buffalo is averaging — coming from the defense.
Yeah, there’s been some good fortune, both Brady and Vick each had two tipped passes picked off ... but that also speaks to the Bills’ ‘D’ being around the ball.
“It’s been a character test for us all season,” Florence admitted. “We’ve had two games in a row where we’ve come in with a lead at halftime (Cincinnati, 17-3; Philadelphia, 21-7).
“We’ve got to go out and finish the game, but for some reason we’re just not finishing in the third quarter. The defense gave up a few big plays (to Philadelphia), but we were able to get that turnover (Barnett’s interception off Florence’s tip late in the fourth quarter) at a costly time in the game and it paid off for us.”
As Wilson noted, “We ended up getting some turnovers.
“Today we put together a 60-minute ball game. Last week was a tough (23-20 loss to the Bengals on a last-play field goal) ... we let one go and guys remember that. We didn’t want that same taste in our mouth that we had last week.”
OF COURSE, it’s tough to rely on turnovers to give a vulnerable defense credibility.
But, for Buffalo, which hasn’t had fewer than two takeaways in any game this year, it’s worked so far, keeping the heat off defensive coordinator George Edwards ... at least for now.
And, according to coach Chan Gailey getting interceptions and fumble recoveries isn’t luck.
“We knew that we could go in (against the Eagles) and try to get the ball out,” he said. “We talked about it, we work on it. We have turnover drills, tackling drills. Fundamentals is what wins.”
Even when the defense is getting gashed.
(Chuck Pollock, the Times Herald sports editor, can be reached at email@example.com)