Bills’ pass defense is trending back toward elite level

Buffalo Bills

Buffalo Bills’ Jerry Hughes, left, celebrates his interception during the second half of an NFL football game against the New York Jets, Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

It’s been fashionable to bash the Bills’ defense this season, and with good reason. Over the first five games of 2020, a unit that had ranked near the top of the NFL the previous two seasons was on pace for one of the worst statistical years in franchise history. 

The Bills’ defense has been less than elite, validating the notion that it’s difficult to sustain a great D over multiple seasons in the NFL. But it wasn’t nearly as bad as its numbers — or a growing legion of critics — suggested back in mid-October. 

The defense has gotten gradually healthier and more effective over the last six games (since a 42-16 loss to the Titans), a trend that continued in Sunday’s convincing, 27-17 home victory over the Los Angeles Chargers.

The game was billed as a showdown between two of the NFL’s young gunslingers — Josh Allen and Justin Herbert. Instead, it turned into a mistake-filled mess, with Allen out of synch and Herbert playing more like a rookie than a budding star. 

Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier had two weeks to prepare for Herbert. The secondary was the healthiest it has been all season, and it showed. Herbert completed 31 of 52 passes for 316 yards, but those numbers don’t tell the story. His adjusted yards per pass attempt (5.6) and rating (75.0) were his lowest in a game this season.

That’s been a trend. The Bills’ pass defense has held down some elite quarterbacks over the last six weeks. Kyler Murray, Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes all finished with passer ratings below their season average against the Bills. Over that stretch, opposing QBs have six touchdown passes and six interceptions. 

Over the last six games, the Bills’ scoring D has improved by five points a game (from 28.4 to 23.3). The third-down defense has risen from 30th to 21st. They have 20 sacks in that stretch and 11 takeaways. Over the first five games, they had only 10 sacks and forced six turnovers. They’re now tied for seventh in takeaways and eighth in sacks.

Granted, the run defense is still a concern. They’re 26th in yards and average per rush. Overall, the defense is still allowing 372 yards a game, which leaves the Bills on pace to allow 5,969 yards on the season and break the franchise record. A year ago, they allowed just 4,712 yards a game, which was second in the league.

The pass defense has been very good lately, not quite elite but closer to its lofty level of the previous two years. Herbert actually had 106 passing yards on that bizarre final drive Sunday. The Chargers are among the best in the NFL in long pass plays. Until a late 55-yard fluke, they didn’t have a completion over 15 yards.

Russell Wilson threw for 145 yards in the final 10 minutes against the Bills — after Seattle had fallen behind by 21 points. Wilson turned the ball over four times in the loss to the Bills, the first time he had four turnovers in a game since December of 2016.

When a team is nursing a late lead, it tends to give up passing yards. It comes with the territory. The Bills have been very stingy early in game. They were the first team to hold the Cardinals without a first-half TD. In fact, Arizona had scored at least TWO touchdowns in every game before the Bills held them without one for three quarters.

That effort was understandably obliterated by the Arizona comeback and the stunning Hail Mary at the end. You need to finish games, and heading into Sunday the Bills had allowed the most points in the NFL in second halves. Most of it wasn’t garbage-time production. 

Buffalo’s failure to close games will be an issue until they win a playoff game. Let’s not forget, they had a 16-0 lead on Deshaun Watson and the Texans with two minutes left in the third quarter in the wild-card game last January and found a way to blow it. 

Still, it’s encouraging to see the defense play this way against some of the most prolific passers in the NFL. If they can confound the likes of Russell Wilson and Justin Herbert, you have to like their chances against the Niners and Nick Mullens next Monday night — a game that will apparently be played in Glendale, Arizona. 

No one will be calling the Buffalo defense elite any time soon. But the pass defense, which has been regarded as their strength since they drafted Tre’Davious White, is playing at a very high level right now. The run defense is an issue, but the NFL is a passing league. 

Just imagine if Josh Allen gets back near his MVP form of September, and the defense continues to confound opposing quarterbacks. It’s a big “if”, but if the defense holds up, this team could make a run.  

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