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What quality of defense will the Buffalo Bills face in 2021?

Y’know, on average

Let’s dive into part two of yours truly trying to prognosticate what quality of opponent the Buffalo Bills will face in 2021. This time we’ll focus on the defenses Josh Allen and company will be going up against. We’ll do the same format as the offenses—an analytics model based off of last year’s relative league rankings and some educated guesswork.


The Analytics Model

Points allowed

When I did this exercise last year, the Buffalo Bills were projected to face opponents with an average of 15.3 league ranking in points allowed. That’s a small amount better than average. Now one flaw of this measure is that using last year’s ranks might not translate to this year. So I decided to circle back and find out how 2020 actually shook out. They actually came in at 14.9 average ranking, which isn’t too far off the mark. There might actually be some predictability with this.

Anyway, you wanna know about NEXT year. The projection comes in at 14 even league ranking. The suggestion is that Josh Allen and the gang will have a harder time than last year.

Yards per played allowed

On yards per play, last year’s projection was for an average defensive ranking of 13.8, which is a good amount better than average. This one was way off to reality as the average actual rank following the season was 16.8 in this measure.

We’ll project for next year anyway. The Bills’ opponents in 2021 are projected to average 18.5 for yards per play. Putting things together into the bigger picture, it’d be expected that the Bills would find it easier to pile on yards, but harder to put up points this coming season.

Educated guesswork

Division opponents

Interestingly enough, the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots are a large part of the anomaly above. Respectively, they ranked as the sixth- and seventh-best teams in the league when it came to points allowed, but 25th and 22nd in yards allowed. If you have to choose to be good in one metric, both teams chose wisely.

Both teams are headed by defensive coaches and neither team saw significant enough changes to believe they’ll drop off. It’s possible one or both will improve. That said, the Buffalo Bills had both teams’ defense figured out last season, so calling this a wash is a safe bet.

The New York Jets were low average in yards allowed last year, and bad when it came to points. I predicted their offense will improve pretty much merely out of necessity. The defense is a bit trickier. Robert Saleh already seems to be attempting to transform the roster to better suit his preferred 4-3 scheme. Major tinkering doesn’t always pay quick dividends, and my bet is that there’ll be some growing pains as Saleh tries to clean up his predecessor’s messes. My guess here is Saleh’s expertise keeps this side of the ball from regressing, but the attention needed to fix the league-worst offense means Saleh can’t create drastic improvements in his first year.

The rest of the AFC opponents

The Bills will face the Tennessee Titans, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Kansas City Chiefs again this year. The Titans had a weak defense last year and added Bud Dupree to try and help that weakness. It’ll take a lot to give them any sizable jump however, and I think the Bills do better this time around assuming there’s no scheduling tomfoolery. Dupree comes to Tennessee by way of Pittsburgh. That loss and other tinkering could cause the Steelers to slide back a bit, but coming in as the third-best defense in the metrics above last year, they can fall off a bit and still be potent. Kansas City allowed a ton of yards but not points, likely as teams aired the ball out to try and keep up. Expect that to continue, but I like the odds of offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and head coach Sean McDermott cracking the code.

This year the Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Indianapolis Colts replace the Denver Broncos, Las Vegas Raiders, and Los Angeles Chargers. Last year’s opponents were pretty bad overall. Houston and Jacksonville had rough seasons last year and are teams in transition with new coaching staffs. The Colts had a decent defense last season and there’s no reason for a major cliff to appear. That alone should be a stiffer test than last year. If Urban Meyer or David Culley can coax something out of their teams, it is possible the Bills will have much rougher sledding.

NFC opponents

Last year the Bills faced an average Seattle Seahawks team. Both the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals were decent at stopping yards, but average when it came to points. And of course the Los Angeles Rams were the best defense in the NFL.

This year Buffalo faces two teams that were pretty average last year in the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons. Carolina has a good chance at improving as Matt Rhule enters his second year as head coach. Atlanta, on the other hand, will begin year one of the Arthur Smith era—who has made his way up the ranks on the offensive side of things. He brings Dean Pees into the mix, who has fielded some very capable defenses, but has flourished under defensive head coaches. I wouldn’t predict a major boost here, with some growing pains likely.

That’s the good news. The Washington Football Team, New Orleans Saints, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers all fielded good defenses last season. Using my rule-of-four ranking system, all three teams break the top eight. Washington was in the top four, and the Saints were the fifth-best defense in points and yards allowed. It’ll be tough for all three to stay at the top, but bare minimum they should be a tougher challenge overall than last season’s NFC opponents.


Conclusion

The analytics model predicts a rougher ride when it comes to scoring, though the yards side of things suggests an easier time. The educated guesswork has me predicting a tougher time overall. The NFC games should pose a bigger challenge to the Bills’ offense in particular. On the AFC side of the ledger, the addition of the Colts tips the scales against the Bills a bit. It’s not out of the question that a team or two like Pittsburgh or Kansas City have a bit of a plummet based solely on the odds. There’s no compelling reason to predict that happens though.