When you’re drafted in the top ten in the NFL, expectations are sky high. Hello Ed Oliver! In 2019 an elite Buffalo Bills defense made it pretty easy to be happy with just about everyone who pitched in, including Oliver. After a nosedive in 2020 though, the bridge trolls* are all about finding their scapey-goats gruff. Hello again Ed Oliver! Let’s look at the tape and see if he’s appropriate troll fodder, misunderstood superstar, or something in between.
*Note: I’m not suggesting everyone who’s critiquing Oliver is guilty of trolling, it’s just that the Billy Goats Gruff things sounded really good in my head.
There’s some good and some bad here. The push is really good as Oliver drives his man back pretty handily. I focus on the knee above because it’s nearly touching the ground. They say “the low man wins” and Oliver is looooooooooow. Oliver is usually pretty good about knowing where the ball is but he loses track for a moment. That’s not to say he would have stunned the world with a tackle for a loss or anything, but there’s a lot to be found even when a player isn’t directly involved with the ball carrier.
Ed Oliver shows off multiple skills with decent good transitions. He starts off with good hand placement on the shoulders for a semi-bull rush. A small trip sets his opponent off balance and Oliver’s hands start to piston and create a mismatch. Finally he attempts a rip to get the rest of the way around and get to Russell Wilson. He doesn’t, but he makes sure that Wilson can’t step to his left or back. None of the above is jaw-dropping but let me plant the suggestion of “Jack of all trades.” Or Ed—Ed of all trades.
See, Oliver is usually pretty heads-up on the play as he reacts right away to the situation and cuts in to flush Wilson. Unfortunately he has trouble shedding the block and is significantly delayed. Could this have been called a hold? Yes. Should it have been? Meh. Oliver shows the ability to keep himself clean on many plays where, like above, he flashes a varied skill set. Let me introduce you to the idea of “master of none.”
Why the heck show a play like this one? Like I hinted at above, I do think critique is valid but please be careful when evaluating plays. It can be hard to guess the play call, though we have some great evidence for some guesses here. Note that Jerry Hughes drifts off the screen to the right. He’s in coverage. Ed Oliver mixes it up and becomes the contain man on the edge instead to keep Wilson from scooting off for a big chunk of yards. This speaks to how the Bills made MVP candidate Russell Wilson miserable by making it nearly impossible to diagnose the pass rush and coverage assignments.
This only works with versatile players so before I go on, I’d like to introduce you to a fun game. We often hear a lot about 1-tech or 3-tech regarding defensive linemen. As a very brief tutorial, 1-tech means the tackle is aligned over the shoulder of the center—either shoulder for the record. 3-tech is over the outside shoulder of a guard. Here’s the game. Start back up at the top and make a list of all the “techs” that Ed Oliver lines up as. I like to keep a chart handy for reference.
I chose the Seattle Seahawks game specifically because Ed Oliver was invisible on the stat sheet recording...nothing. Overall though, I think he had a good game. He stunts with A.J. Klein, which gives Oliver a favorable matchup. As he drives back toward Wilson, he’s able to be a nuisance in the passing lanes if he needs to and Wilson knows it. While eventually the quarterback is flushed out, it’s into harm’s way. This was the forced fumble by Jerry Hughes—helped tremendously by a panic run cause by Ed Oliver.
This could be my favorite play in the group. Oliver starts off as 0-tech, right over the center and waits until Seattle sets their protections. Oliver and a few other Bills shift knowing the Seahawks don’t have time again to adjust. Oliver is stood up...but watch the center. He shifts over to cover Oliver and because Darryl Johnson has NOT moved, the guard hesitates to fill in the gap. In comes Vernon Butler for a tackle-for-loss.
I have to reiterate that I’m not telling anyone they haven’t seen negative plays from Oliver. This was the first play of the game. Oliver looks like he’s trying to drive forward and the Kansas City Chiefs’ line is well prepared. Oliver is shoved off to the side easily. There is a positive takeaway you see here and elsewhere. You’d be hard pressed to find a player with a higher motor than Oliver. He. Does. Not. Give. Up!
I suggest above that even his flaws aren’t universal. Kansas City is trying like crazy to drive him away from the play (along with everyone else). Oliver sheds the block well enough to make the tackle and shows very good awareness of what’s happening, even with that shot to the back.
Here’s one of the techniques I mentioned he uses to keep himself clean. The extension of the right arm means he’ll have no issue shedding this block when the time comes—and he’s anticipating that time. Tremaine Edmunds drifts away from Patrick Mahomes despite the fact that Edmunds spent a lot of time spying the quarterback. On this play, Oliver is locked in on Mahomes and, rather than trying to shove his way in, he’s keeping himself clean to flow in either direction he might be needed.
If you’re still not satisfied with Ed Oliver’s play, I actually understand that sentiment. When a player is selected ninth overall and it’s their second year, it’s not unreasonable to want a consistent impact player—and Oliver isn’t always that player. I think it’s fair to want a little bit more from him at this point.
On the positive side of the ledger, did you try that game I suggested? I watched a few more than nine plays and can recall seeing snaps at 0-tech, 1-tech, 2i, 3, 4i, 5, and 7. Additionally, he floats from one side to the other quite frequently. Watching Ed Oliver and the defensive line, I started to question if maybe defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier and head coach Sean McDermott haven’t gone overboard with versatility.
Physically, Oliver shows good tools and a diverse skill set, but it has to be harder trying to apply them consistently from so many places. If I were into betting, I’d wager that the recent successes from the Bills’ defense have a lot to do with players starting to settle in at positions.