The Bills entered 2011 with a primary goal of improving the defense. They used their first four picks of last April's draft on defensive players, including the No. 3 overall pick, Marcell Dareus. Buffalo hired Dave Wannstedt as an assistant and signed free-agent ILB Nick Barnett.
Looking back at the 6-10 squad, there was marked improvement. The run defense, which was dead-last in 2010, gave up 30 fewer rushing yards a game this season but was still 28th in the league.
Defensive line coach Giff Smith told PFW that improving the run defense was "the biggest thing going into the (2011) season." He pointed out three games in which the Bills struggled to stop the run, vs. the Titans and Cowboys and in the fourth quarter against Cincinnati. Smith said they preached about keeping teams from establishing the run.
Changes were made to the defense, though, the day after the season ended, with Wannstedt being promoted to defensive coordinator, replacing the fired George Edwards.
Moving forward, defense appears to be a focal point again come this offseason, but the Bills can be pleased with the early returns on Dareus.
"We've asked a lot out of him, especially with Kyle Williams getting injured so quick. Being a rookie and trying to battle through some pain and being able to maintain that every Sunday, I think he's done a great job," Smith said.
Dareus led the team with 5½ sacks and 10 QB hits and tied Barnett for the team lead in tackles for loss with nine.
Smith also discussed the performance of veteran DE Dwan Edwards, who finished with 52 tackles and eight QB hits and helped fill the leadership void with Williams on injured reserve.
"Dwan does a nice job of leading by example. He is a very productive, high-energy guy," Smith said.
Dareus may have provided a spark getting after the quarterback, but improving the pass rush remains a high priority. The Bills had 29 sacks this season, which was tied for 27th in the league, and it includes a fluke-type performance of 10 sacks in a game against Washington.
"We're not where we want to be, rushing the passer, not only with sacks, but we want to create more pressure on the quarterback," said Smith. "We want to be more productive off the edge. ... We think we are heading in the right direction. If we add a couple more pieces to it, we feel we can have a pretty good pass-rushing unit."
Follow Kevin Fishbain on Twitter