This offseason, the Buffalo Bills doubled down on their front four and added major pieces through free agency and the draft. Through five weeks, they aren’t getting the returns that they hoped. (Stats are pulled from ProFootballReference.com)
Buffalo’s defense is tied for 19th in the NFL, allowing 5.8 yards per play. Beyond that large metric, there are other concerns in net yards per passing attempt (T-19th, 6.7 NYPA) and yards per rushing attempt (T-14th, 4.3 YPA). The most important stat is scoring, where they are 25th in the league, allowing scores on 48% of opposing team’s offensive possessions.
So what gives? What’s the problem with the defense this year? Obviously injuries have taken a toll, with Matt Milano, Tre’Davious White, and Tremaine Edmunds all missing games so far. I think the bigger problem is the front four.
The Buffalo Bills’ blitz percentage is tied for third-most in the league at 40.6% of defensive plays. For a team that’s built on generating pressure from their front four like head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier both want to do, that’s absurd. Even with the blitzing, they aren’t getting home.
The Bills are next-to-last in QB hurry percentage, only making the QB throw early or escape the pocket on 4.8% of their pass plays. They have just ten sacks on the year, good for 19th in sacks per game. They are 29th in pressure rate, applying pressure on just 17.9% of the pass plays.
So the results aren’t good, but have the Bills done enough to stock the shelves? The defensive line has been their number-one focus over the last two years.
- Their top draft pick in 2020 was a defensive end—A.J. Epenesa—who thus far isn’t ready for a role. He was inactive in Week 1 and played just four snaps this past week.
- Last year’s top draft pick, top-ten pick DT Ed Oliver, started off the season well but hasn’t been able to generate pressure consistently.
- 2019 seventh-round pick Daryl Johnson is still developing on an upward trend but had zero pressures in six defensive snaps against the Tennessee Titans.
- One of the more expensive free-agent additions in 2020, DT/DE Quinton Jefferson has one sack through five games despite playing 60% of the snaps. (He was never expected to notch sacks, for the record, and his ten tackles have him on pace for a career year.)
- DT Vernon Butler signed an even bigger deal in 2020 in terms of compensation for the current year but has one forced fumble and seven tackles with zero sacks.
- (Harrison Phillips is a former third-round pick coming off an ACL tear and is still playing his way back into form. Four tackles in 45% of the snaps.)
- Meanwhile at defensive end, Mario Addison was supposed to be an upgrade over Shaq Lawson and signed the biggest deal of the offseason. He has two sacks and three pass knockdowns to go with 11 tackles while playing 60% of the snaps.
- Trent Murphy was an integral part of the plan, but has one sack and nine tackles while playing half the snaps. He’s got the fifth-highest cap hit on the team, just behind Addison.
- We round it out with Jerry Hughes, the seventh-highest cap hit on the team, who is consistently winning reps. But when you’re the only guy winning reps, teams can account for you. Hughes’s stats aren’t very good, but his win rate is off the chart and Joe Buscaglia clearly had him ranked ahead of everyone else following the Titans’ game.
So let’s recap:
At defensive end they have Hughes, Murphy, and Addison on big free-agent contracts and spent their top draft pick there but can’t generate a pass rush. At defensive tackle, they have a top-ten draft pick and two big free-agent contracts along with a third-round pick. That is significant investment on the defensive front. At least they’ve turned around the run defense in the last two weeks after questionable results in the first three games.
On my podcast, I had a question about whether the Bills could add a free agent or make a trade on the defensive line. They have nine guys in those spots and significant investments littering the position groups. The players are clearly underperforming.
These guys are who they wanted, and they have not been good enough. It’s letting opposing QBs pick apart the second level in the passing game and until two weeks ago, was causing problems in the run game, as well.