Though the impacts were offset by an offensive emergence, the once-dominant Buffalo Bills defense did take a discernible step back in the 2020 NFL season.
The group regressed after ending the 2018 and 2019 campaigns as a top-three unit, finishing the 2020 season ranked 14th in total defense. Cracks in the once-stout run defense started to show due in part due in part to the absence of defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, with the team allowing an average of 119 rushing yards per game (an increase of 16.5 YPG from the previous season). The unit also struggled to bring opposing quarterbacks to the ground, with its 27 total sacks besting the end-of-season total of just eight other teams.
The regression, though partially expected given the circumstances, was still concerning. The defense, the widely-perceived backbone of the team, was carried by the offense throughout a large portion of the season.
So Brandon Beane acted.
Buffalo’s general manager made numerous additions to his defensive line in the offseason, signing former Carolina Panthers defender Efe Obada in free agency before adding two pass-rushers early in the 2021 NFL Draft, selecting Greg Rousseau and Carlos Basham in the first and second rounds, respectively.
Beane entered the offseason with a clear plan for the defensive line: add size and versatility. Obada, at 6-foot-6, 265 pounds, became the team’s largest defender upon signing, only to be supplanted by Rousseau a few weeks later. Though he’s three inches shorter, Basham is heavier than both Obada and Rousseau, weighing in at 281 pounds.
The three also have some positional versatility, as all three, given their frames, have the ability to kick inside to defensive tackle on passing downs. Bills’ defensive coordinator Leslie Fraizer thinks that this newly-added size will allow the team’s defensive line to rebound this season.
“You look back at a season ago, we were one of the smaller D-lines in the National Football League, maybe the smallest,” Frazier said while speaking to the media Friday. “Now, there’s been a real transformation. Brandon Beane has done a great job of getting us some length and size, and then having Star back.
“I think it does make a difference to an opponent when they look across and see some big burly guys over there versus some little small guys that are fighting and doing everything they can, but really don’t match up size-wise. I like this way better than the other way. This is better. I’ll take our chances with some size.”
Buffalo is banking on size being the missing piece to a successful pass rush. Though the team struggled to take opposing signal-callers down last season, it wasn’t due to a lack of trying. The Bills sent 254 blitzes last season, per Pro Football Reference, the most in the NFL. They produced 65 hurries, the fourth-most in the league.
They just couldn’t get home.
For some perspective, the Philadelphia Eagles finished second in blitzes sent last season with 230, 24 fewer than Buffalo.
They finished with 38 more sacks.
Buffalo wants to be aggressive in terms of rushing the passer, but last season, it simply didn’t have the tools to be successful. Frazier hopes that, with an influx in size, the team’s fortunes will change.
“I think it’ll definitely help, but still, you’ve got to have the talent,” Frazier said. “I think we have some guys that are talented, both of the guys that we talked about earlier, both Carlos and Greg have added some talent to our D-line, and then of course getting Star back, as well. But you’ve still got to be able to finish, and you have to be talented enough to be able to do that. The length will definitely make a difference, whether it’s batting balls or that extra inch to reach out and grab a quarterback. It should help us.”
If the line is to return to form in 2021, expect Rousseau and Basham to lend a hand in that process. While neither rookie is expected to start over the likes of Jerry Hughes, Mario Addison, or A.J. Epenesa, both could be impactful in rotational roles. Frazier has been impressed with the two since their arrival in Buffalo for OTAs in May, with their off-field mindsets being as admirable as their on-field contributions.
“Throughout the spring and now here in training camp, we’ve really been impressed with their attitude, their work ethic,” Frazier said. “They really picked up where they left off at in OTAs. They’re really smart guys. We were concerned early on, how much we could throw at them when it comes to the volume of the defense. They’ve both handled it extremely well, and it doesn’t seem too big for them at this point. Now, we haven’t put on pads yet, we still have some more installation to go, but at this point, we’re very pleased with where they are. Doing a lot of good things.”
Frazier singled out Basham during his Friday press conference, mentioning a play from Thursday’s practice in which “Boogie” got a hand on a Josh Allen pass at the line of scrimmage, made the interception, and returned it for a score.
Frazier feels this is only a glimpse of what Basham is capable of.
“It was impressive,” he said. “We talk about takeaways all the time, for him to bat that ball the way he did, and then have the wherewithal to focus and catch it, that’s a big deal. It showed his athleticism and the mindset that he has. We think that he’s capable of making plays like that once we get into real football, as well. It’s really good to see, even though it’s practice and it’s training camp. You love to see that.”
Though more pass-rushing production is something Buffalo hopes to get in 2021, it’s also aiming to bounce back against the run after finishing 17th in run defense last season. The return of veteran defender Star Lotulelei, who opted out of last season over Covid-19 related concerns, should help the unit accomplish this goal, as Fraizer thinks his return will have a ripple effect on the defense.
“I think for our linebackers, as well as the other D-linemen, whether it’s Jerry Hughes, our young guys that are getting acclimated to how we do things, Star’s presence makes a difference,” Frazier said. “He’s not a guy who’s very vocal, you’re not going to see him out screaming and yelling and giving speeches, but just the way he handles himself in practice and meetings, it sends a reverberation throughout our defensive line and throughout our entire defense.
“His work ethic, his ability to make plays, it’s going to impact our entire defense. It goes beyond just the linebacker position or the D-line, it affects our secondary, as well. Having a guy who is big and stout in the run game to help us in early downs to try to get people in passing situations. We’re happy to have him back for sure.”
Buffalo is a team with Super Bowl ambitions, but in order to reach that step, the defensive line must take a step forward. Though we’re less than a week into training camp, it looks as though the unit is on its way.