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Buffalo Bills All-22 analysis: Ed Oliver’s rookie season

Breaking down Buffalo’s first-round rookie.

We’ve heard you, Buffalo Bills fans. Six weeks into the season, you’re looking for an update on first-round draft pick Ed Oliver. The Bills earned universal acclaim when they selected him with the ninth overall pick, but he’s only landed a modest 11 tackles so far in the year. Is that a sign to be worried, or is that notion an overreaction? How does his trajectory look? Let’s turn on the coach’s film and focus our gaze on the young defensive tackle.

The effort is always present

One point that should already be crystal-clear with Oliver: He hustles as much as any other player you’ll see on the field. Every game features at least one play where Oliver busts his butt to make a tackle ten yards downfield when someone gets loose.

That relentless energy also means that Oliver is always a threat on any given play. Like Anthony Barr—another raw and athletic defender—if Oliver ends up unblocked, he’ll accelerate into a problem for the offense in a hurry.

Take this play against the New York Jets, for instance. Oliver is stopped initially, but clubs free of the right guard and zooms toward Sam Darnold. Darnold had a wide-open crosser, but Oliver’s pressure forced the incompletion.

Oliver is 1/11th of the defense

Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier constantly sound the refrain of team defense, and every player has bought in, Oliver included. This defense doesn’t have superstars, just a full set of talented players. The scheme also doesn’t necessarily emphasize the defensive line like Jim Schwartz’s designs did—it’s much more focused on having the back-seven make plays. So Oliver will need to work for his opportunities. From play to play, that starts by doing his job within the coach’s design.

Let’s head back to the Jets for an example of what that means. Leslie Frazier cooks up a tricky blitz he can only do because of his talented players. In all, there are seven possible pass rushers, and Micah Hyde is creeping forward at the snap like he’s blitzing. But both Hyde and Matt Milano are actually going to handle man coverage on the TE and RB, respectively. Tremaine Edmunds loops behind Oliver and Lorenzo Alexander on a stunt.

Oliver screams at the left guard and knocks him back a step at first contact. That helps him collapse the pocket and erase Darnold’s escape route. He didn’t win the sack, but he contributed to the team effort.

Oliver needs to develop a wider array of pass-rushing moves

If there’s a complaint with Oliver’s showing so far, it’s that he doesn’t have a large variety of pass-rushing techniques. There’s a bull rush, a long arm, and the occasional club/rip, but mostly the bull rush. He doesn’t have a strong counter move, and can go stretches of the game where he gets locked up one-on-one without a clear victory.

Oliver would do well to study tape of Geno Atkins and Aaron Donald for tips on how to keep his opponents on their heels every play.

He’s already disrupting the quarterback

On 118 pass rushes, Oliver has generated pressure 8.5 percent of the time (per Sports Info Solutions), which ranks 16th among all NFL defensive tackles this season (min. 40 rush attempts). No, he doesn’t have any sacks yet in the season. But, well, he’s only two sacks out from ranking in the top ten at his position in this young season. He’s hit the quarterback eight times, including knocking them down three times, but he’s either barely missed on finishing the sack or been the precursor to his teammate landing the final blow.

Doing his part in run defense

One of the (in my opinion, overblown) concerns with Oliver before the draft was how well he’d be able to hold up against the run. As a 280-lb defensive tackle, there were concerns that he didn’t have the strength to hold up against offensive guards paving a road for their running back.

There’s not anything to worry about there. Oliver’s power is more than adequate for his role, and he’s generally in the right position to help finish the play against the run. Again, he’s doing his 1/11th to shut down the opponent.

Here’s one example play against the New England Patriots. Tom Brady, not liking the defensive look, alerts to a run play. They run Sony Michel on outside zone to the left side. Oliver rides his lineman all the way to the sideline without giving ground, and his teammates clean the play up for a one-yard loss.

With another example, this time against the Titans, Oliver faced an initial double team against inside zone. He does a good job attacking Taylor Lewan’s inside shoulder to close the primary gap on the play, doesn’t lose any ground, and his teammates clean up the run for a one-yard gain.

The freaky plays are there... stay tuned.

From day one of his college career, Ed Oliver was a reputable freak of nature on the football field. You’d see him turn in acrobatic plays that no 280-lb man should be capable of. The adjustment period against NFL talent has been rocky at times, but we’re still catching glimpses of his potential.

Here’s a play against the New York Giants. The center is supposed to execute a reach block on Oliver while the right guard pulls on the run fake. Eli Manning flashes the ball before throwing a screen pass to the right side.

Oliver is so quick out of his stance that he nearly blows up the play in the backfield. Manning’s ball-fake tricks Oliver, who would’ve tackled the running back if he’d had the ball.

That doesn’t stop him, though. Despite falling down, he immediately gets up and starts moving to try and tackle the receiver who caught the screen pass.

So far, so good

I know, I know. Oliver was immensely productive in college, and to see that the sum total of his efforts through a third of the season comes out to 11 tackles and a pass defended isn’t ideal. But his rookie season to this point has shown that Oliver possesses the athletic ability and effort that the Bills need on the defensive line. His day will come, as long as he keeps driving forward with every opportunity.