Chasing the Patriots: Bills and Jets share same strengths, weaknesses

The defending Super Bowl champion Patriots have won the AFC East six consecutive years, but they are poised to be knocked off the division’s top perch. They have lost their top three cornerbacks from last season, and the NFL upheld a four-game suspension of QB Tom Brady. Two of their challengers in the division — the Bills and Jets — are similarly constructed teams with the same strengths and problems. Both the Bills and Jets have very good defensive units, something that shouldn’t come as a surprise considering the main link between the franchises is Rex Ryan, the son of Buddy Ryan, who popularized the 46 defense. After six years with the Jets, Rex Ryan enters his first year coaching the Bills. Ryan’s replacement in New York, Todd Bowles, actually employs a very similar gameplan involving a blitz-heavy 3-4 D. Bowles, though, inherits the same problem that plagued Ryan in New York and still negatively affects him in Buffalo — poor QB play. Although both teams have two of the most uncertain QB situations in the league, their defensive lines are two of the best. The Jets’ D-line took a hit when defensive end Sheldon Richardson, who was just charged for resisting arrest after driving 143 mph, was suspended four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. But even without him, the Jets have Muhammad Wilkerson, a 6-4, 315-pounder with 16 sacks the last two years, and rookie Leonard Williams, who was regarded as the best defensive player in the draft before dropping to No. 6 overall because of rumors of a lingering shoulder injury that he claims were unfounded. Buffalo’s version of Richardson is Marcell Dareus. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft has the versatility to play nose tackle, 4-3 defensive tackle or 3-4 defensive end. The talented Dareus is stout versus the run, and his 28.5 sacks in his four years in the league demonstrate his pass rush ability. His issues come off the field where he has numerous incidents, including ones involving drag racing and drugs. On the Bills’ four-man line, Dareus lined up next to Kyle Williams, a high-motor player who has 16 sacks the past two years, last season. Ryan will likely go with three down linemen this year, moving defensive ends Mario Williams — the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft — and Jerry Hughes to 3-4 outside linebackers. Williams has 91 career sacks, and the duo combined for 24 sacks last season. The Bills had the third best pass defense in the league last year not only because of their ability to get to the quarterback, but also because they have two former top 11 picks — Leodis McKelvin and Stephon Gilmore — starting at cornerback. Ryan will love having those corners. He can trust them in single coverage, allowing him to blitz multiple defenders. His penchant for doing that is why Ryan lobbied the Jets front office to re-sign Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, the cover cornerbacks who shut down receivers while the Jets advanced to the AFC Championship Game in 2010. Unfortunately for Ryan, the Jets re-signed them only after he left. Those secondary additions — and the free-agent acquisition of CB Buster Skrine — should drastically improve a New York defense that ranked sixth in the NFL last season but only 14th against the pass. And the Jets D will have to be outstanding to compensate for an anemic offense. The offensive woes begin at quarterback where New York has error-prone Geno Smith, who has turned the ball over 41 times in 30 career games. Rookie quarterback Bryce Petty, drafted in the fourth round, has potential, but he is somewhat of a project because he needs to adjust from the spread offense at Baylor to the Jets’ pro-style attack. There’s a reason Jets QB Ryan Fitzpatrick is on his sixth team; he is whom you want as your No. 2 quarterback but not your starter. One of Fitzpatrick’s former teams, the Bills, have similar QB issues. Matt Cassel, the odds-on favorite to win the job, is like Fitzpatrick. An excellent backup, he could not hold onto the starting job in Kansas City or Minnesota. EJ Manuel, the first quarterback selected in the 2013 NFL Draft, is not dynamic enough. He has completed under 59 percent of his passes in both seasons and never averaged more than 6.44 yards per pass. Tyrod Taylor also has a shot at the starting job. Whoever quarterbacks the Bills will at least have LeSean McCoy and Fred Jackson at running back, potentially allowing Buffalo to play a ball-control attack, which puts less pressure on the passer. McCoy has 2,926 rush yards over the last two seasons, and Jackson has surpassed 925 rushing yards three times. The Bills have young talent at receiver. Sammy Watkins enters his second year while Robert Woods enters his third. They combined for 1,681 receiving yards last year. They also signed WR Percy Harvin to a one-year contract. Harvin played for Ryan last year in New York after the versatile receiver previously wore out his welcome in Minnesota and Seattle. The Jets took on another talented — but somewhat troubled — receiver in Brandon Marshall to complement Eric Decker. But like the Bills, the Jets would be better off taking the game out of the hands of whichever dubious quarterback wins the QB job and relying on a deep RB group. The Jets ranked third in the NFL in rushing last year and are even deeper this year. Though lacking an elite back, New York has Chris Ivory, Bilal Powell, Stevan Ridley and Zac Stacy. Each has at least one 697-yard season to his name. Time will tell if strong running games and defenses will be enough to make up for poor QB play — and enough to finally unseat the Patriots. Follow Jeff on Twitter @JFedotin

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