Among all the questions the Buffalo Bills faced this offseason, the most prominent was what the defense would look like with Sean McDermott calling plays for the first time in his tenure as Bills coach. Through four games of the 2023 season, the Bills’ defense has not only not missed a beat, but has arguably improved with the sideline boss calling plays.
Sean McDermott has his team generating sacks like never before. Buffalo currently leads the NFL in sack rate at 12.2%, according to Sports Info Solutions. Under Leslie Frazier, the Bills finished with sacks rates of 6.3% in 2022, 6.8% in 2021, 6% in 2020, 7.2% in 2019, 6.6% in 2018, and 4.2% in 2017. It would be dishonest to leave out that the Bills have continued to invest in the line consistently throughout McDermott’s tenure, but under McDermott’s playcalling, the Bills’ pass rush has found another gear.
Since McDermott came to town, shutting down mid-tier quarterbacks like Jimmy Garoppolo and confusing new starting quarterbacks like Sam Howell is what Bills fans expect from their defense.
Sunday was a different story. Not only were the Miami Dolphins off to a hot start, they were on a historic pace. Comparing Miami through three games to the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams was not hyperbole. In Weeks 1-3, the Dolphins put up .392 EPA per play on offense, per SIS. The second-place team, the San Fransico 49ers, put up .161 EPA per play. That gap between the Dolphins at one and the 49ers at two was the same as the difference between the 49ers at two and the Vikings at the Minnesota Vikings at 13. Even more impressive, the Bills relegated the Dolphins to the 19th-best offense in EPA per play, posting a negative EPA per play.
Why is this working?
What makes all this so impressive is that this is mostly the same group of players that the Bills have rolled out for the past three or four seasons. The newest member of the defense, Leonard Floyd, has shown no signs of aging and has been an improvement across from Gregory Rousseau. But all their pass rush success has occurred without star Von Miller. Additionally, most fans hoped that new starting linebacker Terrel Benard could hold down the fort at Termaine Edmunds’ long-time post. Not only has he done that, but he is the fifth-best linebacker in passer rating against, sixth in average depth of tackle, and 14th in run stop rate, per Pro Football Focus.
So, just what is so different? Why is McDermott seemingly getting so much more out of a primarily unchanged defense? In more ways than one, McDermott has returned to his roots. When asked in the offseason what it felt like to get back to play-calling, the Bills’ coach responded it felt “natural.” It has been seven years since McDermott called plays the Carolina Panthers, and he hasn’t missed a beat.
The Bills defense has a manic quality to it. It is controlled chaos. It moves and swarms ball carriers like a hive of bees operated by a single mind. Yet despite this perceived aggression, the Bills blitz at the lowest rate in the entire NFL. The chaos comes in the design, and quarterbacks never know where the pressure comes from. McDermott will send any combination of four rushers he thinks will best affect the quarterback. Linebackers, cornerbacks, and safeties have all been part of the Bills’ plan to attack the quarterback while maintaining seven players in coverage. And while this is not new or revolutionary for the Bills, it has found another degree of effectiveness under McDermott’s playcalling.
What lies ahead
Four of the Bills’ next six games will be against Daniel Jones, Mac Jones, Baker Mayfield, and Russel Wilson. Even the offense of accending quarterback Trevor Lawernce has struggled to find its footing, coming into Sunday ranked 24th in EPA per play. McDermott and his defense have a chance to rack up some gaudy numbers over the coming weeks with Miller now practicing and itching to return. But they will have to do with All-Pro Tre’Davious White, who suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 3. But 2022 starter Dane Jackson is suitable as a backup. In 2022, Jackson ranked 19th in forced incompletion rate and 18th in passer rating against out of 71 corners who played at least 50% of their team’s snaps, per PFF. That is without mentioning Kaiir Elam, who, despite being unable to crack the lineup in the first four weeks, has the physical traits to think he could still figure it out.
Overall, the Bills defense is on pace to finish as top-flight defense for another year. But in 2023, we have seen the level of play unmatched in prior seasons. If the key players stay healthy, they will be a force into January.