The Buffalo Bills dropped to 3-2 with their 25-20 loss in Week 5 at “home” against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Heading into this game the Bills were without starting defensive end Greg Rousseau (foot injury) and starting cornerbacks Tre’Davious White (season-ending chilies injury) and Christian Benford (shoulder injury). This provided two players (which the Bills have invested high draft capital in) with an opportunity to step up and earn their keep. defensive end A.J. Epenesa (2020 second-round pick) played exceptionally well, while cornerback Kaiir Elam (2022 first-round pick) struggled. Let’s take a closer look.
DE A.J. Epenesa
Epenesa stuffed the stat sheet on Sunday, recording two sacks, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, one tackle for loss, two QB hits, and an impressive three pass deflections. Epenesa could be seen flying all over the field and consistently producing splash plays in big moments. The only downfall of the game was that Epenesa was gassed because of how many snaps he played.
The 2020 54th-overall draft pick is in a contract year and looking to show his value to the Bills (or other teams) for his next contract. With Greg Rousseau out and edge rusher Von Miller on a limited snap count, it was a big opportunity for Epenesa to strut his stuff. Not only did he play well, he consistently made big plays. Going forward, Buffalo’s banged-up defense will welcome in “big play” Epenesa with open arms.
Epenesa showed off his athleticism on this rep. He fought through a block and release, gathered himself, and then shot out of a cannon toward quarterback Trevor Lawrence. This put Epenesa in a position to get his hands up and deflect the pass.
This was a HUGE play for Buffalo’s defense. The Jaguars were already leading and threatening to score again to make it a two-score game. Epenesa workrf a “ghost” pass rush move against the offensive tackle. In this type of move, Epenesa gave the OT an extended arm, to which the OT tried to double-hand punch. Epenesa quickly removed the arm and dipped low to bend around the corner. That caused the OT to miss his punch and get off balance. Not only did Epenesa get the sack, he caused a fumble and recovered it. This was a game-changing play in a big moment.
Epenesa got solid extension on the OT, which allowed him to get his hands up and knock down the screen pass to the wide receiver. Outstanding play recognition by A.J. here.
Defensive tackle Ed Oliver and A.J. Epenesa worked a “twist” stunt on this pass rush. Oliver did a nice job of pushing the offensive guard into the backfield, which gave Epenesa room to loop to the middle and get the QB hit.
This might be the most athletic play Epenesa had all day. He was able to beat a solid cut-block attempt by the OT and stay on his feet. After he gathered himself, he smothered Lawrence for a sack.
This play is super impressive, and much harder than it looks. Epenesa fired off the ball, fully intending to work one of his pass-rush moves. Three steps in he realized Lawrence was going to throw a quick screen and got his hand up at the perfect time, batting the ball down.
CB Kaiir Elam
Elam spent the first four weeks of the season on the bench as a healthy scratch, which confused and/or frustrated many outside of One Bills Drive. Then cornerbacks Tre’Davious White and Christian Benford get hurt, and Elam was thrust into the starting lineup for Week 5. This was the perfect time for Elam to show everyone he deserved to be on the field, but it didn’t quite go as well as he, or Bills Mafia, would have hoped. Elam was consistently beaten for chunk yardage by Jaguars wide receiver Calvin Ridley, and sometimes Elam wasn’t even remotely close in coverage. In Elam’s defense, guarding Calvin Ridley is hard enough when in mid-season form, even harder when seeing no game action for four weeks. Elam was second on the team in tackles with 11, but that was in large part because the receiver he was guarding was catching the football.
I think Elam has the ability and athleticism to be a good corner, but right now he is looking like the Bills whiffed on an important draft pick. This is surprising given Brandon Beane’s and Sean McDermott’s proven track record of identifying DB talent. I still have hope for Elam to develop, but the injury to Tre’Davious White certainly presses “fast forward” on Elam’s timeline.
It’s hard to pinpoint one specific problem for Elam’s lackluster play, especially because I don’t know exactly what the play calls are or what his responsibility for any given play is. However, it seems to me that Elam would benefit from improving his understanding of “situational football.” This term is of course very broad but also extremely important. Understanding and compartmentalizing things like down and distance, personnel package tendencies, WR splits and how/what route the WR may run, what the defensive play call is and how that affects what the offense is trying to do, etc.
Below, I show subpar plays of Elam against the Jaguars, but I’ll say Elam did do some nice things — I just don’t show them here.
Elam did a solid job of setting the edge and disengaging, he just needed to make the tackle while in good position.
Elam isn’t a safety, but in this play he was performing as a two-high safety — an interesting play call. Regardless, Elam seemed to be in no man’s land and was late to covering the WR2 (count outside in). In this coverage, if the WR2 goes vertical, the safety should as well.
I feel like this is deja vu from last year. Elam got out of his back pedal way too soon — in fact, he didn’t even backpedal. He was playing with outside leverage, which is fine, but he gave it up so easily and lost Ridley in his blind spot. This was such an easy throw and catch for Lawrence and Ridley. Elam had no chance because he couldn’t even see the WR!
If Elam wants to play outside leverage he needs to expand towards the sideline to keep Ridley in his sight line. If he wants to play inside leverage, he needs to be on the WR’s hip, not in front of him. Pick one — you can’t middle it.
Again, Elam turned his hips too early. This time he expanded to get outside leverage and kept the WR in his sight line. This allowed him to break down when the WR ran a comeback route, but he got his feet out from under his hips, which caused him to slip and be late to the catch point. Also, knowing where the first-down marker was on this play would have been helpful. The Jags ran right to it.
This was a good route by Ridley and hard to cover. Elam was just too high on Ridley’s hips. Ridley found an inside route stem to make room on the outside. Understanding the WR’s split (on the numbers) and his initial inside stem should have given Elam an idea that Ridley might have wanted to work back outside. If Elam was lower on Ridley’s hip, Ridley would have had to work back through Elam, which would have ruined the timing of the route and likely would have resulted in a better outcome.
Here’s a prime example of needing to understand situational football. The Bills brought two blitzers to Elam’s side of the field. This likely meant that Lawrence was going to try “replacing” the blitzers by throwing toward the blitz. This also meant that the ball would need to come out quickly, otherwise, Lawrence would have been sacked. Elam’s goal should have been to smother the WR the best he could for two seconds before the blitz got home. Elam also had a safety over the top shading to his side, so he shouldn’t have been worried about a deep throw. Instead, Elam immediately turned his hips and bailed out, allowing the WR to run a five-yard hitch route for an easy completion.
The Buffalo Bills are riddled with injuries to key players on defense. I have two thoughts about the team’s personnel. First, if head coach Sean McDermott can keep this defense as a top-five NFL unit, he has a chance to win coach of the year. Second, this is the perfect time for certain players to prove they belong as starters in the NFL. Epenesa did just that, but Elam failed to do so in London. Elam will get another opportunity by default at some point, and, hopefully, it will turn out better than it did in Week 5.
Now more than ever, there are more opportunities for players to step up and the Bills desperately need these players to earn their share. Defensive tackles Poona Ford, Tim Settle, and Jordan Phillips need to step in for DaQuan Jones. Linebackers Dorian Williams and Tyrel Dodson will have the honor of filling the giant shoes of All-Pro Matt Milano. As Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin famously said: “The standard is the standard.”