ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (WIVB) – Coming into the season, it looked like the Bills could finished as a top three defense for the third year in a row given the players and coaches on that side of the ball they returned, but the unique offseason and preseason proved us wrong.
Not having the same amount of time to come together really affected teams’ defenses. That’s probably part of the reason scoring was up across the league this season.
But as the season went on, the Bills defense started to improve and got better in the second half of the season. When talking about the improvement of the defense, many players point to their week seven performance against the Jets as a turning point where they held New York to just four yards of total offense in the second half in an 18-10 win.
Most recently, the defense had an impressive performance against the Ravens in their 17-3 divisional round win, shutting down Lamar Jackson and Baltimore’s offense.
There were many struggles too with this unit though and a couple areas to improve on during the offseason. Stopping the run was an issue at times, especially against the Chiefs in week 6 where they allowed 245 rushing yards.
While the secondary was the same, the defensive line saw many changes this season.
“It was a slow start but I thought the second half of the year they really started affecting the quarterback and affecting the whole defense to a positive nature but our run defense wasn’t always the greatest,” Bills general manager Brandon Beane said during his end of the season zoom call on Wednesday.
“I think we lost a little bit of beef inside, we lost Jordan [Phillips] in free agency but when that happened we’re thinking Star’s coming back and then Star [Lotulelei] opted out and I think we all saw, you know I know he’s not a ten sack guy and things like that but what he provides not only the run game but just the ability for our linebackers to roam free I think took those guys a little time.”
There were many new faces to the defensive line not just players but a new coach as well as Eric Washington joined the Bills as their new d-line coach after spending the last nine season with Carolina before 2020. Also joining the rotation were five new players with Mario Addison, Vernon Butler, Quinton Jefferson, Justin Zimmer and A.J. Epenesa.
“I don’t think as a group they were in sync early, I think no preseason probably didn’t help that group with all the changes including both coaches there,” Beane said.
Another area they’ll likely look at is how to affect the quarterback more efficiently. That production decreased from 2019. The Bills finished with 38 sacks and ranked 14th in pass per pass attempt. Last season they had 44 sacks and were 12th in sacks per pass attempt.
Against the Chiefs, the Bills had trouble getting to Patrick Mahomes sacking him just once and finished with two quarterback hits. But that’s a tough feat for any defense when it comes to bringing him down.
“Those are the things we gotta look at, affecting the quarterback, how we do that whether it’s the pass defense or the pass rush, those are things that we probably didn’t do enough the other night against Mahomes,” Beane explained.
The play of the defensive line was a big talking point with both Beane and head coach Sean McDermott at their season-ending zoom calls.
“We were a little small up front this year just the way it worked out and so figuring out who could anchor in there, who could provide pass rush, you know we don’t wanna get run on all day but we also gotta get some guys there to affect the quarterback. I thought the second half of the year those guys played really well. We feel like it starts up front and we’ve gotta be good there before we can worry about the back end,” Beane said.
“At the end of the day we were probably still a little light for my comfort level and I think we really had to focus on stopping that run and maybe that affected some other areas whether it was getting to the passer, or just defending the pass in the back end.”
Speaking of the defensive line, there were some tough conversations had with a few players including Trent Murphy who was a healthy scratch in week 6 against the Chiefs then again in five straight games after the bye week. He played in the regular season finale against the Dolphins. He was also inactive in the wild card game against the Colts and the AFC title game against the Chiefs. He did play against the Ravens in the divisional round.
“I think you have to be honest and open whether it’s hey I think we need to give this guy behind you a shot to see what he can do, we feel like maybe he can give us more right now for whatever reason whether it’s the limited reps in another game or whether it’s practice,” Beane explained.
“In Trent’s case there were some young guys there that, and special teams plays into it as well. Darryl [Johnson] is a big factor for Heath [Farwell] in that group and we focus probably more than some teams on special teams here. So that factored as well. Trent probably still had more to give as a D end but Darryl was growing and we wanted him to get those reps but just being able to play on fourth down you know for what 92 would do helped us.”
The Bills went with Darryl Johnson and rookie A.J. Epenesa over Murphy behind Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison in those situations.
Harrison Phillips was another big name who sat when healthy at times throughout this season. He was a healthy scratch in weeks 6 and 7 then again in weeks 9 and 10.
“Harrison’s case he was coming off the ACL, we just felt like he needed some more time and he didn’t want it but sometimes you’ve gotta look out for them,” Beane said.
Elsewhere on the defensive line, there were high expectations for defensive tackle Ed Oliver in his second season. After a slow start to his rookie year, he really finished the season strong and the question was could he build off of that? Beane says the numbers don’t always tell the story.
“Ed’s playing really well and if people want to just look at sack numbers, you know he doesn’t have those but he impacts the game not only the pass game but the run game. He’s growing, he’s learning but at the end of the day the sacks will come I think as he continues to learn the game and learning how people are playing him and blocking him,” Beane said.
“Ed faces a lot of doubles too so it’s not the easiest road for him but I thought he definitely took a step up from year one to year two. He might have started slow this year but I thought three quarters of the year he played really well and helped our defense.”
Another young player continuing his development is linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. He just finished his third season and the Bills will have to decide whether or not to pick up his fifth-year option in the coming months.
It was an up and down season for Edmunds playing through a shoulder injury which played a big part in some of his struggles this year shedding blocks but he finished strong towards the end of the season. His best game came in the divisional round against the Ravens ending with a team-high nine tackles, a pass defensed and a quarterback hit.
“In fairness to him I think when he banged his shoulder up that first game, you know he got back out there, I think it took him a while. I think it was his first injury to play with, I think he struggled with it but I thought he played overall solid down the stretch. Are there more plays out there? Probably so but he makes the Pro Bowl, I think that’s legit. I think he’s respected by his peers. Tremaine’s 22 years old, he’s a young player, we still have a lot of confidence in him and where he’ll grow into,” Beane said.