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Analysis: Self-scouting the Buffalo Bills’ run defense

Fix yourself a drink before diving into this one.

The Buffalo Bills have played through two-thirds of their season, compiling a 7-3 record in their first ten games. It’s an appealing place to be—in sole possession of the AFC East lead—but things aren’t perfect.

The bye-week break is the perfect time for self-scouting, understanding a team’s strengths and weaknesses, and thinking about the future.

Let’s go ahead and do that—with an eye focused on the Billsrushing defense.

We’ve seen some historically bad rushing defenses from the Buffalo Bills. This year’s defense isn’t in that territory, but it’s still pretty awful. Through ten games, the Bills rank 28th in rushing yards allowed, in rushing touchdowns allowed, and in rushing yards per carry allowed. NFL teams have taken 280 carries against the Bills, and 108 of them (38.6 percent) have ended in either a first down or a touchdown. The Bills rank dead last in rushing success rate, a stat that tracks the amount of plays that keep an offense “on track” to move the chains; 61 percent of running plays have “succeeded” against the Bills. Surprisingly, though, the Bills haven’t allowed a dramatic number of explosive runs (10+ yards per carry)—only 31 out of 280. Instead, they’re just consistently losing at the line of scrimmage.

The directional breakdown of Buffalo’s rushing defense in 2020
2020 Bills rushing defense stats (Source:

By far the strongest preference for the Bills’ opponents is running up the gut. Runs into the A gap are succeeding 69 percent of the time, per Sharp Football Stats. 12.9 percent of those runs net ten or more yards, which is astonishing both because it’s 50 percent higher than the league aggregate, and because conventional wisdom would tell you that runs behind the center should be the most likely ones to shut down before they can reach ten yards.

One major part of this problem, and I think it cannot be overstated, has been the injury situation at linebacker. Tremaine Edmunds suffered a shoulder injury Week 1, and only missed one game in playing through pain in his recovery process. But the caliber of play was not at his standard. Edmunds finally stopped showing up on the injury report around Week 8, and his last two weeks have been outstanding.

Tremaine Edmunds tracks down Kyler Murray for the tackle
Chasing down Kyler Murray in the open field: that’s the Tremaine Edmunds we know and love.

Then we get to Matt Milano. Through his first three seasons, Matt Milano had 26 tackles-for-loss. This year, he has one. The difference: that darn injury bug. A hamstring, then a sprained (possibly even lightly torn) pectoral muscle, have been absolutely dogging him all season. When healthy, Milano is a roaming missile on the playing field. Along with that, he’s a force multiplier for Edmunds.

Third linebacker A.J. Klein doesn’t have Milano’s speed (which we’ll cover more when discussing the pass defense) and he’s not much better at defeating blocks from offensive linemen. Backup Tyrel Dodson has flashed now and then, but is dealing with his own injury at the moment. So until the linebackers are fully recovered, this team won’t be at its best.

A.J. Klein is too slow to make a tackle
A.J. Klein just isn’t athletic enough to make this tackle in space.

The lack of linebacker speed and range is one factor with runs reaching the secondary, but it all starts with the work up front. I’m sure, by now, you’re familiar with Buffalo’s underwhelming stable of defensive tackles. There’s no Star Lotulelei on the roster this year. Vernon Butler, despite measuring in at 6’4” and 330 lbs, can’t nail the nose tackle gig. Quinton Jefferson isn’t the answer there, and Harrison Phillips has been a healthy scratch in four games this year. And that leaves... Justin Zimmer? The former practice squad member saved a win against the New England Patriots and, lest we forget, he almost did the same thing when he appeared to force a fumble against the Kansas City Chiefs two weeks earlier. So the Bills have worked him into their rotation, but he’s not saving the day here. Ed Oliver is being asked to do a lot, as our staff showed last week. But he can’t do it all himself.

Bills defensive tackles are invisible against a Chiefs run
The Chiefs put on a clinic for erasing defensive tackles against the Bills.

The defensive ends are doing their job, for the most part. There have been occasional lapses in containment, which hurt the team against mobile quarterbacks like Kyler Murray. When it comes to the secondary, we’ve seen effective run support, although Taron Johnson was a weakness earlier in the season. He’s shaped up and had a few outstanding weeks in this department.

Ultimately, no matter how you swing it, the 2020 Bills’ defense has a weakness: the line of scrimmage against an interior offensive line. The success or failure of this team will have to depend on how they mitigate this weakness.

Through the end of 2020

Matt Milano’s healthy return is essential to the team making a deep playoff run. The Bills are doing their best to keep the linebackers operational without him. But Milano is a Pro Bowl talent who supports Edmunds in the best way.

It’s too late for the Bills to improve their defensive tackle situation through a trade. They haven’t shown any interest in trolling the waiver wire or their phone book for any options, aside from the Justin Zimmer promotion. Sooo... here’s hoping that Harrison Phillips has a late-season surge? It’s definitely not thrilling to think ahead to possible postseason matchups with the Cleveland Browns or the Baltimore Ravens or the Tennessee Titans. You might as well pencil in 200 rushing yards in those matchups.

That said... if Milano and Edmunds are actually healthy down the stretch, could we see this defense playing with more confidence? We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

2021 outlook

In the offseason, a few defensive starters and rotational players will be free agents. Matt Milano is the most important name. Trent Murphy, Josh Norman, and Dean Marlowe are the other ones.

Then there are a handful of restricted free agents. Levi Wallace, Justin Zimmer, and Andre Smith make up that list, while Cam Lewis is an exclusive-rights free agent.

We’ll cover the players who primarily affect the running game in here. That means Milano, Murphy, Zimmer, and Smith.

First, though, there’s one bit of good news: Star Lotulelei is returning after opting out of the 2020 season! In February, if I told you the nose tackle would miss the year, Bills fans probably wouldn’t have cared one way or the other, but I suspect he’s sorely missed at this point. The Bills will have a reliable one-technique on the roster next year.

Justin Zimmer and Andre Smith could be offered RFA tenders, but the price would probably outweigh their contributions this season. Zimmer has 14 tackles and 2 TFLs. Smith is mainly a special teams mainstay, and has three tackles. So the Bills should let those players walk, or re-sign them to contracts near the league minimum.

With Murphy, the Bills have a pretty straightforward decision to let him walk. No matter how much general manager Brandon Beane gives lip service to the idea that Trent Murphy is a difference-maker for this team, there’s no way he’s worth the $15 million in cash paid in the last two years. Through ten games this year, Murphy has 17 tackles and two sacks. For a player on the field half the time, that’s not good enough.

The number-one priority for the Bills in this offseason will be dealing with Matt Milano, an unrestricted free agent. He was paid only $665,000 this year, but given his on-field production the last four years, his market value is more like a four-year, $52 million contract (average annual value of $13 million per year). Going into the season, extending Milano was a matter of when, not if.

Two circumstances unbalanced the equation. First and biggest, was COVID-19. The coronavirus eviscerated league revenues, which means the salary cap (normally guaranteed to take a healthy rise every year) is projected to drop next season. The Bills barely have any cap room remaining this year, and in 2021 they’ll have only $5 million in cap space with 40 players under contract. Yeesh.

Of course, this problem affects half the league. Either every player signs a dirt cheap free-agent deal, everyone takes a pay cut, or the league negotiates a special agreement to raise the salary cap anyway. But until something changes, the Bills don’t have spare change to re-sign Milano.

The second extenuating circumstance is Milano’s injury situation. Through three years, he’d only missed four games—and three of those came from a broken leg. This year was different. Milano pulled a hamstring in the season opener, then injured his pectoral muscle a few weeks later. He tried resting, and he tried gutting out limited reps, but the Bills shut him down after Week 8. Milano is set to miss six of the first 11 games of the year from injury.

Of course, neither a hamstring nor a pectoral injury are the type of injury to linger beyond the current season. Heck, Jon Feliciano is playing fine after tearing his pectoral in the summer. At the end of the day, Milano’s fate should only come down to the financial question. And to take that a step further, if the Bills can’t afford to re-sign Milano, they probably can’t afford to sign a worthwhile replacement.

In the event that the Bills could afford to pay Milano, but would prefer someone else, who’s out there? Leonard Floyd, Kyler Fackrell, and Bud Dupree are more of pass-rushing elephant linebackers. Haason Reddick, Eric Wilson, and Jayon Brown could be options. If they look to the draft, Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah is probably the best option that the Bills could take in round one.

All in all, though, the Bills would probably prefer to pair Milano and Edmunds for many years to come.

If Milano returns, the Bills’ defensive front seven is pretty full for 2021:

DT: Star Lotulelei, Ed Oliver, Quinton Jefferson, Vernon Butler, Harrison Phillips

DE: Jerry Hughes, Mario Addison, A.J. Epenesa, Darryl Johnson

LB: Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano, A.J. Klein, Tyler Matakevich, Tyrel Dodson, Del’Shawn Phillips

That’s a solid group. Could it be upgraded? Sure. The Bills would probably like another edge rusher, especially with Hughes and Addison getting on in age. Hughes is a free agent in 2022, too. You could also look for a third starting-caliber linebacker. Buffalo would be good with either a coverage-focused nickel linebacker, or a hybrid edge rusher like Lorenzo Alexander. That would let them run a base defense (or something like it) against pretty much any personnel package they face.