Buffalo Bills: Mike Pettine

Jim SchwartzAP Photo/David RichardDefensive coordinator Jim Schwartz arrived in Buffalo after five seasons as Detroit's head coach.
Even the Cleveland Browns haven't had it this bad.

The Buffalo Bills have run through more defensive coordinators over the past four years than any other team in the NFL, complicating their player-acquisition process through both free agency and the draft.

While their defensive schemes have changed each offseason since 2011, it's not all bad news. In hiring Mike Pettine last winter and Jim Schwartz to replace him in January, the Bills are sacrificing long-term coaching stability to help win now.

It's the right approach. Schwartz has extensive experience as a coordinator and head coach, while Pettine is a riser in the NFL coaching ranks, having recently been hired to lead the Browns. They're both talented defensive minds and better than the alternative, which would have been to promote from within or to poach an up-and-coming position coach from another team.

Schwartz is already putting his mark on the Bills defense. General manager Doug Whaley revealed last week that Kiko Alonso, who finished second in voting for the Associated Press' Defensive Rookie of the Year award, will move to weakside linebacker as part of yet another defensive overhaul.

Replacing Alonso at middle linebacker will be newly signed Brandon Spikes. The Bills also signed Keith Rivers, a former first-round draft pick, to potentially start at strongside linebacker.

It will be a whole new look, but one that presents some challenges for the Bills.

It was only a year ago when Buffalo signed linebacker Manny Lawson to a four-year, $12 million deal. The lanky veteran proved a strong fit in Pettine's system, starting 15 games and posting his best statistical marks since 2009.

Now Lawson is a man without a home. Under Pettine, Lawson could play close to the line of scrimmage, setting the edge against the run and blitzing on occasion. Things will be different with Schwartz, who rarely blitzes his linebackers and requires sturdier defensive ends than the 240-pound Lawson.

[+] EnlargeMike Pettine
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliThe Bills' defense improved in a number of areas during Mike Pettine's lone season as coordinator.
With three years left on Lawson's contract, the Bills wouldn't have received much of a salary-cap benefit by releasing him. Instead, they paid Lawson his $500,000 roster bonus last week and will try to find him a place among their new furniture.

"I think he's going to be a hybrid player. He's going to be able to bring us something as an outside linebacker but also come off the edge as a defensive end," Whaley told WGR 550 last week. "His versatility is going to be utilized within this system. That we think is going to be very valuable for us."

Translation: We like you Manny, but we don't really know what to do with you.

Lawson might find a situational role at defensive end, where Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes are the top two options. It also could be a position where the Bills try to add depth in the draft.

What about Alan Branch, who started 13 games at defensive end last season? Pettine's system required three big bodies along the defensive line. At 325 pounds, Branch fit that bill.

Without waiting to see how things would unfold with Pettine, the Bills jumped the gun in late December and gave Branch a three-year extension worth more than $3 million per season, with nearly $4 million in guaranteed money.

Under Schwartz, Branch figures to have a lesser role. The Bills already have a pair of defensive tackles in Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus -- who both made the Pro Bowl last season -- and Branch will be a capable but likely overpaid backup.

The Bills were smarter in doling out contracts last week. Spikes received a one-year deal and Rivers signed for two years. Both contracts included little guaranteed money.

After all, who knows where Schwartz will be by next January?

It took Schwartz eight seasons as the Tennessee Titans' defensive coordinator to earn his first head-coaching job, with the Detroit Lions. He's known as a prideful coach who, when introduced in Buffalo, came off miffed about the way things ended after five seasons in Detroit.

"I think if you look around, just about every coach has been in that position. Every coach has had some situation," he said. "There are some great ones that have been fired."

At 47, Schwartz might not have to wait long for another head-coaching opportunity, but that doesn't make him a bad investment by the Bills.

The Bills gambled when they hired Pettine last winter. It was among the NFL's worst-kept secrets that Pettine wanted to become a head coach. He was on the fast track. Unusual circumstances may have led to his hire by the Browns, but the departure from Buffalo was inevitable.

Likewise with Schwartz. The Bills might rebuild and grow with Whaley, Doug Marrone and EJ Manuel, but it's unlikely that Schwartz will stick around long enough to see that process through.

In Pettine and Schwartz, the Bills hired the best options on the market. Pettine boosted several areas of the Bills defense, helping it improve from 22nd in yards allowed per game in 2012 to 10th in 2013, while seeing the red zone defense jump from 31st to sixth last season. The Bills finished second in opposing QBR, second in sacks, second in interceptions and first in opposing completion percentage.

Meanwhile, Schwartz's defenses were typically strong in Tennessee, especially against the run. The Titans finished in the top six in rushing yards allowed in five of Schwartz's eight seasons as defensive coordinator.

Most important, both coaches are confident and experienced, allowing Marrone to focus his attention where it's needed the most: on offense. Had the Bills turned to a younger, less experienced defensive coordinator than Pettine or Schwartz, it would have created more continuity with scheme but also would have stretched Marrone thin.

Whaley and his scouting staff might get headaches trying to keep up with the defensive changes, but for a city that desperately needs a winning team, this is the right way to go.
Believe it not, the Buffalo Bills are already one month into their offseason.

There's still nearly six months until training camp, but it's worth taking a look back at the last month and asking this question: What did we learn about the Bills in January?

Here's our recap:

Bills' fears of losing Mike Pettine realized: We first explored the possibility of former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine becoming a head coach late in the season, following a 19-0 shutout win over the Miami Dolphins. Several teams filled their head coaching vacancies early in January without interviewing Pettine, but as the Cleveland Browns' coaching search dragged on, Pettine became a top candidate. The Browns hired Pettine on Jan. 23, leaving the Bills without the coach who turned around their defense this season.

Bills didn't waste time replacing Pettine: Just one day after Pettine departed for Cleveland, the Bills executed their contingency plan, moving swiftly to hire Jim Schwartz. Among the options on the coaching market, it's hard to view Schwartz as anything but the top choice. While Schwartz may not have a long-term future in Buffalo -- he could be back in the mix to become a head coach as soon as next offseason -- he is a veteran coach who could help maximize the talent the Bills have on defense.

Help on its way for Hackett: The Bills have effectively acknowledged that they needed more help on their offensive coaching staff after that unit struggled for most of this season. While offensive coordinator Nate Hackett assumed the role of quarterbacks coach this season, the Bills added Todd Downing in that role, helping to tutor EJ Manuel next season. They also hired former Baltimore Ravens receivers coach Jim Hostler as a "senior offensive assistant," adding another veteran coach to their staff. Ike Hilliard, who held the role of receivers coach last season, was fired immediately after the season and has yet to be replaced.

Continued concern over Manuel's knees: After missing the final two games of the season with a sprained LCL in his left knee, Manuel underwent a "minor procedure" after the season and is currently rehabbing. "Minor" or not, Manuel's knees are a major concern for the Bills. His three knee injuries -- including a meniscus tear in August, he revealed this week -- limited him to 10 games this season. That can't happen again next season if the Bills want to take a step forward. Manuel's rehab and development will be in the spotlight throughout the offseason.

Moorman re-signed: There's still over a month until free agency begins and the Bills' free-agent class is among the smallest in the NFL. They already made one decision on a player with an expiring contract, re-signing punter Brian Moorman to a one-year deal at the veteran minimum. The Bills' special teams units were ranked 31st by well-respected Dallas Morning News writer Rick Gosselin, so it would not be surprising if the Bills brought in competition for Moorman, who turns 38 next week.
MOBILE, Ala. -- The Buffalo Bills released the following statement Thursday from head coach Doug Marrone, after defensive coordinator Mike Pettine accepted an offer to become the Cleveland Browns' next head coach:

"I want to take this opportunity to congratulate Mike on becoming the Browns new head coach and thank him for all of his time and efforts with our team this past season. He did an excellent job of improving our defense and we wish him the best.

We have a plan in place and we will introduce our new defensive coordinator after our final decision has been made."
MOBILE, Ala. -- After a coaching search with several twists and turns over the past few days, the Cleveland Browns have hired Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine as their next head coach.

The Bills, who want to continue to rebuild as head coach Doug Marrone enters his second season, must now move quickly to replace Pettine and perhaps some members of his staff.

It's unclear at this point which assistant coaches, if any, will follow Pettine to Cleveland. When Pettine arrived from the New York Jets last season, he brought along three of his lieutenants: defensive line coach Anthony Weaver, linebackers coach Jim O'Neil, and assistant defensive backs coach Samson Brown. Of that group, O'Neil would be the most likely to serve as Pettine's defensive coordinator in Cleveland.

Bills defensive backs coach Donnie Henderson has experience as a defensive coordinator for the Jets (2004-05) and the Detroit Lions (2006). He could be a candidate to serve in a role under Pettine in Cleveland, or to replace him in Buffalo. Henderson coached with Pettine with the Baltimore Ravens, but was also Marrone's defensive backs coach in his final season at Syracuse.

The Bills could also look outside of the organization to replace Pettine. One possible option on the market is Gregg Williams, who served as Bills' head coach from 2001-03. Williams was suspended for the entire 2012 season as part of the New Orleans Saints' bounty penalties, and served as a senior defensive assistant for the Tennessee Titans last season. Williams is known for an aggressive defensive scheme that could make for an easier transition from Pettine's pressure-based attack.

The expectation is that the Bills will waste little time in replacing Pettine. His departure has been on the radar since news first broke of his first interview last week, giving Marrone and other Bills decision-makers time to line up a contingency plan. With most NFL coaching staffs close to being finalized for next season, the options to replace Pettine are dwindling.

Senior Bowl bed check: Day 3

January, 22, 2014
Jan 22
MOBILE, Ala. -- Wrapping up the events from the third day of Senior Bowl practices:

Crowd thins out: The amount of scouts in the stands dwindled Wednesday, the final day of padded practices. We did not spot Buffalo Bills general manager Doug Whaley at either practice, although there were still several Bills scouts in attendance. Elsewhere, Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey were among those spotted.

Pettine still story: From a Bills' perspective, the most buzz in Mobile has been around defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who interviewed for a second time Tuesday with the Cleveland Browns. He'll be in Cleveland for a third interview Thursday before the Browns make a decision, sources told ESPN NFL Insiders Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen.

Wrapping things up: Wednesday serves as the final day that we'll cover Senior Bowl practices. Teams will wrap up their preparations for Saturday's game, but most scouts and executives will have left town by Thursday. The next major step in the scouting process is next month's combine in Indianapolis.

Senior Bowl bed check: Day 2

January, 21, 2014
Jan 21

MOBILE, Ala. -- Wrapping up the events from the second day of Senior Bowl practices:

Off-field buzz: While the Senior Bowl gives scouts a chance to evaluate a chunk of prospects for May's draft, it's what happens behind the scenes that is just as important. On Tuesday night, Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine interviewed for a second time with the Cleveland Browns, who have the NFL's final head coaching vacancy. As such, there's been plenty of buzz around Pettine and the Browns this week in Mobile, perhaps more than any players on the field.

Executives in town: Here's who we spotted in the stands during Tuesday's practices: Bills general manager Doug Whaley, former Bills general manager Buddy Nix, New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan, New Orleans Saints coach Rob Ryan, St. Louis Rams general manager Les Snead, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, and Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman. We've also spotted Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis this week.

Colvin tears ACL: One injury note to pass along: According to his agent, Andy Simms, Oklahoma cornerback Aaron Colvin tore his ACL in Tuesday's practice. According to Scouts, Inc., Colvin was the top-rated cornerback at the Senior Bowl. He is currently rated No. 67 among all draft prospects.
The pickings are slim for the Cleveland Browns. Since firing Rob Chudzinski, the Browns have run through several head coaching candidates and have yet to make a hire.

Their next interview will be with Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, and given the way Cleveland's coaching search has unfolded, it would hardly be a shock if Pettine soon becomes the favorite for the position.

That makes Pettine's possible departure from Buffalo a hypothetical worth exploring. What would it mean to the Bills?

Losing Pettine would be a major blow to coach Doug Marrone in his second year of a rebuilding effort. Marrone lured Pettine away from the New York Jets, and in just one season, Pettine quickly turned things around for a defense that had struggled for years.

If Pettine eventually leaves for Cleveland, it would be a strong bet that at least two of his assistants would follow: outside linebackers coach Jim O'Neil and defensive line coach Anthony Weaver. Both have backgrounds with Pettine, and would likely become building blocks for Pettine's staff in Cleveland.

With inside linebackers coach Chuck Driesbach fired this week, the Bills' defensive coaching staff could essentially be cleaned out by this move. Secondary coach Donnie Henderson would be a wild card, as he has experience with both Marrone and Pettine, and there would be an outside chance he would replace Pettine as defensive coordinator.

The more likely scenario, from this perspective, is that Marrone would choose to bring in another experienced defensive coordinator and re-start the building process on that side of the ball. The problem, however, would be timing. By late January or early February, most NFL and college staffs are complete, leaving the Bills with few "free agent" coaching options.

If Pettine is hired by the Browns and if the Bills choose to bring in a new defensive coordinator -- again, these are "ifs" -- then it will undoubtedly set the Bills back. The defense, while talented at most spots, would have to adjust to yet another new scheme, which is exactly what a second-year coach wants to avoid.

It would not be a monumental obstacle for the Bills to overcome, but one that could pose a significant problem for Marrone this season.
Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will interview for the Cleveland Browns head coaching job, a league source confirms.

Pettine, 47, oversaw a Bills defense this season that finished with the NFL's second-most sacks (57), which was also a franchise record. Overall, the Bills defense improved from 26th in 2012 to 20th in points allowed this season.

The Bills hired Pettine last January after four seasons as defensive coordinator for the New York Jets. Pettine followed Rex Ryan to the Jets after coming up through the coaching ranks with the Baltimore Ravens.

Pettine is the latest of several coaches to interview for the Browns, who fired Rob Chudzinski after one season. The Browns are also expected to interview Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who said he would not interview until after Denver's season is over.

Last month, we explored the issue of Pettine's possible departure after the TheMMQB.com reported that Pettine was on an NFL-created list of potential head coaching candidates. Bills CEO Russ Brandon said at the time that the team would not block a coach from interviewing for a better position.

"My belief and foundation always has been about opportunity for people. You work your tail off in this business for opportunity," Brandon told WGR 550. "If coaches have that chance to better themselves for their career and for their family, it's something that you rarely, rarely would ever stand in that way for that opportunity."

Jay Glazer of Fox Sports first reported the interview.
Ryan TannehillAP Photo/Bill WippertThe Buffalo Bills sacked Ryan Tannehill seven times, raising their season total to a franchise-best 56.
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- As a team, the results haven't been there for the Buffalo Bills this season. Although winners of their past two games, the Bills have a 6-9 record and are closing in on their sixth consecutive season finishing in the basement of the AFC East.

Offensively, the Bills are a work in progress. But on the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's efforts won't go unnoticed by teams in search of a head coach this offseason, especially after Sunday's 19-0 shutout win over the Miami Dolphins.

According to a report last week from TheMMQB.com's Peter King, the NFL recently created a panel of former coaches and general managers to recommend head-coaching candidates to teams with vacancies. Pettine, 47, is on the list.

"I'm not going to think about it until the season is over. That's flattering. Lists are lists. But that's come before, so it's one of those deals," Pettine told ESPN.com on Sunday. "We'll focus on New England [in the season finale], and then when the dust settles from that, we'll look into that."

In his weekly radio appearance on WGR 550 in Buffalo last Wednesday, Bills CEO Russ Brandon said it would be unlikely that the Bills would block someone like Pettine from interviewing with other teams.

"It's something that obviously would come through me, [general manager] Doug Whaley and Coach [Doug] Marrone. But it all depends on what the opportunity is, but if it's a head coaching, certainly [he] would have that opportunity," Brandon said.

"My belief and foundation always has been about opportunity for people. You work your tail off in this business for opportunity. If coaches have that chance to better themselves for their career and for their family, it's something that you rarely, rarely would ever stand in that way for that opportunity."

Losing Pettine would be a blow to the Bills' rebuilding efforts, but having assistant coaches in line for promotions elsewhere might be a good problem for Buffalo.

"If that's the coach's goal, obviously we encourage it and support him in every way if he has that opportunity. Obviously I would like to see him stay right here in Buffalo, because I really think we're building something special on that side of the ball," Brandon said. "But he's a heck of a coach. But I'm sure he will have interest down the road here, especially if we keep improving. That's the catch-22.

"If we're improving as an organization or as a team, you're going to have your coaches poached a little bit, and that wouldn't be a bad thing. I'd like to worry about it, actually."

If teams with head-coaching openings look at Pettine, Sunday's win will be at the top of Pettine's résumé from this season.

Already with an NFL-best 49 sacks entering the game, the Bills added another seven sacks Sunday, shattering Buffalo's previous franchise single-season record set in 1995. The Dolphins never reached the red zone, were held to 2-for-14 on third downs and finished with just 103 net yards on offense.

"That was a pretty good beating," Pettine said with a smile after the game.

The shutout win and sack record serve as a feather in the cap for Pettine, who has led the turnaround of a Bills defense that had underperformed in recent seasons. While the Bills ranked 18th in points allowed entering this weekend, more fine-tuned statistics tell a different story.

This season, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi created a "defensive index" that tracks total turnovers, red zone defense, third-down conversions and points allowed by the defense. The Bills' defense ranked 12th in last week's installment and will undoubtedly move higher after Sunday's performance.

Prior to this season, it would have been easy to knock Pettine's coaching résumé. In his previous stints with the New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens, Pettine served as an assistant to Rex Ryan, a defensive mind who received much of the credit for that unit's success. But last offseason, Pettine decided to step out of Ryan's shadow and pair up with Marrone, whose NFL coaching background has come entirely on offense.

Now, the credit is due to Pettine. While the Bills' defense hasn't been excellent -- it ranks 23rd in rushing yards allowed per game, for example -- it has been very good for stretches this season, which could be enough to prove Pettine's worth to head-coaching headhunters in search of a top coordinator.

Still, the Bills' overall record this season might work against Pettine when coaching jobs open as soon as next week. It's often coordinators on playoff teams -- not those in last place in their division -- who receive consideration for head-coaching vacancies, so Pettine could be hurt by the limited national exposure the Bills received this season.

Pettine's career aspirations aside, it's fair to question if the Bills have wasted their defense's strong performances this season. It's even something Marrone's 9-year-old son has asked his dad.

"My son asked me the same thing, the same exact question you asked me. 'Do you look back and say should've, could've, would've?' I told him in life you can't do that," Marrone said. "Not in the present time and not with what we're doing. You always have to move forward and just keep working and building it."

Double Coverage: Bills at Jaguars

December, 13, 2013
Johnson/HenneUSA TODAY SportsStevie Johnson's Bills and Chad Henne's Jaguars are both 4-9, but the teams appear headed in opposite directions.
It has been a different second half for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Buffalo Bills.

Both teams are 4-9 but they’re on opposite wavelengths. The Jaguars have won four of their past five games and are currently riding a three-game winning streak for the first time since 2010. The Bills have lost four of their past five and are coming off an abysmal performance in Tampa Bay.

Jaguars coach Gus Bradley is talking about making sure his players treat prosperity the same way they treated the adversity they faced in the first half of the season. Bills coach Doug Marrone is talking about scaling back the offense to help rookie quarterback EJ Manuel.

The teams meet Sunday at EverBank Field. ESPN.com Bills reporter Mike Rodak and Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco break down the matchup:

DiRocco: Manuel is pretty familiar to fans in Jacksonville from his time at Florida State. He has had an up-and-down season, but what have you seen from him that leads you to believe the Bills made the correct choice in deciding to build the franchise around him?

Rodak: I think the jury is still out on whether the Bills made the correct choice in Manuel. In Sunday's loss to the Buccaneers, Manuel posted a 3.8 QBR, which ranks 415 out of 426 single-game performances in the NFL this season. It's dangerous to give too much weight to what's most recent, but in this case, Sunday had to be alarming for the Bills. Manuel has the leadership and character traits that any NFL team wants in its quarterback, but his on-field performance has left a lot to be desired. These last three games will be critically important to determining which direction Manuel is heading.

The Jaguars have gone on a surprising run lately, winning four of their past five games. Have they been doing anything different than early in the season? Or are things just simply starting to come together for Gus Bradley and his players?

DiRocco: Schematically, no, other than just paring down the defensive game plan a bit and focusing more on the coverages and blitzes they do well. But three things stand out: better run defense, a better turnover ratio and better success in the red zone. In the first eight games -- all losses by double digits -- the Jaguars were allowing 161.8 yards per game rushing, were minus-7 in turnover ratio, and scored TDs on only 25 percent of red-zone possessions. The numbers in the past five games: 70.8 yards per game allowed, plus-5, and 66.7 percent. The offensive line has been much more consistent, quarterback Chad Henne is making few mistakes, and the defensive line has held up at the point of attack much better.

Kiko Alonso is one of the candidates for defensive rookie of the year and is second in the NFL in tackles. Obviously a second-round pick is expected to produce, but has the kind of impact he has made on the defense been a surprise?

Rodak: I think so. When I spoke to defensive coordinator Mike Pettine last month about Alonso, he indicated that the Bills inserted him into the starting lineup in the spring, but it was a wait-and-see deal. If it didn’t work out, they were going to turn somewhere else, but Alonso has certainly fit well within this defense. He has drawn a lot of praise from coaches and veterans on this team for his work ethic and ability to pick up the scheme quickly. However, I do think that Alonso’s play has tailed off slightly over the past several weeks after he had a hot start this season. He had four interceptions, one sack, and one forced fumble in the first month of the season. Since then, he has had one sack, no interceptions and no forced fumbles. Is that overly concerning for the Bills, though? Most likely not. I think Alonso will be a fixture in this defense for the foreseeable future.

What’s the latest on Maurice Jones-Drew? I remember hearing some trade talk around him a few months ago, but once the deadline passed, he hasn’t been on the radar as much. Does he have a future in Jacksonville?

DiRocco: He does if he’s willing to be realistic about a contract. No team is going to pay big money for a 29-year-old running back that has battled injuries the past two seasons, which is what he’ll find out if he decides to test the free-agent market when his contract expires after this season. The Jaguars are interested in re-signing him and likely will offer him an incentive-filled two-year contract worth $6-10 million. Jones-Drew, who would like to finish his career in Jacksonville, is making $4.95 million this season so that would be a pay cut. If he’s OK with that, then I’d be surprised if he’s not around.

What do you think of the job Doug Marrone has done in his first season? And what do you think of his long-term future in Buffalo?

Rodak: I think it has been a trying season for Marrone. It's not that there were high hopes for the team in his first season -- nobody realistically expected them to make the playoffs -- but I don't think everything fell into place as well as he would have liked. His hire of Mike Pettine as defensive coordinator has generally paid off well, but ultimately what's going to define Marrone's tenure in Buffalo will be the quarterback position. Coaches don't often get more than one chance to get it right at quarterback, so if Manuel doesn't work out in Buffalo, it may not work out for Marrone, either. That's just today's NFL. It's a brutal league.

What about for the Jaguars? Their roster was about as bare bones as it gets this past offseason -- in much worse shape than the Bills' entering this season -- and they've managed to put on a nice little run here. What's the next step that general manager David Caldwell needs to take?

DiRocco: His No. 1 priority is to find a franchise quarterback. At the beginning of the season I would have told you the Jaguars would draft Teddy Bridgewater with the No. 1 overall selection, but since it now appears the Jaguars will be picking in the Nos. 5-7 range it seems unlikely Bridgewater will be around. Caldwell is going to have to figure out whether there’s somebody else he likes just as much or if he’s going to be willing to gamble that he can get a good QB a little later in the draft, whether it’s A.J. McCarron, Aaron Murray or somebody else.

Injuries are catching up with Bills

October, 4, 2013
EJ Manuel Ron Schwane/USA TODAY SportsEJ Manuel's sprained knee suffered Thursday night is just the latest bit of bad luck for the Bills.

CLEVELAND -- There’s a game that the Buffalo Bills’ brass must feel like they’re playing right about now, and it’s not just football.

It’s Whac-A-Mole.

The Bills have tried to navigate an early-season obstacle course of injuries, one that has taken key players out of the lineup on both sides of the ball.

The latest blow came Thursday night and struck EJ Manuel, whom Buffalo drafted in the first round this year to be their franchise quarterback. After scrambling for a first down in the third quarter, Manuel was hit in his right knee by Cleveland Browns safety Tashaun Gipson.

Manuel has a sprained knee, and with 10 days before the Bills’ next game, his prognosis is not immediately clear. But this much is obvious: The version of the Bills that finished Thursday’s game resembled something more like the squad that closed out preseason games.

Rookie Jeff Tuel -- the undrafted free agent from Washington State whom the Bills were ready to start in Week 1, if you need a reminder -- took over for Manuel and looked like, well, an undrafted rookie. He went 8-for-20 passing for 80 yards and threw a pick-six with less than two minutes remaining that ended any hopes of a Buffalo comeback.

The story would be much different, of course, if Tuel had been able to somehow pull out a victory on the road. But in an improbable scenario where both starting quarterbacks were knocked out with injuries Thursday night, nobody will blame Tuel for the Bills’ 37-24 loss.

In fact, it’s tough to place blame on anyone for the Bills’ 2-3 record thus far. This isn’t the team that general manager Doug Whaley and coach Doug Marrone, both in their first seasons, drew up.

Arriving from Syracuse, Marrone brought energetic 33-year-old offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett along to Buffalo and convinced defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to bring his aggressive scheme with him from the New York Jets. And at times, we’ve seen glimpses of the young, talented team that Whaley and his staff envisioned all spring and summer. This is far from the bottom-feeding roster that other so-called rebuilding teams must contend with.

It’s just not a healthy one.

The first signs of trouble came on the first day of training camp, when defensive end Mario Williams, one of the best at his position, showed up with a sore foot. Luckily for the Bills, he was able to shake that off.

That wasn’t the case with another Pro Bowl defender, Jairus Byrd, who signed his franchise-tag tender in late August and also arrived to camp with sore feet. Byrd has yet to play -- he was held out Thursday night on a coach’s decision -- and his presence as a back-end ball hawk has been missed.

As has cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who has been out with a fractured wrist since the preseason. Though only in his second season, the team believes Gilmore can become a top-tier NFL corner.

[+] EnlargeStevie Johnson
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsBills receiver Stevie Johnson went to the locker room during the second quarter with a back injury.
And on offense, the Bills have dealt with three significant injuries in recent weeks, even before Manuel went down. Their two-headed rushing attack of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson has been slowed by multiple ailments, while top receiver Stevie Johnson could not finish Thursday’s game after hurting his back.

It’s been one injury after another, after another.

For a while Thursday night, it looked like the Bills were finally starting to overcome their problem. Cornerback Leodis McKelvin returned to the lineup after missing almost two full games with a hamstring injury, a step toward the secondary getting back to health.

And then came what the Bills probably weren’t expecting: Spiller, on short rest and a bum ankle, broke open a 54-yard touchdown run on the third play of the second half.

Spiller trotted back to the bench with a limp, and after the game was seen in the locker room walking even more gingerly. But for one play, the Bills got what they needed out of him, as they did with Jackson, who has a sprained MCL. Jackson carried 17 times for 53 yards and two touchdowns.

“Two gutsy players,” Bills center Eric Wood said. “Having them out there was vital tonight. Credit them. It wasn’t easy for either of them, but they both fought back.”

For Buffalo, though, it just wasn’t enough. They were too banged up to pull this one out.

The Bills may get Manuel back for their next game, Byrd looks close to returning and the extra days of rest may do wonders for Spiller and Johnson.

But the way this young season has gone for the Bills, it seems like the next injury is lurking around the corner, ready to pop up its head.

W2W4: Bills at Jets

September, 21, 2013
NEWARK, N.J. -- The Buffalo Bills were one of just three teams to open with back-to-back home games. With a 1-1 record, they travel Sunday to face the New York Jets.

It's the second divisional tilt in three games for the Bills, who were edged in their opener by the New England Patriots. If the Bills can improve to 2-1, they'll keep pace in the AFC East with the Dolphins and Patriots, who enter the weekend 2-0. If they drop to 1-2, then they will sit at the bottom of the division before heading home to meet the Baltimore Ravens.

This game features a matchup of the NFL's top two rookie quarterbacks this season -- EJ Manuel of the Bills and Geno Smith of the Jets -- as well as a reunion of two old friends. Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine coached 11 seasons under Jets coach Rex Ryan, and the two defensive-minded coaches will try to scheme against each other's offense Sunday.

Here's what to watch for:

1. Spiller's impact: Bills running back C.J. Spiller had 325 yards from scrimmage in two games against the Jets last season. After a slow start in the opener, Spiller came on strong last week against the Panthers, breaking open a pair of big runs while eclipsing the 100-yard mark rushing. The Jets boast the NFL's third-best rushing defense heading into Week 3, allowing an average of 59.5 yards through two games. The Bills have the NFL's fourth-most effective rushing offense. Something will have to give on Sunday, which could help decide the game's outcome.

2. How do rookies fare? On the surface, it may seem that Manuel and Smith will be in for a long day, playing against two defenses that have ranked in the top half of the NFL in points allowed through two games. But both quarterbacks have the advantage of seeing the general framework of the other team's defense in practice each week; Pettine and Ryan run essentially the same system. Practice and games are two different animals, so it will be worth monitoring how each quarterback responds to what could be blitz-heavy packages in game action, but you almost have to wonder if the Ryan-Pettine effect is overplayed. Both teams figure to be run-first on offense, but maybe this game will feature more passing than first anticipated.

3. Mario vs. Jets O-line: Jets outside linebacker Antwan Barnes said Wednesday that he expects his offensive line to hold up against Bills defensive end Mario Williams, who set personal and team records with 4.5 sacks last week. Barnes, of course, won't be out there having to block Williams: that duty will fall to Austin Howard, who handled Williams well last season. Williams played a big part in disrupting Cam Newton last Sunday, and if he can get to Geno Smith, you'll have to wonder if it leads to some chippiness after plays between the Bills and the Jets, who had a fracas with the Patriots late in their Week 2 game.

Double Coverage: Bills at Jets

September, 20, 2013
Smith-Manuel USA TODAY SportsAFC East rookie quarterbacks Geno Smith and EJ Manuel face each other for the first time.

The quarterback situation in the AFC East can be described this way: Tom Brady and the young guns. Two of the young guns will face each other Sunday at MetLife Stadium, where the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills -- both 1-1 -- will be battling to stay out of last place in the division.

The Bills had their choice of any quarterback in the draft, and they selected EJ Manuel with the 16th pick. The Jets, who had the ninth and 13th picks, rated Geno Smith over Manuel but waited until the 39th pick before taking him. So far, Manuel is off to a better start than Smith, at least from a statistical standpoint, but this rivalry could last years. Both teams are hoping for that, anyway.

This should be a competitive game, as both teams appear to be at similar stages of development. The Bills are rebuilding with a new coach, former Jets assistant Doug Marrone, and the Jets are rebuilding with the same old coach, Rex Ryan. They have other things in common: They both suffered close losses to the New England Patriots and they both beat a team from the NFC South -- the Bills the Carolina Panthers, the Jets the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

ESPN Jets reporter Rich Cimini and ESPN Bills reporter Mike Rodak discuss the matchup:

Cimini: Mike, New York is a quarterback-obsessed town, so I think there will be a lot of interest in Smith versus Manuel. If Smith becomes a bust and Manuel a star, the Jets will be second-guessed for passing on Manuel. Hey, that's the way it goes. The old-timers are still ticked off the Jets picked Ken O'Brien over Dan Marino. Smith has played well in stretches, but the early trend is that he'll hit a funk. In Week 1, it was the second quarter. In Week 2, it was the fourth quarter -- three interceptions. What about Manuel? I know he missed some time in the preseason. What do you like (and not like) about his game?

Rodak: Rich, I've been impressed with Manuel's demeanor more than anything. He has the walk and talk of a franchise quarterback, and that sense has only grown for me since early in the preseason. The loss of Kevin Kolb was unfortunate for him and the Bills, but I think it was the best thing to happen to Manuel. The pressure is off and the job is his, and that's one of the reasons why I said in our ESPN.com preseason predictions that he will be Offensive Rookie of the Year. Here's the caveat for me, though: He needs to keep his bad mistakes in check. I think the most encouraging thing about his performance in the preseason and the regular-season opener was that he didn't commit costly turnovers. But Sunday, he was strip-sacked and threw a bad interception and was lucky to have his defense come up big both times and keep the game close. That might not happen against better opponents or on the road. Other than the quarterbacks, the biggest storyline coming out of this game is the return of Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to MetLife Stadium to face his old team. What's the feeling like between Ryan and his former assistant, and what sort of chess match can you see developing between these defensive minds?

Cimini: The Ryan-Pettine relationship is interesting. Basically, Ryan gave him his big break in the business, nurtured him for a decade, handed him the defense last season, and suddenly it was Splitsville. It was a curious departure, considering Pettine made a lateral move to the Bills. Deep down, I think they like and respect each other, but I think they both realized the relationship had run its course. As for the chess match, it will be fascinating. Let's put it this way: I wouldn't want to be a rookie quarterback, facing one of these guys. Ryan, the Jets' de facto coordinator, can confuse inexperienced quarterbacks with pressure and simulated pressure. Heck, he confused Brady last week. That Manuel faced a Ryan-like scheme all spring and summer will undoubtedly help him. Of course, the same could be said for Smith. I know this much: Ryan and Pettine are highly competitive, and there's more personal pride on the line than either one will admit. Ryan has a different challenge in that he'll have to face an up-tempo offense. Tell me more about the Bills' hurry-up.

Rodak: It's been evident that the Bills want to move fast, but I think they still want to speed things up some more. The problem in the first game was not converting third downs. Regardless of how fast they got plays off on first and second downs, they were 4-for-13 on third down, which often took the up-tempo offense off the field quickly. They improved to 6-for-14 on third down in Week 2, but more importantly jumped from 15 first downs to 24 first downs, evidence of a better showing on early downs. Marrone also said Monday that there were problems with the coach-to-quarterback communications system, another factor in the offense not reaching its desired efficiency. So while we've seen glimpses of the pace the Bills want to run, it hasn't always been there.

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Two years ago, faced with yet another matchup between the New York Jets and New England Patriots, Bill Belichick delivered a quote that could also describe Sunday's game between the Jets and Buffalo Bills.

"It’s one of those deals where they know that we know that we know that they know that we know," Belichick said.

Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and Jets head coach Rex Ryan worked together for 11 seasons. They know each other all too well. They run the same defense.

[+] EnlargeMike Pettine and Rex Ryan
AP Photo/David DrapkinBills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine coached with coach Rex Ryan for 11 seasons with the Jets and Ravens.
So when it comes to trying to outmaneuver each other at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, Pettine has inserted a new buzz term into the vocabulary at One Bills Drive: "Chasing ghosts."

With over 10 years worth of shared terminology and scheme, Pettine emphasized that it becomes even harder to anticipate what Ryan will try to do. In short, it's not even worth it.

"You tighten that material down into a 30- or 40-call game plan and it's hard for me to try to ... you're just chasing ghosts when you say you might see that, or might see this," Pettine said. "It just comes down to execution. You have to get your plays lined up and play sound and hope that your guys can outexecute their guys."

Pettine added that he and Ryan built the defense in such a way that it adapts to personnel, so what Pettine does with the Bills' players may be different than what he did in New York.

"The strength of the system is the ability to make it player-driven," he said. "Like what we've done here, where I wouldn't say significantly different than what we did in New York, but we are different, just based on the personnel that we have here, just as his personnel has changed slightly in New York and he has adjusted his system accordingly.

"Again, I just think you get into a lot of chasing ghosts if you just try to sit on the other side and say 'OK, this is what you're going to get.'"

Bills center Eric Wood isn't coached by Pettine and said he hasn't talked to the defensive coordinator this week, but that term still made its way into Wood's comments Wednesday.

"I'm sure he's talked to our coaches," Wood said. "But sometimes when you discuss too much, it can sometimes lead you to chase ghosts. Rex knows that Pettine knows some of his calls and knows his schemes. So he won't let that affect it."

Pettine also downplayed how much offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett can benefit from Pettine's experience.

"I've talked to Nate some, but it's probably not as much as you'd think. I think you can get caught up in this too much," he said.

Ryan said this week that he and Pettine are like "brothers," but Pettine said Wednesday that he is trying to keep his focus away from that part of the game, as hard as that can be.

"I'd be a liar if I stood here and said this game didn't mean more to me or I didn't want to win it. Coaches in the NFL I think were born with a competitive gene, a hyper-competitive gene, and you want to win at everything," he said. "I can't get drawn into the emotion of that. I have a job to do to put my players in the best position to be successful and that's what we're going to do."

Blitzing could define Pettine-Rex reunion

September, 17, 2013
There's a chess match brewing this Sunday in the Meadowlands.

You don't need a media guide to know that Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine got his start in NFL coaching in Baltimore with now-Jets head coach Rex Ryan. The two have shared a long history since, with Pettine following Ryan to New York as defensive coordinator from 2009-2012.

But what nobody seems to know is how the two all-too-familiar, defensive-minded coaches will attack each other's offense when the two reunite at MetLife Stadium this weekend.

If their track records are any indication, both coaches' game plans will involve the blitz.

Sometimes that pressure is real. Sometimes it's just a look at the line of scrimmage that turns into a trap for opposing quarterbacks. Either way, it's a staple of Ryan and Pettine defenses.

When Ryan became Jets head coach with Pettine as his defensive coordinator, the Jets blitzed more effectively than any team in the NFL. In 2009, the Jets held opponents to a league-low 42.9 percent completion percentage when rushing six or more, with a dismal 44.9 opposing passer rating far and away the best in the league.

Pettine came to Buffalo this offseason to fix a Bills defense with several holes, effective blitzing among them. In 2012, the Bills ranked 26th in the NFL when rushing six or more, allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 61.9 percent of their passes.

As Pettine tinkered with his new pieces on defense, incorporating blitzing didn't always work to plan. In the Bills' third preseason game, when starters had their most extensive playing time, the Redskins were able to turn early blitzes into big gains.

But through two regular-season contests, the Bills have turned it around.

Opposing passers (i.e., Tom Brady and Cam Newton) have completed 50 percent of their passes when faced with five or more Bills rushers, tied for fourth-best in the NFL. And even when Brady or Newton was able to get the pass off and completed, the Bills held opposing receivers to just 8 yards per catch, sixth-best in the league.

The Jets, meanwhile, are also in the top third of the NFL when rushing five or more. Opposing quarterbacks have completed 56.7 percent of their passes, the tenth-best mark. However, opposing receivers have gained 13.18 yards per completion when the Jets blitz, seventh-worst in the NFL.

Both teams though, have fared well when incorporating another wrinkle of Ryan and Pettine's scheme: Blitzing a defensive back.

While each team has been judicious in doing so thus far this season, the Jets (42.9 opposing completion percentage) and the Bills (50 percent) rank third and tied for fifth, respectively.

The sample sizes for both teams this season may be small, but history tells us this: Pettine and Ryan are two of the best when it comes to dialing up pressure.

With a rookie quarterback -- EJ Manuel for the Bills and Geno Smith for the Jets -- starting for each team Sunday, this will be a fun one to watch.