ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --Half of Buffalo's starting defensive line entered the league as top-three draft picks. And because defensive end Mario Williams and tackle Marcell Dareus lived up to their pre-draft hype, the Bills have a front four that is equally effective against the pass and the run, and has provided often-dominant play that sets up the rest of its defense.
The Bills are second in the league in takeaways because of the pressure generated by its front four -- often without the necessity to blitz, allowing its back seven to drop back and wait in coverage. Their defense is fifth in the league in yardage allowed per game (312.4), making this the seventh defense among the league's top nine in yardage allowed on the Broncos' schedule. (Another one, the No. 8-ranked Chargers, looms next week, so the Broncos' obstacle-strewn path doesn't get any easier.)
"The schedule-makers don't like us," Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase said. "Every week it seems like the front gets better. This group is really good."
And while the edge rushers are premium and Williams has returned to the game's elite, it's Dareus and Kyle Williams who start the process from the inside out. Both would warrant double-teams if they were on their own, but working together, they put an opposing blocking scheme into pick-your-poison mode.
That frees up Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes to attack from the edge. They have 21.5 sacks between them -- 12 for Williams, and 9 for the less-heralded Hughes, the No. 31 overall pick in 2010 who struggled in two seasons with the Colts but has broken through since an April 2013 trade to Buffalo, with 19.5 sacks the last two seasons.
ProFootballFocus.com credits Hughes with 31 quarterback hurries, fifth among all 4-3 defensive ends, and 25 run stuffs, eighth among 4-3 defensive ends and just three behind Williams.
"That is what gives them a big advantage. Four guys that can rush the passer and stop the run the way they do," said Gase. "You have to make a decision on each play and somebody's going to have to hold up one-on-one. I know our guys are up for the challenge and they just know that these guys are a good front."
And good in every way, starting with Dareus and Kyle Williams allowing Mario Williams and Hughes to work one-on-one outside. As a result, Mario Williams is maximizing maximize his prime years and cementing his place as one of the game's truly elite pass rushers.
The 2006 No. 1 overall pick already the fifth double-digit sack season of his career and is on pace for a career-high tally that would surpass his 14-sack season with the Houston Texans in 2007. Since he signed with the Bills in 2012, he has 35.5 sacks, as many as Denver's Von Miller. Only Houston's J.J. Watt and St. Louis' Robert Quinn have more sacks in the last three seasons. He has a burgeoning case for an All-Pro selection this year.
But he's equally effective as a run defender, and at left defensive end represents perhaps the sternest challenge yet to Denver's Louis Vasquez since his Week 10 shift from right guard to right tackle.
Tight end Virgil Green knows he will have to help Vasquez contain Williams -- and might have some one-on-one assignments against the powerful, 291-pound defensive end.
"He's going to make sure you don't run that ball outside," said Green. "He can set that edge and he's 290. I'm about 240, 250 so there's a huge weight discrepancy there.
"But at the end of the day, I'm going into the game with a mindset that regardless of how big he is, I'm going to move him off the ball. Whether that happens on every play or not, I don't know, but that's my mindset and my goal for this game."
Attitude and power have helped the Broncos' reshuffled line and overhauled blocking scheme find its form in recent weeks against some rigorous competition. But Buffalo's front four might be the sternest challenge yet, with nothing but Pro Bowl-worthy studs up front.
BUFFALO BY THE NUMBERS
- Yards per game: 312.4, 5th
- Yards per play: 4.82, 2nd
- Takeaways: 25, 2nd
- First-down rate: One every 3.93 plays, 1st
- Third-down conversion rate: 33.33 pct., 1st
- Yards per game: 216.1, 5th
- Yards per pass play: 5.42, 3rd
- Sack rate: One per 9.96 pass plays, 1st
- Touchdown rate: One every 34.14 pass plays, 2nd
- First-down rate: One per 3.46 pass plays, 1st
- Yards per game: 96.44, 7th
- Yards per rush: 3.85, 7th
- First-down rate: One every 5.00 carries, 12th
- Touchdown rate: One every 50.0 carries, 6th
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