It’s the time of the year when teams look to restock and upgrade on talent through various means. Free agency, the draft, offering rum to Jobu—teams will look in all directions to gain an edge. But, finite resources mean teams will live with the fact that they won’t come out on the other side and see perfection. This also means prioritizing those finite resources. For the Buffalo Bills a commonly cited weakness is the run defense. But this shouldn’t be an area of focus in 2020.
The 2019 Buffalo Bills’ rushing defense in context
In the 2019 regular season, the Buffalo Bills allowed over 100 yards a game—103.1 to be precise. The league average was 112.9 yards per game. The Bills were the tenth-best team in the league at stopping the run. While my rule of four means that’s merely “high average” it’s nowhere near “dreadful.”
Now part of this is due to a low number of attempts against Buffalo. Opponents rushed the ball 388 times, tied for seventh-least in the league. Anyone who reads my analysis on a regular basis knows where this is going. Rate stats. The Bills allowed 4.3 yards per rushing attempt. This was precisely league average.
The bottom line is that the Buffalo Bills were a mediocre run defense when it came to allowing the opponent to move the ball.
What about scoring? Buffalo allowed 12 rushing touchdowns. This resulted in a five-way tie for ninth-fewest in the league. The average team allowed 14 during the regular season. So again, the Bills were an average defense against the run.
It’s a passing league
This next section isn’t to discredit the notion of run defense entirely. Complete ineptitude would surely sink a team. And some games have context like “stop this play to win the game” where the play in question might be a rush. Over the course of a season, though, it’s far better to stop the pass.
The absolute best rushing attack in the league belonged to the Baltimore Ravens. At 5.5 yards per carry they comfortably beat out the league average (4.3 yards, just like the defensive average). The absolute worst passing game in the league was the Chicago Bears. They averaged 6.2 yards per attempt. When it came to moving the ball, this means the worst passing offense was still a bit more efficient than the best rushing attack. Comparing best to best, the Tennessee Titans led the league at 8.8 yards per attempt, far and away above the Ravens’ rushing efficiency.
When it comes to scoring, the Denver Broncos set the floor for passing touchdowns with 16. That was short of the San Francisco 49ers 23 rushing touchdowns as well as a fair few other teams, but still greater than over half the league. The average team scored 14 rushing touchdowns in 2019 in contrast to 24.9 passing.
The Buffalo Bills allowed 6.2 yards per pass, which effectively means that over the course of the season their opponents matched the output of the worst team in the league as noted above. This was good for third-best in the league behind San Francisco (5.9) and the New England Patriots (6.0). These two defenses, generally discussed as the best in the league, had 4.5 and 4.2 yards allowed per rushing attempt.
For yards per play (rushing or passing) the Bills were fourth overall with 4.8 yards per play. The three teams ahead of them were all tied at 4.7 yards per attempt. League average was 5.5 yards per play. And for points allowed, only New England allowed less than the Bills.
Ultimately, there’s no indication that an average run defense moved the needle much when it came to overall defense for the Buffalo Bills.
There’s one other consideration I’d like to address. I’m sure someone will be of the opinion that Buffalo has more back-breaking runs against them than other teams. Finally, here’s a chart for you.
Here’s a quick comparison between Buffalo and the league average for long runs based on the distances listed above. The Bills did allow a rush of 10+ yards six more times than league average. That shakes out to about one extra “big run” every 2.67 games. Or if you prefer, one every 11 quarters.
Don’t get me wrong. If an opportunity to improve the run defense comes along the Bills can become even more elite on that side of the ball. I’m not even advocating for them to stand pat. However, it is always true that taking time and energy to focus on one problem leads to less time and energy for other ones. With much bigger needs on offense, it would be unwise to allocate too many resources on fixing the run defense. An average run defense didn’t stop the Bills from having an elite overall defense in 2019 and it shouldn’t hold them back in 2020 either.