The Buffalo Bills are looking to defend their turf against the New England Patriots tomorrow at 1 p.m. ET, but it clearly won’t be an easy task for the Bills. Stephon Gilmore won’t be playing for the next five or six games, thus leaving the Bills in a very precarious position at cornerback. Not only that, but free safety Jairus Byrd is doubtful for this game, and that leaves the Bills secondary thin against one of the best quarterbacks in the game. We’ll see if Tom Brady and the Patriots new-look wide receivers can take full advantage of that, but there are still a few players on the Bills defense that deserve close examination.
1. DT Kyle Williams
If you ask me who the best player on the Buffalo Bills, I will tell you that it isn’t Jairus Byrd; it’s Kyle Williams. While I wouldn’t blame you for picking Byrd, Williams has been so underrated for so long, and he really needs to get the credit he deserves as one of the game’s elite players. He had another great season in 2012 despite playing through an injury, and he is excellent as a pass rusher and run defender. It’s not easy to be great at both, which is something DT partner Marcell Dareus can attest to (I’ll get to him later). Williams was responsible for six sacks and 13 hits on the quarterback last year, which is very good for a defensive tackle. The Pro Football Focus calculates a stat called defensive stops, which is basically a way of qualifying which tackles were “good”, and Kyle Williams was third on the Buffalo Bills at that stat. As a defensive tackle. Ryan Wendell and the rest of the New England Patriots interior will have their hands full against Williams and Dareus, and more people need to appreciate Williams’s greatness.
2. DE Mario Williams
The other star “Williams” on the Bills defensive line didn’t have as disappointing of a 2012 campaign as some people think, but he did fall short of the lofty expectations and contract in his first year with the Bills. Doug Marrone praised his work ethic earlier this week and seems confident in Williams’s ability to have a big year, and he is definitely somebody to watch for closely. Williams is still a star player in this league, and Nate Solder will have his hands full against Williams. I’m confident in both tackles’ abilities to hang with Williams wherever he is aligned, but he’s sure to cause trouble. In a down year, Williams recorded 11 sacks. He wasn’t an efficient pass rusher last year, but he should be better in 2013 and will be looking for a statement game to start the year.
3. DT Marcell Dareus
The strength of the Buffalo Bills defense lies in the defensive line, so it’s no surprise that I have three members of the defensive line on this list. Dareus is a key player for the Bills at DT, because he has always been excellent at getting pressure on the quarterback. He is one of the best DTs in the game at pushing the pocket, and Dareus showed it last year by getting consistent pressure and also notching seven sacks- good for second-best on the team. The Patriots interior usually does a solid job in pass pro, but they are prone to lapses and could get beaten more than a few times by an excellent DT pairing in Williams and Dareus.
4. CB Leodis McKelvin
With potential shutdown corner Stephon Gilmore out, Leodis McKelvin is now the Buffalo Bills No. 1 corner, and he’s probably the only plus CB on the team right now. Ron Brooks is OK and won’t embarrass himself, but McKelvin is the only player I am comfortable with praising as at least decent. He’s definitely not the best corner out there and is ideally a No. 2 CB at best, but he won’t embarrass himself out there against Kenbrell Thompkins. As we all know by his returning ability, McKelvin is fast, and he is pretty good against the run due to his astute tackling. McKelvin, per PFF, missed just two tackles last season, and how good Thompkins does will be up to Thompkins. McKelvin is a good enough player to the point where a big day from Thompkins probably won’t be due to his implosion, but he isn’t good enough to the point where a bad day from Thompkins probably won’t be due to McKelvin playing amazing. Since Thompkins is the Patriots “X” receiver”, McKelvin projects to cover him in this one.
5. MLB Kiko Alonso
Kiko Alonso is currently listed by the Buffalo Bills official depth chart as the team’s starting middle linebacker, and he is an intriguing player to watch on Sunday. Alonso had a successful career at Oregon, and I have been high on him for quite some time. I think Alonso will end up being a very good player in this league, and he will be key in helping to try and improve the Bills porous run defense. Last season, the Bills allowed five yards per carry, which was the third-highest total in the NFL last season. They gave up 100 yard rushing days to both Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden the first time these two teams played, and then they allowed Ridley to run the ball for 98 yards in the second meeting of 2012. Alonso is a stout run defender, and he is clearly a three-down linebacker due to his very good coverage skills (he showed them plenty of times last season at Oregon). This guy has a knack for making plays and racking up tackles, and the Bills coaching staff has been, rightfully, impressed with him thus far. Expect Alonso to have a good game against the Patriots, and he is an impact rookie to watch.