Defense Looks To Build On Last Season
Emphasis on forcing more turnovers key to success.
by Steve Saslow
July 28, 2004

Sam Adams The defense is the one unit that will be relatively the same in the coming season. There was no need to tinker too much with the 2nd ranked defense in the league from a year ago. Jerry Gray was retained as the Defensive Coordinator by new Head Coach Mike Mularkey. Both defensive secondary coaches and Dick LeBeau are gone from a year ago from Gray's staff however, they were replaced by new DB coach Steve Szabo.

The one significant loss from a player standpoint was the departure of Antoine Winfield in free agency, he was replaced by the signing of Troy Vincent. The Bills got older quickly at the one cornerback spot but Vincent brings more experience and leadership than Winfield. He also brings something sorely lacking from last year's defense, a knack for the turnover.

For all the success the Bills had on defense last year they were dead last in takeaways, something that has plagued them under Jerry Gray since he arrived from Tennessee. The Bills are hoping the addition of Vincent will immediately pay dividends with more turnovers. The safety position has gone an astonishing 43 straight games without an interception. More turnovers need to be forced for the team to be more successful this year.

The Big battles to watch in camp on defense are at free safety, left defensive end, and perhaps even strongside linebacker. In an attempt to get that elusive interception from a safety the coaches have tinkered with the depth chart at the position. Coy Wire has moved to free safety to challenge incumbent Izell Reese. Pierson Prioleau has moved to strong safety and will backup Lawyer Milloy. The two safety positions are very similar under Gray's defense so the movement of positions shouldn't be a huge deal but it is something to watch in camp. Look for Wire to win the job from Reese, the team likes his skills and he may do a better job of forcing turnovers.

One thing that would help get those interceptions would be if the team gets more pressure on the quarterback. That is where recently signed Jason Gildon comes in. He will try to challenge Jeff Posey for the starting job but his more likely role will be as a situational pass rusher probably from the left defensive end spot on third downs. Posey is much better in pass coverage and can get to the quarterback himself, this will help him hold off Gildon.

When Gildon isn't lining up at left defensive end the battle for the starting job is between two young, former second round picks. Ryan Denney is the incumbent and Chris Kelsay will try to unseat him. The team is high on Kelsay who is considered the better pass rusher of the two but Denney is considered a good run stopper. A rotation, with veteran Keith McKenzie in the mix, is not out of the question. McKenzie performed well in limited duty last year and if he can reach down and find the fountain of youth, he may steal time from the two young players. This position will be very interesting to watch in camp.

The linebacking corps should be very solid again with the three returning starters. The defensive tackles added depth behind starters Pat Williams and Sam Adams with the drafting of Tim Anderson and the free agent addition of Oliver Gibson. These guys can spell the big boys when they get tired.

As a unit, the Bills are returning 8 or 9 starters which should bode well for the most talented unit on the team. The big question is will the loss of a few coaches specifically LeBeau hurt the unit. LeBeau had a big hand in turning around the defense as did former head coach Gregg Williams. Gray says he will continue to use the zone blitzes brought to the team by LeBeau. Will the absence of the veteran coach and the change to an offensive minded head coach from a defensive minded coach cause a drop off? The Bills don't think so since there is so much talent and the guy in charge of the unit remains the same bringing it consistency. This will either be Gray's chance to shine and get our of the shadow of his former mentor, Williams and LeBeau. It also can hurt his reputation if the defense falters this year.

This is the second of a series of three articles previewing the Bills training camp.