It is more likely that a team in the NFL will go from worst to first and vice versa in the span of one season than any other major sport. But even with such parity, the early results of the 2014 regular season are shocking. Among the most surprising developments is the early fall of the New Orleans Saints, who beat the Eagles in the playoffs last year to make it to the divisional round, and the sole lead of the AFC East by the Buffalo Bills, who finished in last place in their division last season.
What changed in the seventh months of the offseason that would result in such a turnaround? And more importantly, will these first two weeks be indicative of the entire season?
First, let’s look at how offseason moves affected the teams’ potential to win from day one. One man is responsible for the biggest offseason move for both of these teams: Jairus Byrd. Nearing the expiration of his contract at the end of the 2013 season, the Bills offered a deal to the ballhawking All-Pro free safety that would make him the highest paid safety in the league. Byrd reportedly turned this offer down, choosing instead to enter free agency and search for a contender with a need at safety. New Orleans, who was already struggling for cap space with Jimmy Graham’s deal on the line, surprised everyone by signing Byrd to his big payday.
The resulting ripples set forth by this move would dictate the rest of the offseason for both teams. Buffalo’s parting with Byrd allowed them to keep their elite front seven, one of the most expensive in the NFL, intact for the 2014 season. It also allowed them to re-sign safety Aaron Williams, who had a breakout year last season. These moves allowed the Bills to operate in perfect accordance with new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s defensive philosophy from his time spent as head coach of Detroit: spend the big money on the defensive line, and let the persistent pass rush cover for any inadequacies in the secondary. Like the Lions’ Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, and Ziggy Ansah, the Bills have decided to invest in Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, and Mario Williams.
In New Orleans, such a cap heavy signing drastically reduced their ability to extend contracts and bring in free agents. On defense alone, the Saints parted ways with Johnathan Vilma, Will Smith, Roman Harper, Malcolm Jenkins, Victor Butler, and Jabari Greer. And though all of these cuts were more than justified in the team’s evaluation of the value of those respective players, the Saints were truly hurt when it came to the remaining period of free agency. The decision to address the free safety position was especially costly, considering that they also matched Atlanta’s bid on restricted free agent Rafael Bush, essentially paying him more than the Falcons to play backup to Byrd. The 2014 offseason saw the richest market of cornerbacks since 2011, as well as several potential solutions for New Orleans’ woes at inner linebacker and defensive tackle. Without question, the biggest need for the Saints was cornerback, with starter Jabari Greer’s career ending knee injury in the late 2013 season. They made no moves for any free agent cornerbacks, other than Champ Bailey, who was cut before the end of the preseason, and with the opportunity to address the position in the draft, they chose to use a second round pick to draft a project player in the raw Stanley Jean-Baptiste.
The Regular Season So Far
The Bills are undefeated entering the third week of the season. Their defeat of the Chicago Bears in Week 1 surprised everyone, and they convincingly defeated a Dolphins team that was coming off a victory against the divisional rival Patriots, giving the Bills the sole lead in the AFC East. So far, the Bills’ success has come from the adept execution of a simple gameplan: pressure the quarterback with the front seven to cover for the secondary, rely on the defense and special teams to pin opponents deep in their own territory and gain good starting field position, and rely heavily on the running game to supplement a minimal, efficient passing system.
The Bills have called designed runs on 57% of all plays, which reduced pressure on second-year quarterback E.J. Manuel, who was a liability last season in his rookie year. The heavy use of draw plays has reduced the number of blitzes that defending coaches feel comfortable utilizing, which has resulted in Manuel being sacked just once this season, a far cry from last season in which he had one of the highest pressure rates in the NFL. The previously unproven offensive line has been one of the most consistent units in the league so far. The defense has stepped up in the absence of second-year linebacker Kiko Alonso, contributing to an incredible average starting field position of the Bills’ own 43-yard line. A foundation of run first offense, as well a defensive scheme of pressuring the quarterback with the defensive line under Schwartz, has proved favorable in matchups against teams with inconsistent first-level tackling, and passing games that are predicated on allowing receivers extra time to beat deep coverage.
The Saints had high hopes for their defense this season. Following a 2013 season that ended with New Orleans being ranked 4th in total yards allowed, the addition of ballhawk Jairus Byrd should have been the perfect addition. Intending to benefit from the pressure that Cam Jordan and Junior Gallete produced, which caused quarterbacks to make hasty decisions last season, as well as complementing the solid presence of Keenan Lewis and Kenny Vaccaro in the secondary, Byrd was brought in to have free reign in the middle of the field where he could read the quarterbacks’ eyes. And while many people want to turn eyes towards the aging Drew Brees and Sean Payton, who decided to part ways with offensive staples Darren Sproles (especially after his early performances with Philadelphia) and Lance Moore, it’s clearly the defense that is the issue.
The Saints rank third in the NFL in yards gained per game, including the fifth most rushing yards per game. They are also the second-highest scoring team in the league. Compare this to their defense that is ranked second to last in points allowed. They have also allowed the third most yards so far, behind only Atlanta and Cleveland (both teams that the Saints’ offense has faced). Much of the blame has been placed on cornerback Patrick Robinson. He was injured all of last season, and in Greer’s absence, he was moved to the #2 cornerback opposite of Keenan Lewis for the start of the 2014 season. He has been incredibly inefficient in coverage, allowing a multitude of big plays in the first two weeks. He was even benched in the second half of the Cleveland game, but while filling in as the nickleback, he allowed several crucial plays in Cleveland’s game-winning drive. He will likely see more time in the nickleback role, as the Saints have not yet activated rookie Jean-Baptiste for a regular season game. The vaunted defensive line has also failed to produce, though. After two full games, the starting defense only has one sack. After being seen arguing with Sean Payton on the sideline during Cleveland’s final drive, it is apparent that Rob Ryan is rightfully under heavy criticism right now.
The Rest of the Season
The Bills have yet to face their Foxborough-based divisional nemesis yet, and while they have convincingly defeated two tough opponents, they still have weaknesses that can be exploited. Their entire gameplan is predicated on protecting a lead. There are two things that can bring the offense to a halt: stopping the running game and forcing the Bills to play from behind. If the run game disappears, or if the Bills are trailing late in the game, E.J. Manuel will be forced to stand in the pocket against an unabashed pass rush and complete passes to a young receiving corps. Furthermore, Cutler and Tannehill are not exactly renowned for their ability to quickly release the ball in a three step drop. Facing quarterbacks that excel with quick releases, such as Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and Tom Brady (all of whom are on Buffalo’s schedule), will expose the inexperience of the secondary and foil the dangerous front seven. The Bills look to be drastically improved from a year ago, but they likely need at least one more offseason to add players that match their schemes before they can make a serious run at the AFC East or the postseason.
The Saints’ defense has made it all but impossible for New Orleans to come up with a win, but their offense has more than found its stride. Rookie Brandin Cooks has performed like a veteran, the Brees to Graham connection is alive and well, and the Saints’ backfield has been very efficient in the new zone blocking scheme. If Rob Ryan can shore up the secondary and get production similar to last year’s from the pass rush, the Saints have a fair chance of catching Atlanta or Carolina for the lead in the NFC South. But while the offense alone may be enough for New Orleans to get into the postseason, an elite passing attack will target the Saints’ weakness at the number two corner spot, likely sending the Saints packing early.