clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Opinion: Buffalo Bills fans shouldn’t expect too much “new” from Sean McDermott’s defense

The Bills have pretty much “been there, done that”

NFL Combine Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

A common sentiment I’ve seen this offseason is excitement that Buffalo Bills head coach/defensive coordinator Sean McDermott will unleash exotic new wrinkles in the defense now that Leslie Frazier is out of the picture. From the headline, I’m confident you already know I aim to quash that notion. But maybe not in the direction you think.

I’m not about to suggest McDermott can’t be creative on his own, or can’t think of ways to change things. Instead, what I’m about to lay out is a case that Frazier/McDermott have had so many wrinkles in their respective defenses with the Bills that it’ll be hard to find something truly “new.” The 2023 team might have some differences from 2022, but it’s likely to have been something we’ve seen another year.

Exhibit A: The Buffalo Nickel

The Buffalo Bills are now famed for their base defense being a nickel scheme rather than an actual 4-3. That wasn’t always the case. I did some analysis back in 2017, which you can find here.

The short version is that McDermott and Frazier ran a more traditional 4-3 when they were giving Marcell Dareus his extended tryout. After cutting ties midseason with Dareus, the Bills faltered on defense. Big time. Rather than do what many fans often lament and put a round peg in a square hole with their now Dareus-deficient roster, they changed their scheme to a nickel-heavy one.

I’m going to beat a dead horse here. A newly hired coaching team/front office made a massive roster change after game six of the season. Despite everything they had going on at the time and a fan base that had anticipated a tank season, they reinvented their own wheel and thrived.

Exhibit B: The Swiss Army Knife

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve described an aspect of the Bills’ defense or a particular player using the word “versatility,” I likely would be retired and not writing this article at the moment. The Bills love players who can be effective in multiple roles. None have embodied that more than this man:

In case anyone forgot who this is, you’re looking at Lorenzo Alexander and the Buffalo Bills running a true 4-3 defense with Alexander as the third linebacker.

And here he is as a defensive end or EDGE player.

And for fun, here he is at defensive tackle:

I’ve seen a lot of chatter this offseason about how the Bills might finally start disguising things and bring some chaos on the field. I say they’ve been doing it all along. When No. 57 came onto the field, the offense had to guess what he was doing.

It’s not just Alexander either. Ask me what “tech” Ed Oliver plays at. I might be able to make your browser slow down from all the GIFs showing movement around the line. When players bring a versatile skill set, the Bills haven’t been shy about using it to create chaos.

Exhibit C: Aggression/Attacking

Another thing I’ve seen wished for is the Bills to finally become an attacking defense, rather than passive. It’s about time, right? They haven’t had an attacking defense since [checks notes] 2020. That’s right. Just two seasons ago the Bills had a blitz-heavy scheme, doing so 35.8% of the time — good for eighth-most in the league. When it comes to aggression, they’ve pretty much tried it all.

  • 2017 - Data not available
  • 2018 - 23.4% (18th in league)
  • 2019 - 31.1% (12th in league)
  • 2020 - 35.8% (8th in league)
  • 2021 - 28.1% (11th in league)
  • 2022 - 19.4% (23rd in league)

It’s not like their blitzes are always predictable or vanilla either. There have been seasons where I used the word “stunt” like it was going out of style.

The Bills like to mix up their pass rush sub-packages too. Did you have Jordan Phillips, defensive end on your bingo board? Buffalo did.

In summary

I’m sure I could keep going and use more old GIFs like this is a clip-show episode of my All-22s. This is the team that had Jerry Hughes in coverage on a semi-regular basis. The team that dared to have a platoon at outside cornerback with Kevin Johnson swapping reps with Levi Wallace.

Are there some wrinkles yet to explore? Undoubtedly the answer is “yes.” I just wouldn’t expect anything drastic with the McDermott defense. The Frazier/McDermott defenses have been all over the map as it is.