Troy Vincent had two interceptions as the Bills completely stymied Houston on opening day
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers spent last week wondering if they were about to face one of the NFL's better defenses.
This week, there's no doubt.
Tampa Bay's season opener was in Minnesota, where the Vikings, long defensively deficient, spent the offseason making critical additions to that side of the ball. And, in fact, Minnesota's defense did appear to be much improved, though the Bucs fought through it for 24 points in an 11-point win on opening day.
This weekend, it's the Buffalo Bills, who didn't have to make any additions to the unit that finished second in the league in the defensive rankings last year. DT Ron Edwards was promoted from within to replace the departed Pat Williams, but otherwise the Bills' defense is back intact, and ready to build on a string of two straight seasons in the second spot of the league's rankings.
The Bucs certainly expect a rigorous challenge.
"I think they are the number one defense in football," said Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden. "LB Takeo Spikes is as good a linebacker that I've seen since I've been in coaching. He doesn't hit you, he clobbers you. He's a great blitzer. Their linebacking corps is extremely quick. Their nose tackle [Sam Adams] is mammoth. He's a big, physical presence. And Lawyer Milloy and Troy Vincent, two veteran safeties are capable of making some splash plays. This is a very unorthodox scheme and they are blessed with great talent and impact players."
Last year, Buffalo led the league in takeaways, with 39, and allowed only 264.3 yards of offense per game. Adams, Spikes and CB Terrence McGee all made the Pro Bowl (McGee as a kick returner) and the 9-7 Bills just missed the playoffs despite an offense that ranked 25th in the league.
A good sign that Buffalo has been good on defense for awhile now? Three of the important veteran additions the Vikings have made are Pat Williams, CB Antoine Winfield, and LB Sam Cowart, all former Bills.
Williams is the only one who departed from last year's defense, and the Bills haven't seemed to miss him yet. In the season opener against Houston on Sunday, Buffalo allowed only 120 yards of total offense and took the ball away five times, matching the Bucs and the Indianapolis Colts as the top turnover-producing teams of the first week. They also sacked Texans QB David Carr five times, twice by defensive end Aaron Schobel. Spikes turned one of his blitzes into a sack, too, and converted cornerback Troy Vincent, now the starter at free safety, picked off two passes.
"Their pressure package is tremendous," said Gruden. "They dominated yesterday. Most of the films I've seen from last year, they completely dominate the opposition."
The Buccaneers' offense rang up 345 yards in its opener, which would have qualified as one of their top six outputs last year. Of that, 146 came via Carnell Williams and the ground game, a total Tampa Bay exceeded only twice in 2004. After an early turnover, QB Brian Griese looked sharp, and he found a new weapon in rookie TE Alex Smith. WR Joey Galloway, healthy and as quick as ever, looked like a force in the passing game, making a series of big third-down plays on the way to 97 yards.
Duplicating those performances will be difficult for the Bucs this week, perhaps as difficult as any Sunday this season.
"It might be [the best defense the Bucs play in '04]," said Gruden. "Chicago's going to have a great defense, Carolina, Miami proved they are for real. We are going to see some good defenses. I always just think about the next opponent, but these guys are very special."
The Bills are led by first-year quarterback J.P. Losman, a virtual rookie after he missed most of 2004 with a broken leg. First-year passers have historically fared very poorly against the Buccaneers' defense since its resurgence in 1997, but with that defense and a very sound running game, the Bills are well equipped to ease the burden on Losman.
Buffalo, in fact, stampeded for 152 yards on the ground against Houston, with Willis McGahee's 117 yards on 22 carries leading the way. McGahee, a first-round pick in 2003 despite a severe injury suffered at the end of his college career, showed Buffalo enough in 2004 that they were willing to let RB Travis Henry go. At 6-0, 232, McGahee has the size, speed and quickness to be one of the NFL's premier backs.
The Bucs defended the run as well as they ran it on Sunday, though. The middle of the defense, with Anthony McFarland returned to health and Chris Hovan added, looked much more stout than last year and the perimeter remains as fast as ever. That could be the most important matchup of the game, how well the Bucs' front seven holds up against McGahee's power rushes.
Both teams have enough weapons on both sides of the ball to make this a 60-minute battle.
"When you look at the Buffalo Bills these guys will grab your attention," said Gruden. "These guys are really good. On the defensive side, they are nasty, they are all over the place. And I think on offense they have some explosive players."