ORCHARD PARK — It was one of the worst games of a terrible season for the Bills’ rushing defense.
When 2010 ended, Buffalo was, by a large margin — 15 yards per game — the NFL’s worst team defending the run.
The Bills surrendered an average of a numbing 170 yards a game on the ground and half the time, gave up 200 yards or more.
Of the eight occasions opponents reached that figure, the most galling were 276 by the Jets at the Meadowlands in the season finale, 273 to the Steelers at “The Ralph” and 274 at Kansas City, the last two in overtime games.
At an average of 164 rushing yards per game last season — eight more than second-place Oakland — the NFL’s best running attack against its worst rush defense was the focus last Halloween Day.
Kansas City, with an extra nine minutes in OT, bested its average by 110 yards as the Chiefs Jamaal Charles went for 177 yards on 22 carries and Thomas Jones added 77 on 19.
On Sunday, those same two teams meet back at Arrowhead Stadium to open the National Football League season, and while the Chiefs’ rushing proficiency is a given, the Bills’ off-season effort to improve their ‘D’ against the run remains speculative.
WHAT’S CERTAIN is that when Buffalo takes the field in three days, its defense will have five different starters from last October.
Inside linebacker Andra Davis was hurt last year. Rookie first-round draft choice Marcell Dareus replaces the waived Marcus Stroud at right end, free agent inside linebacker Nick Barnett takes over for Paul Posluszny, who signed with Jacksonville, Shawne Merriman, who spent last season on injured reserve after signing with Buffalo, inherits the job of Reggie Torbor at outside linebacker and George Wilson is the new strong safety since Donte Whitner signed with San Francisco.
That group is out to prove that last year’s ground assault by the Chiefs won’t be revisited.
When asked about defending the run, Merriman, who was a spectator last year, admitted,
“We have a task this week. They’re one of the best rushing teams in the league.
There’s no better test for us to go out and have a game against guys who not
only are known as the best but also are physical.
“They have two great backs that can make things happen, so it’s going to be a challenge for us to go out there and play well.”
MEANWHILE, nose tackle Kyle Williams, a Pro Bowler, played every game of last season’s disaster.
When asked how much the run defense can improve this season, he allowed, “A lot ... it can’t get any worse, I don’t think.
“We’ve added some good players. As you watch the film, it looks different in practice, our fits look different, our control on the line of scrimmage looks different, and it looked like that in the preseason. So there’s no reason to believe it won’t be tons better.
“I don’t want to be a little bit better, I want to be tons better ... 30 spots better, I’m talking about a lot better, that’s what I expect ... that’s what I want.”
He added, “It’s frustrating for everybody especially with all the runs that we got killed with. It’s not like we were getting two tight ends and that they were running power and just blowing (us) off the ball.
“(It was) those slash plays ... they’re running outside and then they’re cutting back. That’s when it gets frustrating ... it all comes down to a fits department. I think everybody here is motivated by that. We’ve got some good guys in the room, on the defense and we’ve played a little bit better. “
Of the Chiefs, Williams said, “We go down there and we get a good test from these guys. They led the league last year. We can kind of see where we are, keep building, hopefully win a football game, get a little momentum going, and momentum in this league can be contagious.”
One reason for his optimism is Dareus.
“I think he’s going to help a lot,” Williams said. “He’s as big and talented a guy as you’ll ever be around. I think he can create some things for me. Hopefully, I can create some things for him, us for the outside guys, and hopefully them for us.
“It’s a better deal where we have some guys who can make plays all along the line and you can’t just focus in on one guy or two guys. There’s a lot of guys that you have to honor.”
IT’S A BIT different for Barnett, playing his first game in Buffalo.
“I’m excited, it’s going to be fun to play football again,” he said. “I was hurt last year so I’ve been waiting a long time to get back on the field and to battle. We have so much to prove to ourselves and others. We’re excited to go out there and do what we’re supposed to do.
“This week for sure with Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones, and what they have done with their offense to lead the league in rushing, this is going to be a good test for us to go out there and see where we are.”
He added, “From the outside looking in there are a lot of changes to this defense but for me, I just got here so this is the defense I came into and we have a lot of players and young players that are going to get their opportunity to play. With Shawne (Merriman) coming back, I’m out there, Andra (Davis), (free agent linebacker) Kirk Morrison and the guys up front, it’s going to be fun to see how we gel and how the chemistry is out there.”
Barnett concluded, “Really we only have one thing to prove and that’s to prove it to ourselves ... prove we can stop the run and we can be a good defense and team.
“Once we prove to ourselves, then all of you (media) guys can jump on board too. I know you guys are a little scared to jump on board this train but I had a coach once that said if you don’t jump on the train then you are going to get left behind. That’s what our plan is, we’re going to take off regardless of who believes in us. We believe in ourselves and the train is going to take off.”
(Chuck Pollock, the Times Herald sports editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)