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Opinion: Bills have only slipped minimally missing difference-makers on defense

“Difference makers” goes both ways

Minnesota Vikings v Buffalo Bills Photo by Isaiah Vazquez/Getty Images

If it feels like the 2022 version of the Buffalo Bills defense is giving up a lot of third- and fourth-downs where the opponent has to gain what would seem like a difficult amount of yards in order to convert, it’s not just you. Sometimes, our purely anecdotal evidence doesn’t stand up when presented with cold, hard, and uncaring metrics. Our frustrations can be based on “the eye test,” which is all too often incredibly biased and prone to all manner of logical fallacies like confirmation bias.

But that’s not the case with the Bills’ defense in 2022, at least as it relates to late down and long distance. In 2021, the Bills were second in the NFL in defensive DVOA on 3rd & Long and 4th & Long situations, with a -74.9% mark (as a reminder, negative is good for a defense when discussing DVOA), according to Football Outsiders. In 2022, as of the time of this writing, the Bills are 28th in the NFL in 3rd & Long defense at +57.5%.

The amount of attention general manager Brandon Beane has put into new acquisitions on the defensive line since arriving has been staggering. Every year, multiple new pieces have come and gone, with Beane tweaking and adjusting the room in an attempt to extract the maximum amount of production from the front four without the need to blitz. Meanwhile, the defensive secondary remained very stable year over year. But this year, three All-Pro defensive backs have missed multiple games. Safety Micah Hyde is out for the season after suffering a neck injury in Week 2; his running mate, Jordan Poyer, has missed multiple games due to an elbow injury; and star cornerback Tre’Davious White has yet to return after tearing his ACL in November of 2021.

Bills Mafia takes a lot of pride in the elite talent among the defensive backfield for the Bills, and would easily admit that the term “difference maker” would be an apt description of Hyde, Poyer, and White.

Why, then, would anyone be surprised when their absence also makes a difference?

If a player is talented enough that their presence makes a difference in raising the overall performance of a unit, would it not then stand to reason that their absence would not be able to be fully absorbed to maintain equal production from the unit? The fact that Buffalo’s defense is playing as well as it is overall while losing three All-Pros in the secondary is a testament to the impact of additions on the front line, like defensive tackle DaQuan Jones and edge rusher Von Miller, and the continued solid play of linebackers Tremaine Edmunds (who might also join Hyde, Poyer, and White as back-seven defenders who have missed multiple games, as he’s suffered a groin injury) and Matt Milano. The Bills’ defense currently ranks first in the NFL in defensive DVOA overall at -16.9%. They rank fifth against the pass and sixth against the run.

With that number of “difference makers” out for the Bills, it—bear with me—makes a difference. Something had to give. The defense, which would be forgiven for not performing up to the 2021 standards absent all that secondary talent, is only slightly off its previous year defensive DVOA mark of -18.0%. The fact that a team can lose players who would undoubtedly be described as difference-makers with only a slight hiccup to overall production should have fans nodding slowly with eyebrow-raising levels of impressiveness, rather than calling for heads to roll after one of the best receivers in the game gets the best of the Bills’ fourth-string safety (a recently-converted cornerback) on a 4th & 18.

...and that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I’m Bruce Nolan with Buffalo Rumblings. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram @BruceExclusive and look for new episodes of “The Bruce Exclusive” every Thursday on the Buffalo Rumblings podcast network!