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Opinion: Ed Oliver’s ankle injury contributing factor in 2022 pass rushing output

Oliver may not have been fully back to form right after the month he missed to injury last season

NFL: SEP 22 Giants at Buccaneers Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“Ankle sprain.” It doesn’t really sound that bad. We have a tendency to relate athlete injuries to those we’ve suffered ourselves. And in the absence of a personal medical diagnosis of an ankle sprain, we might bring to mind that time we turned our ankle playing pickup basketball at the rec center and were sore for a few days.

But much like the term “turf toe,” the severity of an ankle sprain is markedly different than it may sound.

The injury has come into play for Buffalo Bills fans specifically after defensive tackle Ed Oliver suffered it in Week 1 of the 2022 NFL regular season against the Los Angeles Rams. It was reported by the Bills as “an ankle injury,” and Banged Up Bills had it listed as a “medial ankle sprain” before Oliver himself confirmed it as a high ankle sprain. Oliver missed three games.

But “how many games you miss with the injury” is not the same as “how many games you are impacted by the injury.” He was seen at practice not in a walking boot the week after the opening-game win where the injury was suffered, but was “a bit ginger” per Thad Brown of WROC-TV.

From the acknowledgement of an ankle sprain, the next step in determining expectations for recovery is the determination of the grade of the sprain. Cleveland Clinic notes that there are three different grades of ankle sprains, and that the third grade is noted by a difficulty in walking. Given that we saw Oliver walking, albeit gingerly, at practice the next week, it appears likely that he suffered either a grade one or grade two ankle sprain — the difference being there is swelling present over the injury and it hurts to move, not just touch, in a grade two sprain. This grading is relevant because both grade one and grade two ankle sprains are listed by as having somewhere between 3 and 6 weeks of recovery time. As mentioned, Oliver missed three games.

Upon his return to the lineup in Week 5 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Oliver recorded no total pressures on 20 pass rush snaps per Pro Football Focus, followed by four pressures on 32 pass rush snaps against the Kansas City Chiefs, two on 13 pass rush snaps against the Green Bay Packers, and another goose egg on 15 pass rush snaps against the New York Jets.

Week 10 is where the change began. After averaging only 31.5 total snaps per game in the four games after his return, Oliver averaged 48.8 snaps per game in the 10 games the Bills played for the rest of the regular season and postseason. In his first four games back, he averaged 1.5 pressures per games and achieved a pressure on 7.5% of his pass-rush snaps. For the rest of the season, he averaged 2.9 pressures per game and achieved a pressure on 8.7% of his pass-rush snaps.

For perspective, generating a pressure on 10% of your pass-rush snaps as defensive tackle is considered to be extremely productive. Philadelphia Eagles DT Fletcher Cox generated 45 pressures on 507 pass rush snaps, a rate of 8.9%. Tennessee Titans DT Jeffery Simmons had 53 pressures on 584 pass rush snaps, (9.0)%, Pittsburgh Steelers DT Cameron Heyward’s number sat at 11.6%, Dexter Lawrence from the New York Giants came with a 12.1% mark, and All-World IDL Chris Jones of the Chiefs clocked in at a whopping 13.0%.

Had the 2.9 pressures-per-game figure held for Oliver for the entire season, he would have generated 49 pressures in 17 games, tying him with Washington Commander DT Daron Payne for ninth in the NFL in total pressures from an interior defensive lineman.

The data seems to indicate that it may have taken Oliver longer to get back from the ankle injury than simply the three games he missed. The Bills seemed to be purposefully limiting his snaps until the game against the Minnesota Vikings and from then on, he didn’t produce at an elite level rushing the passer, but provided solid and reasonable pressure coming up the middle.

The lack of an entire season of pass-rushing productivity at an elite level makes the contract extension signed recently by Oliver a divisive topic. This data does not excuse away anything in regards to Oliver’s total productivity for the four seasons he’s spent in Buffalo, but it does provide some context to some of 2022. Injuries have been part of the equation for Oliver that makes extrapolation foggy and more dangerous, but it’s important to step away from raw total statistical production at times to make sure context can be added.

...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.