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Analysis: Self-scouting the Buffalo Bills’ pass defense

It’s not terrible, but not great either.

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 Billspassing defense.

From 2017 through 2019, the Buffalo Bills were a top-ten passing defense, every single year. Yards, touchdowns, interceptions, yards per attempt, percent of drives ending in a turnover... it was a great run. This year, the Bills returned the exact same defense, except for three players on their defensive line rotation. And on offense, they’re scoring more points per drive, scoring more points per game, and possessing the ball longer on each drive. Yet their defense is significantly worse against the pass this year.

Go figure.

Through ten games, the Bills have allowed 15 passing touchdowns and netted seven interceptions. In the full 2019 season, they had a 15-to-14 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and we know the Bills won’t hold QBs to 0:7 in the remainder of the year.

Overall, the Bills aren’t bad, they’re just average or below average. They’re sacking the quarterback at a decent rate (tied for eighth in sacks) but not generating a lot of pressure overall (23rd in percent of plays with a QB pressure). In passing success rate, the Bills rank 18th—49 percent of pass attempts leave the offense “on track” to reach a first down. They’re 19th in “explosive plays” with 31 pass plays allowed that gained at least 15 yards.

The biggest change here is with Buffalo’s inability to make plays on a ball in flight. From 2017 to 2019, here’s how many passes defended the Bills had: 82, 73, 83. This year they have 39, on track for only 62 over the full season. Dane Jackson, a rookie with exactly two career starts, is ranked third on the team. He has three.

Tre’Davious White, recently signed to a major contract extension, is one culprit here. We’re used to him racking up the big plays, but this year he only has one interception and five passes defended. You can chalk this up to teams essentially putting him on an island and targeting other players. White’s on track to be targeted 53 times this year, after 90 targets last year and 73 in 2018. His peripheral stats are still keeping up with his usual standard, mostly. He’s surrendered three touchdowns this year, after a sterling zero in 2019 and allowing two in 2018. His yards-per-target stat is up significantly, but consider that DK Metcalf’s 41-yard catch in Week 9 represents 14.5 percent of all the yards he’s given up this year—one catch.

Levi Wallace and Josh Norman aren’t setting a strong example, but they have excuses: they’ve been injured. Wallace has never been a big-play machine, but he’s playing well this year, allowing a 79.3 passer rating when targeted.

Taron Johnson doesn’t have an excuse to fall back onto in 2020. The team’s nickel cornerback has played 79 percent of snaps, and he’s now a full-on liability in the passing game. Opponents are completing 72.7 percent of passes when targeting him, for an average gain of 7.8 yards per attempt. He’s only marked for a single touchdown allowed, but those stats still translate to a 101.3 passer rating. He just doesn’t have the foot quickness or reaction speed to handle the quicker slot receivers being run at him.

Taron Johnson fails to cover Jakobi Meyers
Taron Johnson is totally worked by Jakobi Meyers on this slant.

Now to be fair to Johnson, he hasn’t been getting any help from Buffalo’s linebackers. When discussing the run defense, we’ll cover how essential it is for Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano to be playing healthy. We’ll just go ahead and extend that point to this aspect of the defense, too. The pair are serious coverage linebackers, capable of locking down some good tight ends and running backs. But Milano, hurt this year, has barely been on the field. The injured Edmunds, and his replacement partner A.J. Klein, have been a blank check for quarterbacks: 49-of-64, 667 yards, and four touchdowns with no interceptions. That’s a 130.1 passer rating.

So the Bills might as well be playing defense with a negative number of players in the middle of the field. Isn’t there a tactic that does that to get an advantage? The Bills finally hit upon a workable tactic by using Klein on blitzes. He has 3.5 sacks this year, and seven pressures, with the Bills giving him more and more play within head coach Sean McDermott’s trademark A-gap blitz packages. It’s a one-dimensional tactic, but this still creates an advantage for a Bills defense without many X-factors.

A.J. Klein and Tremaine Edmunds bring the pressure
This linebacker pressure completely blows up the play. It results in a sack.

They’ve needed the blitz packages because, while the defensive line isn’t a liability in the pass rush, it’s not a strength. Jerry Hughes and Ed Oliver are both great players with a knack for “winning their part and watching the play succeed in spite of that effort.” There’s no Jordan Phillips rumbling through the line to hype up the crowd with takedown after takedown this year. Hughes and Mario Addison currently lead the team with four sacks apiece.

Buffalo’s heavy rotation system, and the fact that its starters and best players are on the wrong side of 32 years old, is probably not helping things. Hughes and Addison, despite their positive impact, are both playing less than 65 percent of snaps. Knowing how Sean McDermott executes, this will probably not change moving forward. All the Bills can do is hope for one of their backups to rise to the occasion.

Through the end of 2020

The number-one priority is team health. The Bills need Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds at full strength. They need Levi Wallace and Josh Norman healthy and available. They need key players like Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison to manage their fatigue and fight through the final stretch of the season. If healthy, this roster can be a top-ten defense.

The Bills should also consider a few adjustments to their secondary. Could Dane Jackson handle one of the starting roles, allowing the team to try benching Taron Johnson? They were willing to give Cam Lewis a shot, before he broke his wrist only a few plays into his start.

The extra reliance on the blitz has paid dividends: ten sacks in the last three games, after 17 sacks in seven games. They should keep it going, even if Milano supplants Klein once again. It’s translating to turnovers, too—seven in the last three games, after nine in the previous seven matches. They should keep it up, just for that alone. But the blitz probably also helps the defense with its “attacking” mindset, in a year where it doesn’t have the crowd to hype it up.

This would also be a great opportunity for two maligned players to step up in the pass rush and prove their worth down the stretch. It’s put up or shut up time for Harrison Phillips, a healthy scratch for four games this year. Rookie second rounder A.J. Epenesa has barely played this year, and has two pressures and a sack to this point in his career.

The AFC playoff picture has its fair share of dangerous passing attacks, led by offensive maestro Patrick Mahomes. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans feature outstanding skill talents and efficient quarterbacks. If the Las Vegas Raiders qualify for the postseason, Derek Carr is in the middle of a career-defining year. The second tier, though, isn’t too scary—Philip Rivers, Baker Mayfield, and Lamar Jackson all have their fair share of flaws. The Bills’ passing defense, even in a down year, is strong enough to hang with any of these groups (perhaps excepting the Chiefs).

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.

In this article is where we’ll focus on the names in the passing game. That includes Norman, Marlowe, Wallace, and Lewis.

Let’s start with some of the easy decisions. Tendering Cam Lewis costs almost nothing and gives him another chance, after he earned his way onto the roster this year. The team should also tender Levi Wallace. As an undrafted free agent, the Bills could take a risk and save a million dollars by giving him the “original round” tender, knowing that another team could sign him away for no compensation. Even though the Bills could upgrade at CB2, Wallace still has 29 starts in three years. A second-round tender would lock him up for a relatively low price, at least for a cornerback.

Re-signing those two players right there will give the Bills five cornerbacks in the depth chart going into 2021.

They’ll also start the year with a sixth cornerback. E.J. Gaines opted out of this season, in case you forgot. So his contract was deferred to 2021. Gaines hasn’t played since 2018, because of injuries, but depth is depth.

Talk about a cursed year for Norman. With six games remaining, we’ve already seen him suffer three hamstring injuries and get infected with COVID-19. In three games, he had 18 tackles, two passes defended, forced a fumble, and recovered two fumbles. But availability is the most important ability. Will the Bills give him another chance in his age-33 season? Definitely not for $6 million.

Marlowe has been a useful backup safety and “big nickel” option for the Bills for a while. He’s low cost and knows his assignment, and the Bills would probably like to bring him back again if he’ll take under $2 million.

That said, given that the Bills play so much nickel, it’s time to talk about upgrading. Marlowe isn’t a playmaker, and Taron Johnson’s limitation are well known.

In free agency, Desmond King and Cameron Sutton could be big prizes at nickel. Marcus Maye and Karl Joseph might also work as box safeties who can play the slot.

Looking to the draft, Ohio State’s Shaun Wade is probably the top slot defender in range for the Bills. Asante Samuel Jr. might also work there. Thinking about Buffalo (Big) Nickel types, you can look at safeties and smaller linebackers who might work out there. The top prize would be Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Listed at 6’1” and 215 lbs, he’s explosive enough to rush the passer or carry tight ends down the seam. He could play as the “big nickel” and also give the team Matt Milano insurance. Jevon Holland and Bubba Bolden could also have an impact in the slot, and the high-risk, high-reward option is Florida State’s Hamsah Nasirildeen. He’s 6’4” and 220 lbs, and an athletic team leader, but suffered a season-ending leg injury in 2019 that also caused him to miss the first seven games of 2020.

Say the Bills bring back Wallace, Lewis, and Marlowe, but let Norman walk. Here’s how the secondary would stack up in 2021:

Outside cornerback: Tre’Davious White, Levi Wallace, Dane Jackson, E.J. Gaines

Slot cornerback: Taron Johnson, Cam Lewis

Strong safety: Jordan Poyer, Dean Marlowe, Siran Neal

Free safety: Micah Hyde, Jaquan Johnson

Looking through this, the Bills would have their usual starters intact for essentially a fourth consecutive season, and the depth in place will carry over as well. Hyde, Taron Johnson, Levi Wallace, and Siran Neal would all be unrestricted free agents in 2022, so it’s a big evaluation year for the group.