Bills defense trending toward historic lows

Buffalo Bills

Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott watches as officials review a play during the second half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

When the Bills were rolling along unbeaten in the first month of the NFL season, with the passing offense functioning at historic levels, it was natural to focus on Josh Allen performing at a franchise-record pace.

But after Tuesday night’s 42-16 trampling at the hands of the Tennessee Titans on national TV, it seems only fair to address an alarming trend through the first five weeks of the season:

The defense. 

Despite operating without two of their two three receivers, Ryan Tannehill and the Titans torched Buffalo for 42 points — the most the Bills had allowed since a 47-3 thrashing at Baltimore in the 2018 opener, when Nathan Peterman was briefly the team’s starting quarterback. 

You can make excuses for the D. They were without starting corners Tre’Davious White and Levi Wallace, and top linebacker Matt Milano. The Titans were given three short fields because of interceptions and weak special teams play. 

But the numbers are there, and it continued a troubling trend from the opening four wins. The Bills, who were second in the NFL in points allowed last season with 16 per game, are currently tied for 22nd in the league in scoring defense at 28.4 points a contest.

That puts them on pace to allow 454 points for a full season. The franchise record for points allowed? Yes, it’s 454, set in 1984 by a team that went 2-14 with Kay Stephenson as head coach and Joe Ferguson playing his final season in Buffalo. 

Granted, it’s a different game today, with a greater emphasis on offense and the passing game. The NFL is on pace to shatter overall scoring records. The Bills are on pace to score 445 points, which would be second in franchise history behind the 1991 squad. 

But defense was supposed to be the foundation of Sean McDermott’s process. The Bills finished second in the NFL in yards allowed in 2018 (4,706 yards) and third a year ago with 4,772 total offensive yards. 

They’re currently on pace to allow 5,949 yards over a full season, which would be the most in franchise history and the most since the Bills gave up 5,938 yards in 2011. 

History shows it’s difficult to sustain elite defense over time, especially in today’s NFL. Players age. They get hurt. They leave in free agency. In the case of nose tackle Star Lotulelei — whose impact is easier to appreciate today — they opt out due to COVID-19.

The defense was struggling even before White, Wallace and Milano went down. Tremaine Edmunds is having a rough time at middle linebacker. Passers have exploited the middle of the D. The Bills aren’t getting much pressure up front, which the number illuminate. 

Some depth players are having bad years. Nickel back Taron Johnson has been bad in coverage. Rotational ends Darryl Johnson and rookie A.J. Epenesa, an early disappointment, have had their playing time limited for lack of production. 

According to advanced NFL statistics, the Bills have been credited with “hurries” of opposing QBs on only 3.8 percent of passing plays, which is dead last in the league. Last season, their hurry frequency was 9.4, which ranked in the middle of the pack. 

They’re allowing teams to convert on 50.9 percent of third downs, which is 30th in the league. A year ago, they finished seventh, allowing only 35.8 percent conversions. 

McDermott’s defenses have a way of correcting mistakes during a season. In 2018, the Bills allowed 135 points over a harrowing three-week stretch, then fixed the defense and slipped into the playoffs in the final week. 

In 2018, they allowed 75 points in just the first six quarters of the season. McDermott briefly took the play-calling duties away from defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. The defense came around and finished second in yards allowed.

They’re 4-1, atop the AFC East. The defense has time to find itself, and they don’t need to be great if Allen plays at an MVP level, as he did in the first month. But when you’re trending toward negative franchise records, it’s a troubling sign. 

There’s immediate trouble on the horizon, too: Next Monday, against Patrick Mahomes and the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs. 

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning digital reporter who joined the News 4 team in 2020. See more of his work here.

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