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Opinion: Bills’ defensive performance versus Rams was five years in the making

The perfect marriage

Stopping the pass in today’s NFL is like making the opposing quarterback solve a geometry problem with a time bomb strapped to his chest.

The better the coverage, the more difficult the geometry problem. The better the pass rush, the shorter the bomb’s timer. Quarterbacks capable of breaking the pocket and extending the play can extend the timer, and quarterbacks who are exceptional at reading defenses can more quickly solve the geometry problem. Whether you favor “Team Pass Rush” or “Team Coverage” in the endless debate over which may be more important, the goal of any team remains to marry the two. For the first time since Sean McDermott became the head coach of the Buffalo Bills in 2017, we saw a defensive performance that seems to indicate the presence of a marriage that would put Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson to shame.

The Bills’ back-seven remains very similar to the ones from years gone by. If cornerback Tre’Davious White would not have been on the PUP list and out for the first four weeks, every single starter for Week 1 of 2022 would have been a rostered player from 2020. Safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer remain stalwarts in the secondary. Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano continue to suit up as the linebackers in a heavily nickel defense. Taron Johnson is still a criminally underrated nickel defender and one of the keys to Buffalo’s ability to remain in nickel and not be dictated to by the opposing offense. This back-seven helped the only team in New York to a number-one defensive ranking in 2021, yet what fans were treated to on Thursday night against the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams was very different than even that top-ranked defense from a year ago.

Seven sacks punctuated a night where the defensive coverage continued to disguise their intentions, showing two-high at the snap in what appeared to be a Cover-2 call before showing coverage to be Cover-1 post-snap. They continued to play disciplined football and rally to the underneath throws they were hoping to force, holding Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford to a paltry 5.8-yard average distance of target (26th in the league for Week 1). The coverage was predictably good, and for the first time in a long time, the pass rush was its equal.

Since head coach Sean McDermott arrived in Buffalo, the defensive line has undergone overhaul after overhaul, with significant changes being made every offseason. During the 2017 season, high-priced defensive tackle Marcell Dareus was traded to the Jacksonville Jaguars for a sixth-round pick. In the 2018 offseason, the Bills signed defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and edge rusher Trent Murphy in free agency, giving both strong contracts. They drafted Harrison Phillips in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft. In 2019, the again went to the defensive interior, drafting Houston’s Ed Oliver with a top-ten pick. In 2020, they continued to bring in defensive linemen with familiarity with McDermott, signing Vernon Butler and Mario Addison in free agency to pair with versatile former Seattle Seahawks d-lineman Quinton Jefferson after letting the inherited Shaq Lawson and waiver-wire find Jordan Phillips walk in free agency. They drafted A.J. Epenesa the next month with their first pick (at 54 overall due to the Stefon Diggs trade). In 2021, they drafted long-limbed edge rusher Gregory Rousseau out of Miami in the first round and then doubled down with an experienced college end in Wake Forest’s Carlos “Boogie” Basham Jr. And finally, just a few months ago, they signed 33-year-old and future Hall of Famer Von Miller to a six-year contract worth up to $120 million along with bringing back Jordan Phillips and Shaq Lawson, and inking free agents Daquan Jones and Tim Settle Jr.

In that same timeframe, very little has changed in the defensive back-seven. Levi Wallace rose from an undrafted rookie to the starting lineup at cornerback opposite Tre’Davious White and then left four years later in free agency to join the Pittsburgh Steelers. Taron Johnson and Tremaine Edmunds were drafted in 2018 so there was one McDermott year prior to their arrival, but the non-lineman positions on the team’s defense have remained extremely stable without a lot of significant new external investment since McDermott’s arrival. They got it right early and they kept it going with extensions for Poyer, Hyde, White, Milano, and Johnson all since 2019.

But as the Bills did by bringing in veterans around a raw and developing quarterback in Josh Allen, they isolated the variable on defense too. They held one part of the unit together and kept tweaking and tweaking until they arrived at the unit we saw dismantle the reigning Super Bowl champions and one of the most heralded offensive minds in football in Rams head coach Sean McVay.

It may have taken a bit, but the back seven of the Bills’ defense has found its soul mate with the current defensive line. And as I wrote in the most recent wedding card I signed, here’s to a long and happy marriage.