What changes to expect from the Bills’ defense in 2023


Over the past six seasons, the Buffalo Bills have positioned themselves as one of the premier defenses in the NFL. Much of this is due to the ascension of players like Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Tre’Davious White, and Matt Milano with significant credit also owed to the Bills’ coaching staff. Through each of those six seasons, that staff included defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, making his somewhat surprising departure this past February all the more intriguing.

Immediately after the announcement that Frazier would not return, discussion on how the Bills’ defense would change in 2023 ramped up. There’s been speculation on who the new defensive coordinator would be, who would call plays, and how any possible personnel changes would affect the Bills’ strategy for attacking opposing offenses. We know now that there will be no new defensive coordinator, Sean McDermott will call plays, and that significant personnel changes will have major ramifications for the Bills’ depth chart.

Still, there are questions that remain, all of which center on the same overarching topic. With all the changes, how different, if at all, will the Buffalo defense look on the field in 2023?

Basic Defensive Coverages Series: Cover 1

Nickel Usage

Under Frazier the Bills were at the forefront of a drastic change in the NFL: the primary utilization of Nickel (or looks in which the defense has five defensive backs on the field). That change began in 2012 when Nickel surpassed traditional Base (4-3 or 3-4) as the NFL’s most used defensive package. By 2016, Nickel usage exceeded 50% and by 2021 it was over 60%, both rates the Bills have far surpassed. In fact, in both 2020 and 2021, the Bills led the league in Nickel usage at a whopping 91% and 92% respectively, easily clearing the second-ranked teams each season (83% – ’20 NYJ, 78% – ’21 IND).

These high Nickel rates fall in line with both Frazier and McDermott’s scheme, but the unheard of 90%+ rates come from the player it means keeping on the field, Taron Johnson. The Bills’ versatile chess piece has been a thorn in the side of opposing offensive coordinators as they attempt to force the Bills into base. Instead, Buffalo has consistently elected to keep Johnson on the field wherein each of the past three seasons he has finished top four on the Bills in tackles (190 Total) while giving up a completion percentage of just 63.1%.

The departure of Frazier should have little to no effect on Johnson’s snap share. After all, McDermott began his NFL coaching career as a defensive backs coach, so removing a DB from the field would counter his expertise. The result is Nickel+ rates remaining similar to the Bills of years past with anything under an 85% snap share for Taron Johnson coming as a surprise. Nickel+ was explicitly mentioned for a reason though, because in front of Johnson and his DB peers, the Bills have set themselves up to make their first foyer into “Positionless” Football.

NFL Nickel Usage

“Positionless” Football

As far as NFL tradition goes, a DB is a DB, an OLB is an OLB, and an MLB is an MLB, but the current iteration of the Bills looks poised to ignore those traditions. With former Bills MLB Tremaine Edmunds taking his talents to Chicago, the Bills are left with a void in the middle of their defense. In subsequent roster moves the Bills addressed that position by adding exactly zero traditional middle linebackers. To translate, in 2023 the Bills don’t need an MLB to be their MLB but instead have made it clear that anything can be an MLB.

The first players in play at MLB are veteran options in A.J. Klein and Tyrel Dodson. Both have NFL experience at MLB and fit the mold of the position but have proven to be average at best players within that role. Then there are second-year possibilities in Terrel Bernard and Baylon Spector, each of whom posses the size expected of traditional OLBs but provide intriguing athleticism in the middle of the field. After them is new draft pick, Dorian Williams, who projects as a Terrel Bernard clone with a lot to learn to compete at MLB prior to Week 1. Lastly is the biggest dark horse of them all, safety Taylor Rapp who comes from the Rams as a player who excelled in the box but lacks the size expected of a true linebacker.

This forced personnel change will likely result in Sean McDermott leveraging new schemes to man the center of the Bills’ defense. Could the Bills be more dynamic here and have a Klein/Dodson play first and second down then Bernard/Spector/Williams come in on third down? Could they, yet again, alter the landscape of the NFL and essentially play a base Dime, keeping Taylor Rapp on the field for north of 40% of snaps as a DB6 and pseudo-LB? Or will the Bills keep with the status quo and identify one player to position themselves as their every down LB alongside All-Pro Matt Milano? Whatever the choice is, size will likely be in question at the LB position in 2023 making play in the trenches more important than ever.

The (Rotation in the) Trenches

Since the retirement of Kyle Williams in 2019, the Bills have struggled to find consistent success in the trenches. They attempted to remedy this quickly in 2019 by drafting Ed Oliver ninth overall, but his lack of size, with no true one-tech alongside him, has been a concern in Buffalo for years. The result is countless games where the Bills have been bullied in the front-center of their defense, resulting in a new emphasis on size at the position the past couple of seasons. The Bills found part of that answer in 2022 and added another massive piece to it heading into the 2023 offseason.

The addition of DaQuan Jones in 2022 proved fruitful as the 6’4” 320lb DT provided the Bills with a piece they have been searching for for years. Not just another Star Lotulelei, Jones completely altered not only the play of the DL but also the LBs behind him as Buffalo would finish the season as the third-ranked run defense by DVOA. The playoff game against the Bengals exposed a massive problem though, as the loss of DaQuan Jones proved to impact the outcome of the game significantly. Without their one-tech on the field, the Bills struggled to get past the Bengals’ backup OL as Joe Burrow experienced a pressure rate of just 17.9% and Buffalo only produced two tackles for loss.

Depth in Jones’ role became paramount heading into the 2023 offseason for multiple reasons. First, and most obvious, improved depth means more options in the event of injuries. Second, McDermott’s rotation on the defensive line mandates that the Bills roster multiple players at each position capable of impacting a game. Since Kyle Williams’ retirement, the Bills have only seen one DT take more than 60% of snaps in a single season (’22 Jones – 61.18%), meaning an upgrade at one-tech DT2 is of significance. Queue the massive addition of Poona Ford who comes to Buffalo by way of Seattle as a versatile DT who excels in the 1T role. McDermott’s defense now has two proven options in this all-important role which should provide Ed Oliver more room to operate, keep the Bills’ smaller LBs clean, and improve a pass rush that will need some help sans Von Miller.

2023 NFL season: Odds remain in Bills favor

The Pass Rush

Possibly the most frustrating part of the Bills’ defense the past four seasons has been their pass rush. Since 2019 they have at best been sub-par in this regard, ranking Top-10 in sacks or pressure rate only once (’21 Pressure Rate – #1, 30.8%). This resulted in the Bills making a splash move in 2022, signing future Hall of Famer Von Miller, a player who completely altered the Bills’ pass rush early last season. Then on Thanksgiving Day what had become a strength of the Bills quickly dissipated with Miller suffering a torn ACL.

Since, fans have clamored for scheme changes to prop up the pass rush, the most obvious being a greater emphasis on sending extra blitzers. Only once since 2019 have the Bills finished Top-10 in blitz rate (’20 – #8, 35.8%) signifying Frazier was more comfortable letting his secondary attempt to slow down opposing offenses. While some hope that McDermott taking over the defense will alter this approach, history proves otherwise. Under Frazier, the Bills averaged 16.0 non-DL pass rush snaps per game. During his six years as defensive coordinator for the Panthers, McDermott averaged 15.9 non-DL pass rush snaps per game. It’s unlikely that McDermott completely alters his approach in 2023, so reliance on talent will likely supersede a change in scheme.

The expectation is that the talent early in the season will not include Von Miller. This means players like Greg Rousseau, A.J. Epenesa, Boogie Basham, and Shaq Lawson being relied on even more to take down opposing quarterbacks. Turns out Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane viewed this group as less than sufficient at accomplishing that and elected to make a late splash move in free agency by signing Leonard Floyd. Over Floyd’s last three NFL seasons, he has played the best football of his career, amassing nine-plus sacks in each of those seasons. For context, just one Bills player has done that during the McBeane era, Jordan Phillips in 2019 (9.5 Sacks). While more of the same is expected of the Bills’ edge rushers this season, this very well may be the best unit the Bills have had since the days of the Cold Front.


All the above is a long-winded way of saying that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The defensive scheme that has dominated the NFL for over half a decade remains intact, after all it’s always been McDermott’s scheme. While some new wrinkles are expected and new personnel will be rotated in, expectations of significant changes seem unfounded, at least for now. A lack of changes doesn’t necessarily mean the same results though, as this may be the best defense on paper the Bills have had during the McBeane era. This is the best DB room they’ve had, the best group of DTs, the best edge rushers, and an overall defense that has one (major) question, at MLB. The grass is always greener on the other side, but at least for now, the Bills seem comfortable with what they have on their side of the fence.

Lifelong Bills fan who's obsession reached a new level in the past decade. Began writing about the Bills in 2019 and since then have produced more than 125 Articles. Lover of statistics and leverages Software Engineering skills to manipulate data and create 'applications' for Bills Mafia!