2023 Bills’ Positional Group Reviews: Defensive Line

02/19/2024
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Part of closing out the last season and preparing for the next is evaluating how a team performed as a whole, in units, and as individuals. This process is intended to produce actionable items around players and processes, and it is the starting point for assessing needs heading into the player acquisition phase of the offseason, both through free agency and the draft. In this series, we will examine how each of the Buffalo Bills’ positional groups performed throughout the 2023 NFL season and glimpse quickly at future contracts for the given group.

Find previous groups here:

Position Group Season Review

Buffalo’s 2023 season was a storm of crucial injuries, and the defensive line was no exception. In a way, you could say the 2023 injuries started in 2022 when Von Miller tore his ACL. That injury impacted his availability for the majority of the 2023 season and arguably affected his capacity for the entirety of the campaign, but we will get to Miller later. The 2023 injuries for the defense began with losing Tre’Davious White in Week 4, and then Week 5 happened. Against the Jaguars in London, the Bills lost Matt Milano for the rest of the season and DaQuan Jones, who was playing at an All-Pro level to that point, suffered a pectoral injury that kept him out until Week 17. Punt London into the sun. The injuries didn’t stop there, unfortunately; Ed Oliver, Greg Rousseau, AJ Epenesa, Jordan Phillips, and Shaq Lawson all missed time and battled injuries throughout the year.

Injuries and inconsistency led to an up-and-down season overall, but how could it not? For example, in rush defense, the Bills’ EPA/Att given up went as follows:

  • Week 1-5: -0.20 (20th)
  • Weeks 6-12: -0.12 (5th T)
  • Weeks 14-18: 0.06 (30th)

Certainly, a significant part of that is dependent on the opponent, but the shuffling in the lineup has to be a contributing factor. The two charts below break down the defensive line’s performance in selected pass rush and run defense statistics.

The defensive line had excellent pass rush numbers overall, especially when at their healthiest in Weeks 1-5. Influencing every number and rank above is the quality of the opponents and how the Bills were performing on both offense and defense at the time.  So, going from 17th to sixth in rush yards allowed was more about the decrease in attempts (the fewest in the league in that period).

  • Wk 1-5: NYJ, LVR, WAS, MIA, JAX
  • Wk 6-12: NYG, NE, TB, CIN, DEN, NYJ, PHI
  • Wk 14-18: KC, DAL, LAC, NE, MIA

The rush defense volume numbers (attempts, yards, yards after contact, etc) for Weeks 14-18 are diminished because the Bills’ offense was playing well enough to lead and control many of those games, forcing opponents into more pass-heavy offenses. Be sure to consider those week-to-week factors while reviewing the data.

One thing the front four did well was create pressure, ranking seventh overall in pressure rate on the season. The Bills blitzed 23.5% of dropbacks on the season, which ranked 18th overall. The chart below looks at how often the Bills rushed with four players, DL or not, and the team’s week-to-week pressure rate.

Data from PFF

For example, in Week 3, the Bills used four or fewer rushers against the Commanders on 74.4% of dropbacks, also meaning they brought more than four rushers on 25.6% of DBs. They created pressure on 51.3% of all DBs regardless of how many players rushed. The dotted lines are a four-week rolling average for both rusher and pressure rates.

As a unit, the DL was solid overall, but it was an uneven year. Now to a brief look at each player within the unit.

Individual Performance

This first chart, pulled from Sumer Sports’ data, looks at overall performance, combining both pass rush and run defense.

Oliver and Rousseau stood out across the board, particularly in EPA +/-, which looks at how well the defense performed in EPA when that player was on and off the field. For defenders, a negative EPA is better. In overall performance, Oliver’s -0.19 EPA was the fifth-best mark amongst all DL with at least 296 defensive snaps.

From purely a pass rush perspective, the Bills had multiple solid performances in rates stats like PFF’s Pass Rush Productivity (PRP). The 20% of snaps number was selected to fit Jones in because his first five weeks were real and spectacular.

Looking at PRP versus total pressures lets us look at rate and volume performance in one view.

This chart feels impossibly small, but it is comparing Bills’ linemen to 237 other qualifying players who had more than 150 pass rush snaps. This offers a clearer understanding of their individual performances within the context of the league. Bills’ players are listed in red. We can see that:

  • Oliver and Rousseau were excellent if not top 10.
  • Jones was quite good but had an understandable volume issue.
  • Epenesa probably priced himself out of the Bills’ capacity to pay.
  • Settle, Miller, Phillips, and Lawson did not do much to distinguish themselves from the majority in terms of pass rush

This last chart looks at pressures created in the same chunks of the season that we looked at for the line’s performance above.

Floyd’s decline is perhaps the most noticeable thing about this chart. Opposing teams might have keyed in on Floyd more after Jones went out in Week 5, or maybe he faded down the stretch (although he played almost 300 fewer snaps this year compared to last – 627 to 932). Floyd might also have been playing hurt, which is plausible because injuries were so stupidly contagious evidently.

Next Season and Beyond

Buckle up. This is going to be bumpy, and there are going to be real resources committed to the DL again.

From Spotrac

All of the orange text and blue “UFA” boxes under 2024 mean those players are not under contract for 2024 or future seasons. Outside of Oliver, Eli Ankou and Kameron Cline are the only existing contracts for DT, and MIller, Rousseau, and Kingsley Jonathan are the only DEs. Wide receiver might be the sexiest position of desire for Bills Mafia, but the defensive line is the biggest position of definitive, inarguable need for the 2024 Buffalo Bills.

You can find Chris on Twitter (@lowbuffa), getting dirty in #MafiaGardens, or watching football. Go Bills!

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