The most stunning thing about the NFL, heading into Week 6? How bad the Bills have looked, especially on defense.
"Yeah,'' coach Chan Gailey said from Arizona Thursday, "I hate to use that word [stunned]. But this has really caught me off guard."
Roll this around in your brain, about the team that has one of the best defensive tackles in football, Kyle Williams, and a supposed wunderkind bookend for Williams, Marcell Dareus, and a $16-million-a-year defensive end, Mario Williams: The Bills have surrendered 1,201 yards and 97 points in the last two games.
Expansion teams aren't that bad against the run. Buffalo is surrendering 5.7 yards per carry, an incredibly bad number. (The expansion Browns in 1999: 4.5; the expansion Texans in 2002: 4.1.)
I watched the tape of their historically bad game against San Francisco -- historic because it's the first game in NFL history where an offense compiled more than 300 yards rushing and 300 yards passing. I saw two quarterback pressures of Alex Smith. I saw gigantic holes for Frank Gore, and I saw Dareus and Mario Williams getting pushed around at will.
On the second 49ers">49ers drive of the game, Gore ran through such a massive hole that he wasn't touched by a Bills defender until he ran 13 yards past the line of scrimmage. Think of how many things go wrong when that happens -- the line is obliterated and the linebackers neutralized, to the point where Gore gained 19 yards and two-thirds of the gain was totally free.
Dareus, according to the football analytics site ProFootballFocus.com, is the lowest-rated of 77 defensive tackles, and last of all defensive tackles against the run.
I listened to Gailey and Kyle Williams try to explain why it's gotten so bad. Gailey said it was two horrendous halves, the 45-point second half against New England 12 days ago and the 28-pointer at San Francisco last Sunday. Gap control, Williams said.
He makes a good point there -- on a 31-yard Gore run behind left tackle Joe Staley in the third quarter, it looked as if half the Bills front got fooled and thought the run was coming up the gut instead of wide left, for what reason I still can't figure.
The Patriots and the 49ers are two of the best five or six offenses in football right now. There's no shame in allowing some long drives to them. But to allow 90 points to anyone in a six-quarter span is a disgrace, particularly for a team that appeared to be a solid playoff contender six weeks ago.
"We've missed an inordinate amount of tackles,'' said Gailey, who has his team in Arizona this week because of back-to-back games out West. Buffalo plays at Arizona Sunday. "And we're not playing on the other side of the line nearly enough. We've got to create more force with our defensive front, so we're playing on their side more, not on ours.''
That's the simplest way to look at it. What's strange is how highly regarded and respected the three (supposedly) good run players are. And then you look at the games, and you see Mario Williams and Dareus, particularly, getting physically handled. Add to that the fact that Mark Anderson, who wasn't playing well anyway, is now out with a knee injury, and that the offense is sputtering and gives the defense no margin for error. With all of that, the Bills have to hope that somehow, some way their defense can turn things around against a couple of inconsistent offensive teams, Arizona and Tennessee, in the next two weeks.
"I think it's a couple of things,'' said Kyle Williams. "Gap control, which is important because if just one guy doesn't cover his gap, if the guy thinks he can move over and make a play instead of playing disciplined and staying in his gap, then a [cut-back] runner can make a big play against us, and that's been happening. So that's been a big focus this week at practice. And I think we've had so many third-and-twos, third-and-threes ... When a quarterback has those time after time, he can call so many different things. Whereas if it's third-and-five-to-10, you're in a much better position to be able to rush the passer and be disruptive.''
It all sounds good, and logical. But if Dareus and Mario Williams don't raise their games, and fast, this is going to be one of the most disappointing seasons in Bills history.
In the sixth SI NFL podcast of the year, I give you the triggerman to the Vikings' 4-1 start, quarterback Christian Ponder, along with Niners left tackle Joe Staley, who previews the title-game rematch with the Giants on Sunday. NFL Films maestro Greg Cosell also analyzes the surprises of the first five weeks of the season. As usual, it's available on SI.com and on iTunes.
Cosell, on Peyton Manning: "It's clear he does not throw the deep ball as well. There's a lot of hang time on those throws. He's much more of a short-tosser at this point, and therefore the offense is different than the offense in Indianapolis. In Indianapolis, you had a lot of isolation routes, where wide receivers would line up on the perimeter, and Manning could make those throws. You don't see that now in Denver. There's a lot more diversity with the route combinations to get those receivers at the shorter levels. There's no problem with Manning's timing or anticipation. It's just a different Peyton Manning. But I'm watching Tom Brady this week, and I don't think he threw more than two passes beyond 10 yards from the line of scrimmage.''
Kansas City quarterback Brady Quinn (No. 9): Quinn, with Matt Cassel (concussion, fractured feelings) sidelined, starts his first game in 34 months Sunday at Tampa Bay. And if he plays well, coach Romeo Crennel may have no choice than to prep Quinn for the Chiefs' division last-straw series (Oakland in Week 8, at San Diego Week 9) after their Week 7 bye. This is not just a replacement game for Quinn. It's an audition -- for now, and for the future, either in Kansas City or somewhere else. He'll have to be more accurate than he was as a Brown to keep this job or he'll have to vie for one in another city in 2013.
1. The readiness of Alex Smith. Look, believe nothing you hear out of San Francisco on Alex Smith's middle throwing finger. If Jim Harbaugh says the sprained finger on Smith's throwing hand is fine, I think it's amputated. Anyway, if you see more Colin "The Wildcatter The Jets Should Study'' Kaepernick than just a few snaps Sunday against the Giants, you know there's a good chance it's because Smith's not 100 percent.
2. The readiness of Robert Griffin III. After suffering a concussion against Atlanta last week, Griffin seemed to recover very quickly -- and raised eyebrows that he recovered too quickly. But he did pass the daily tests following a concussion that players need to pass, and he was cleared to face Jared Allen and the Vikings in a late game Sunday.
"If he's cleared and he's healthy, then you go into it the same way you always do,'' offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said after Thursday's practice. "He's been great at practice this week. It sounds like he's going to be all right. Once I wait for that and get that cleared, you go into the game assuming he's healthy and you see how it plays out. You never want him to have to run the ball too much.''
That's the idea. Now they've got to make Griffin do it.
3. The readiness of Louis Delmas. Detroit's been waiting for its enforcer safety for six weeks, in the wake of Aug. 7 knee surgery. Looks like he'll make his season debut in Philadelphia Sunday. Not a quarter too soon, with the Lions' season on the line at the Linc.
4. The Kyle Williams Redemption Bowl. AKA, Giants at Niners. NFC title rematch. Ted Ginn Jr. is likely to be returning punts, with Williams the kickoff man. Williams had a 94-yard kick return at Minnesota three weeks ago, so, no, it does not appear he has curled up in a fetal position since blowing the title game nine months ago.
5. Tom Brady terrorizing his final NFL market. Brady, 35, has never played a game in Seattle; he was injured when the Pats last played there in 2008, New England's first appearance in the Pacific Northwest since 1993. And because New England won't play in Seattle again until 2020 (by virtue of the NFL's policy of AFC teams playing in NFC markets, and vice versa, once every eight years), this will be Brady's only game ever there. Unless he plays until he's 43, of course. And you can't put that past Brady, because he's such a nut about wanting to play as long as his body doesn't betray him.
6. Bruce Irvin and Chris Clemons. The last time Seattle was home, these two speed-rushers wrecked the first half for the Green Bay Packers, sacking Aaron Rodgers six times in a 24-minute span. Brady and the Patriots will have to use the silent snap count often on Sunday in the loud Seattle stadium, so look for the fast defenders to have an edge.
7. The Falcons prancing to 6-0. Oakland travels to the Georgia Dome Sunday. Mike Smith's men shouldn't read this, but the Raiders, on their last six trips to the Eastern Time Zone, have lost all six -- by an average of 16.5 points a game.
8. The Sunday night showcase.Texans-Packers. Sweaty-palm time in Cheeseland, because the Packers could fall three games out of the NFC North lead by midnight Sunday. And with Cedric Benson out and Jermichael Finley and Greg Jennings iffy, this is the kind of game Aaron Rodgers has to don his green-and-gold cape and prove he's the baddest quarterback on the planet.
WEEK 6 SPOTLIGHT GAME: PACKERS-TEXANS
9. News about the trading deadline, which used to be after Week 6. No more. Now it's after Week 8 --Tuesday, Oct. 30, at 4 p.m. At least now we have a prayer of a deal happening so a 1-7 team can trade an established player to a contender for a good draft choice.
10. News about the league meetings, which are Tuesday, in Chicago. The Browns ownership of Jimmy Haslam is about to be rubber-stamped at the meetings, but I wouldn't expect any sacrificial zebras over the three-week replacement-ref debacle. I don't see Roger Goodell making any big changes to the officiating department -- now.