Unbeknownst to many, the Buffalo Bills trotted out an upper-echelon defense last season. Led by coordinator Mike Pettine, the unit ranked tenth in yards allowed, fourth against the pass, and finished second in sacks.
The Bills defense in 2013 was largely a lunchpail group, but did feature one standout sensation: Kiko Alonso.
Manning the middle linebacker spot, Alonso played every snap during his rookie campaign, racking up a team-leading 159 tackles, two sacks, and four interceptions. His ability to play both the run and pass earned him serious Defensive Rookie of the Year consideration; he would finish second in voting to Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson.
The Bills had a steal on their hands with their second-round draft pick, whose sensational career at Oregon included Defensive MVP honors in the 2012 Rose Bowl.
Not only did he make plays on his side of the ball, Alonso’s limelight took the attention away from fellow rookie, Bills quarterback E.J. Manuel. Unlike Alonso, Manuel had a roundly disappointing first year, marred by injuries and inconsistencies, as the club finished with a 6-10 record.
Sure, Manuel still received his share of criticism, most of which was well-deserved. But he at least had his oft-dominant, Alonso-led defense to lean on.
And then Pettine bolted Buffalo to take the Cleveland Browns’ head coach job. And then, in an extremely unfortunate outcome, shred went Alonso’s knee.
On July 1 — just weeks before he and Manuel were to begin their second seasons — it was reported Alonso tore his ACL while working out. The club confirmed the news the following day, adding that he’ll undergo surgery and miss seven-to-nine months. In other words, he won’t see the field in 2014.
Manuel never publicly commented on Alonso’s injury, but the thoughts in his head couldn’t have been anything less than R-rated. Indirectly, added pressure has been placed on Manuel to begin performing like the player the Bills thought they were getting with the 16th overall pick.
That Manuel now bears more of a burden isn’t tied only to Alonso’s injury, either. The team also lost playmaking safety Jairus Byrd, who inked a six-year, $54 million free agent deal with the New Orleans Saints this offseason. Gone, too, is that Pettine guy, leaving new coordinator Jim Schwartz without many difference-makers.
It’s fair to assume the Bills defense will take a step back in 2014. Nigel Bradham isn’t Alonso. Da’Norris Searcy and Duke Williams aren’t Byrd. Schwartz, whose tenure with the Detroit Lions was rocky at best, isn’t Pettine — in terms of defensive creativity, anyway.
This means Manuel must start to pull his weight and repay the defense for carrying the team in 2013. This means Manuel must stay healthy, improve his pocket presence, decision-making, and accuracy.
Fortunately, he’s surrounded by a surplus of talent, highlighted by receiver Sammy Watkins, the team’s first-round selection this past May. Buffalo jumped up to No. 4 overall — giving up a future first-round choice — to nab Watkins, widely considered the best wideout in the draft class.
Impressively, Bills general manager Doug Whaley continued wheeling and dealing during the draft, acquiring talent-laden running back Bryce Brown from the Philadelphia Eagles.
Watkins. Spiller. Brown. Jackson. Receiver Robert Woods. Tight end Scott Chandler. This is a diverse group of offensive skill players at the disposal of Manuel, who has no excuse not to produce with them at his disposal.
The early returns on the 2014 version of Manuel have been lackluster. During recent OTAs and minicamp practices, he reportedly struggled with accuracy, his bugaboo.
In a routes-versus-air drill, three of Manuel’s throws directed towards Watkins in the end zone were off-target. Watkins got his hands on each but couldn’t haul them in.
Later in the practice, back indoors, Manuel hit Watkins with a well-thrown pass but Watkins couldn’t get ahold of the ball. Manuel also had multiple passes on fade patterns sail over receivers in the end zone, a trend during the three weeks of OTAs
If the Bills are to compete in the AFC East, they cannot get see-saw outings from Manuel. Missing open receivers, especially in the end zone, are qualities you tend to excuse in rookie years. That honeymoon is long over, though. Manuel has to find a way to correct his flaws.
Some fans will no doubt say it’s unfair to heap all responsibility upon the shoulders of Manuel. But quarterbacks are expected to lead. Good quarterbacks overcome their team’s flaws. Great quarterbacks mask them. It’s not referred to as the most important position in sports for nothing.
In the face of pressure — both on and off the field — Manuel has to show he can rise above it.