Buffalo Bills poised for dominance thanks to dramatic DL overhaul


Last year, the Buffalo Bills’ defense played a huge role in the team making their first playoff appearance since 1999. Buffalo’s overall success was largely due to their secondary – a unit filled with brand new faces as the team moved on from every cornerback and safety that was on the roster prior to Sean McDermott being hired as head coach.

Now the Bills made a point to improve their front seven after struggling to defend the run and generate any sort of pass rush.

Despite an inefficient offense and a defense that simply couldn’t defend the run, the secondary kept the tea team in games by intercepting 18 passes and forcing 25 total turnovers – the seventh-most in the NFL.

Buffalo allowed 1,994 rushing yards (fourth-most in NFL) and allowed 22 touchdowns on the ground (league average in 2017 was 11.9). According to Sports Info Solutions (subscription required), opponents gained 772 yards on 196 carries, scoring nine touchdowns on runs between the tackles.

A whopping 509 of those yards came after contact and 20.9-percent resulted in first downs (fifth-worst in NFL) while running backs broke 38 tackles, the most in the league on such runs. The defense surrendered 120 rushing yards in nine games and over 180 in four of their contests last season.

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Marcell Dareus, who was the Buffalo Bills’ No. 3 overall draft pick in 2011, came into the season with major questions regarding his future with the team. Dareus’ off-the-field issues began to outweigh his production and he was ultimately traded to the Jaguars for a conditional sixth-round draft pick.

This left Kyle Williams in a bad spot, as he was forced to play more as a nose tackle, taking on multiple blockers, which kept him from being the disruptive force fans grew accustomed to since he joined the team in 2006.

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Following the trade, Adolphus Washington and Cedric Thornton split reps alongside Williams to little success. Both were graded among the worst defensive linemen in the league by Pro Football Focus. The pair combined to notch just three sacks and 12 total pressures for the year.

Buffalo Bills find their Star in Free Agency

star lotulelei

Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The  Buffalo Bills were aggressive at the start of NFL Free Agency, signing former Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei to a five-year, $50 million contract with $25 million guaranteed. Lotulelei is a former first-round draft pick that spent five seasons with the Panthers, where he played for Buffalo’s head coach Sean McDermott when he was Carolina’s defensive coordinator.

Lotulelei is one of the premier two-gapping nose tackles in the NFL and while his contributions are made beyond the stat sheet, he was an integral piece of the Carolina Panthers’ defense in each of his five years with the team.

He’s incredibly strong and has the core strength necessary to anchor against double teams or combo blocks. He’s got a great burst off the ball and does a great job getting his hands inside his man’s pads and driving them back to reset the line of scrimmage.

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By holding the point of attack, Carolina’s linebackers had less trash to work through, running freely to make plays all over the field. This will be incredibly valuable to rookie linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and weakside linebacker, Matt Milano, who surprised many after he racked up 43 tackles, three tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and a score during his rookie campaign.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] “The biggest thing more so than anything else is (Lotulelei) allows the linebackers to run. It’s important,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera told the Charlotte Observer in August. “You have to have space-eaters, guys that are going to absorb and take up blockers. That’s what he does. He does it about as well as anybody.”


Harrison Phillips an ideal apprentice to Kyle Williams

kyle williams, buffalo bills

Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Despite adding a big-time interior defender in Star Lotulelei, the Buffalo Bills didn’t stop there, turning to the 2018 NFL draft to snag Harrison Phillips. The Stanford alum was an All-American and was the taken in the second-round of the 2018 NFL draft. In two years as a starter, Phillips made 153 tackles, 29  tackles for loss, 17 sacks, forced two fumbles and two broke up two passes.

While tad undersized, standing 6-foot-2, 300-pounds, Phillips has a short-and-stocky build that’s similar to that of veteran Bills defensive tackle, Kyle Williams and both play with high energy. Both Phillips and Williams understand how to use their low centers of gravity to get underneath the pads of their opponent and win the leverage battle.

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Phillips was a nightmare for opposing lineman, wreaking havoc on offensive coordinator’s game-plans every Saturday. He recorded seven-plus tackles last season in nine separate games last season and had seven games with at least one-half of a sack.

But, as noted by his 42 bench press reps of 225-pounds at the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine, the undersized defender is a freakish athlete also. Many analysts have opined that had Phillips weighed in just a bit heavier, he would have been a surefire first-round selection. Instead, the Buffalo Bills were able to acquire a ridiculously talented player in the third round.

Trent Murphy joins Jerry Hughes, Shaq Lawson to revive Bills’ pass rush

trent murphy

Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Bills not only revamped their group of defensive tackles with two big names during the NFL offseason but they signed edge rusher Trent Murphy, another Stanford alum that spent his first four years in the league with the Redskins.

Murphy signed a three-year, $22 million deal with Buffalo and will be competing with Buffalo’s first-round pick from the 2016 draft, Shaq Lawson for the starting defensive end job opposite Jerry Hughes. Murphy was quietly productive during his role as a rotational edge rusher in Washington while backing up Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan.

Murphy was an All-American for Stanford where he recorded 160 tackles, 52.5 tackles for loss, 32.5 sacks, two interceptions, six pass breakups and two forced fumbles before being taken with the No. 47 overall draft pick. He served primarily as a subpackage defender through his first four seasons, appearing in 47 games, starting 23.

In that span, he recorded 111 tackles, 15 sacks, two pass breakups and six forced fumbles. His breakout season came in 2016, as the young interior defender notched nine quarterback takedowns and generated 55 quarterback pressures.

The 6-foot-5, 255-pounder can play either as a base defensive end with his hand in the first or as a stand-up edge rusher in wide alignments. Murphy was suspended for the 2017 season due to failing an NFL drug test but the 27-year old should be able to come in and help the Bills boost a pass rush that was stagnant one year ago.

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Buffalo’s defensive line registered just 27 quarterback sacks last year, an unacceptable total for any defense. Jerry Hughes and Kyle Williams played well but simply didn’t have the surrounding help necessary to give them opportunities to make big plays.

The lack of a consistent pass rush allowed quarterbacks to stand tall in the pocket and scan the field without pressure while buying time to find an open target.

Eddie Yarbrough stepped up last year and earned the starting role over Lawson, who is reportedly in fantastic shape and ready to prove that he’s the type of game-changer that the Bills hoped for when selecting the former ACC Defensive Player of the Year from Clemson.

Owa Odighizuha is another edge rusher that figures to get some play throughout training camp. The former UCLA star dealt with off-field injuries since joining the New York Giants as a second-rounder in 2015.

Going forward, the Bills have the foundation in place to build a ferocious defensive line. Last year’s decision to overhaul the secondary paid off, as safeties Jordan Poyer and Michah Hyde played astonishingly well and rookie cornerback Tre’Davious White made a strong case for being named Defensive Rookie of the Year opposite EJ. Gaines.

Now, Buffalo has young, talented and budding stars littered throughout the defensive line which should boost the play of the defense as a whole. By stopping opponents rushing attacks on early downs they’ll have favorable down-and-distance situations. which should lead to more opportunities to pick up sacks.

Additionally, a stout nose tackle like Star Lotulelei will occupy offensive linemen, keeping the linebackers free to make plays.

In my next piece for Cover 1, I’ll break down the Buffalo Bills group of linebackers headlined by their young 20-year old star, Tremaine Edmunds.