A.J. Epenesa is mastering his craft and seems primed to break out in a big way for the Buffalo Bills in 2020.
Buffalo’s 2020 second-round draft pick has already made two wow plays off the edge in as many preseason games, providing fans with a glimpse of what to expect from the team’s revamped group of pass rushers.
In the Bills’ 41-15 rout of the Chicago Bears on Saturday, Epenesa had the most impressive pass rush rep of the game. On a fourth-and-8 play during the second quarter, Epenesa converted speed to power, driving left tackle Elijah Wilkinson to the turf before leaping into Andy Dalton as he helplessly fired a pass into the facemask of Efe Obada, who was collapsing the pocket from the middle.
“Hello, police? Yeah I’d like to report a murder. Yeah AJ Epenesa just killed a guy. Why didn’t I report this earlier? Well you see I don’t tweet or text or make/answer calls during Bills games. Why? I’m superstitious” #Bills #BillsMafia #GoBills pic.twitter.com/081eSwqRkq
— Anthony Cover 1 (@Pro__Ant) August 21, 2021
While the play was an impressive display of athleticism, Epenesa explained that his film preparation prior to the game allowed him to devise a plan in order to set up the move.
“We just put a huge emphasis on pass rush this week,” Epenesa said following the game. “Last week we did good, but we wanted to do better. We made an emphasis of that and then we were just studying them, watching their sets and working on our reactions. Because on that one – he kicked back really fast, so we were thinking power with that one. So whenever he’s moving back so quickly, if you can put some power on him before he can set his feet, then they aren’t able to stop it as easily.”
Throughout the Bills’ first two exhibition games, Epenesa and rookie Greg Rousseau have brought energy to what was a stale pass rush in 2020.
The second-year defender has had an uphill climb to get to where he’s at now, though. The former Iowa star entered the NFL as a 280-pound power rusher, but over the course of the last year, he’s transformed himself into a 255-pounder with a never-before-seen burst.
Epenesa struggled throughout his rookie year, as his strength wasn’t up to par following his rapid weight loss. But after spending the offseason training at the team facility in Orchard Park, Epenesa is where he wants to be. And it’s not just offseason babble – he’s clearly a different player.
“I mean when I was 280 at Iowa, I was mostly known as a pure power rusher. But being able to drop all that weight and add some quickness and some speed to my game, I had to change it to not so much power, in order to add more speed and quickness,” Epenesa explained about how his style of play has changed since dropping weight.
“I didn’t have as much “oomph” behind me. Whenever you’re 280 and drop down to 255, that’s a big drop. So the strength had gone down, but this offseason that I got to spend time with the coaches in the building, that was big for me to get that strength back up to where it needs to be.”
The most noticeable difference in Epenesa’s game from a year ago is his burst off the snap. He seemed sluggish at times during his rookie season and his lack of strength led opponents to feel confident blocking him with a tight end, or even a running back. But the 6-foot-5 rusher says that his primary focus has been working on his get-off, as it allows the rest of his pass rush to unfold when he gets a fast start off the line of scrimmage.
“I think that’s the thing people thought about me, that my get-off wasn’t as quick (entering the NFL),” said Epenesa. “But being able to change my body and get consistent steps and get speed off the ball, that’s a big change and it sets up the rush as a whole every single play. That’s what starts it every single play – how fast you can get off the ball, or set the edge, or get after the quarterback.”
Without Jerry Hughes in the lineup, Epenesa has had significant opportunities to showcase his get-off with the first-team defense. His, along with Rousseau’s early success, now brings about questions of what the starting defensive line will look like come Week 1 against the Steelers.
Hughes is the team’s best and most experienced pass rusher and will almost certainly be starting against Pittsburgh, while fellow defensive end Mario Addison should play a big role as well. But with both veterans sitting out for the preseason, Epenesa, Rousseau, and rookie Boogie Basham are getting significant playing time while Leslie Frazier tools with them in different alignments and roles – something that wasn’t possible last season due to the stark difference in talent and depth throughout the defensive line unit.
“That just shows the depth that we have and the versatility we have,” Epenesa said of players like Basham and Efe Obada bumping inside. “We have ends rushing from the three techniques and we have three techniques rushing at end. So I mean it just shows that the group as a whole has taken a step forward and we’re ready to get better and keep progressing every week.”
Buffalo was intentional about revamping their defensive line after the entire unit underperformed in 2020, and was one of the major contributing factors in the team missing the Super Bowl. They finished with just 38 sacks and were a middle-of-the-pack defense against the run. But the return of Star Lotulelei, a new-look A.J. Epenesa, and two high draft picks to the group should spark an enormous turnaround.
While it’s important to not get too high or too low from preseason performances, Epenesa’s play during these first two games has been nothing short of impressive and the future looks bright for the 22-year old.