Bears fans know more than anyone what it's like to see a formerly great defense fall into the depths of mediocrity in a single season, and Bills fans may be in store for the same come 2014. While it's hard to make an accurate prediction based on the preseason alone, taking a look at how the Bills fared against the likes of Josh McCown in their third preseason game suggests that Bears fans might see all-too-familiar issues with the other defense come Sunday.
After losing MLB Kiko Alonso to a torn ACL earlier this year, the Bills have been forced to go with Brandon Spikes as their starting middle linebacker. And while Spikes showed well in the run game, he is not able to replace Alonso as a presence in pass coverage, as this first play shows:
The Bucs were running some pretty vanilla West Coast plays in this game, and this first play is no exception. Spikes, lined up on the right hash, gives just enough attention to the slot receiver to lose track of RB Doug Martin wheeling out of the backfield. This little bit of distraction sets up Martin well. The RB is able to use a bit of footwork to get an easy release down the seam. While he bobbles the catch, Martin does reel in the catch and ends up getting downed at the half-yard line.
Martin was feeling the pain at times from some excellent run defense by Spikes and his fellow Bills LBs at times - they had multiple tackles for losses in the run game - but he dished out some pain of his own. Between Matt Forte out of the backfield and Martellus Bennett at TE, Spikes is going to have to improve his pass coverage or have his team pay the price.
To make sure that the Bears get those favorable match-ups in pass coverage, the team would be wise to send as many receivers as possible out whenever possible. Yes, the Bills front four can still cause plenty of trouble: they forced a fumble and notched multiple sacks in the first half. Even so, Marc Trestman proved last year that he prefers to send the backs and tight ends on routes unless the offensive line is simply unable to hold down pass protection without the added help.
After losing previous defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to a head coaching job, the Bills now have former head coach Jim Schwartz as their DC. While Schwartz is certainly a capable coordinator, the same Trest Coast concepts that previously worked well against his Lions appear to work just as well against his new team. The Bucs had a good success rate on plays where they sent four or more receivers, TEs, and backs out on routes, and while Josh McCown could have used some blocking help on a few of those plays, he made many of his best plays when he had three-route combos on a single side of the field.
To see one example of a successful three-route combo, we turn to this second play. With top safety Jarius Byrd lost in free agency and a questionable group of LBs in pass defense, Trestman would be wise to run plays such as this one to create room for Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, and Martellus Bennett on deep routes:
Nothing too special about the route that Mike Evans (13) runs, but look at what happens in the front of the frame. The Bucs were able to get each of the three players split right into single coverage - the slot receiver (14) pulls the linebacker in, and the tight end (87) runs straight down the seam at the safety. With two receivers heading straight his way, the safety was forced to wait for the ball to come out before committing to a coverage assignment. At the end of this one, McCown had his choice between the TE and Evans thanks to good pass blocking by his offensive line.
McCown pulls the trigger on the WR route, notching an easy six on this play. And while you can't tell on this angle (or really any angle they showed) what precisely the TE is doing, he also ends up open when all is said and done. If the Bears are able to keep Cutler upright - something they have done well in the preseason - it's going to be a long game for Buffalo.
While I am more than a little concerned that C.J. Spiller is going to cause problems for the Bears defense, the Bills defense is going to be in even more trouble this Sunday. Cutler and Trestman have all the tools to leave the other team gnashing its teeth and wishing for their old defensive coaching staff and top players this weekend, and that will be a nice change of pace.