Analyzing the Bills’ Athletic Linebackers


Bills head coach Sean McDermott had some very good defenses in Carolina during his seven-year run as defensive coordinator. But they were defensive units that sort of went against the grain. McDermott relied on his athletic linebackers to be the playmakers in his scheme.

At various times throughout his tenure, McDermott had a dominant middle linebacker in Luke Kuechly, as well as former safeties Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson playing his interchangeable Sam and Will positions. His linebackers consistently used their athleticism to patrol the underneath zones, whereas Josh Norman, James Bradberry, Kurt Coleman, and Tre Boston were protecting the deep zones to minimize big plays.

McDermott spoke recently about fifth-round draft pick linebacker Vosean Joseph’s fit and how it goes along with the trends across the league, and he stated the linebacker position and safety positions are spots “where what we like may not be what other people like.” I think that’s where he may have been ahead of the curve in Carolina, but now he’s building that sort of linebacker corps in Buffalo.

In each draft since his arrival at One Bills Drive, McDermott focused on remaking the Bills’ linebacker corps. McDermott, along with General Manager Brandon Beane, has taken a linebacker in each of the last three drafts. In 2017, the Bills drafted Boston College’s Matt Milano. In 2018, it was mike linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, and in the most recent draft, they selected Vosean Joseph from the University of Florida.

“The thing that jumps out to me the most is his athleticism,” said McDermott after selecting Milano with the 163rd overall pick. The head coach went on to say that the type of linebackers they look for are “athletic, who can come in and help on special teams.” This will also be Joseph’s career path early, but there is no denying that when you watch both of them on film, their play styles are eerily similar.

The Trends

Two hundred and fifty-pound linebackers whose best traits are strength and the ability to stack and shed are rarer nowadays than guys like Milano and Joseph. Milano came into the league at a cut 223 pounds, and Joseph was in the 230-pound range. Though they lack size, their athleticism makes up for it. Linemen are so worried about taking proper angles to cut off the fast-flow linebackers that both are able to use their explosive yet physical nature to shuck blocks.

Neither player is going to win consistently in the same manner as a Takeo Spikes-type player; they play a different game. Rather than take on a 310-plus-pound offensive lineman, they will use their short area quickness and change of direction to avoid blocks and make tackles.

McDermott has said that Joseph plays a “free style of football that’s rugged, it’s physical, it’s nasty.” But what does that mean? Both players appear to possess loose hips and very flexible, almost independent upper and lower bodies. This allows them to make plays by slipping by blockers on some extreme angles then laying a lick on the ball carrier.

Sometimes their playing style and hopping in and around the tackle box can put them in some precarious tackling positions, but they have shown the ability to dip under or ricochet off of blocks and still make the tackle.

McDermott likes linebackers who can ‘fire their gun’ downhill and run sideline to sideline. When offenses want to run combination blocks where offensive linemen secure the first level then peel off and pick off linebackers, McDermott wants guys who are explosive enough to beat those blocks on run blitzes or when diagnosing runs.

The ability to leverage and scrape down the line of scrimmage that both linebackers possess becomes valuable as a stacked linebacker. A defender that can play stacked over an interior gap and defend an inside run, but who can also move laterally down the line of scrimmage as the ball bounces gap by gap, is critical.

McDermott’s scheme asks defensive tackles and ends to slant inside on outside runs to disrupt blocking schemes, allowing linebackers to roam free. This is when Milano and Joseph’s range and leveraging ability really shine.

Affecting the Quarterback

McDermott and Defensive Coordinator Leslie Frazier have done a tremendous job of scheming up pressure that involves their linebackers, specifically on simulated pressures that stress protections. These calls create pressure without blitzing or sending an extra rusher, which was part of the reason the Bills were fourth in pressure rate in 2018.

The Bills blitzed linebacker Tremaine Edmunds 9.1% of the time and Milano 14.1% of the time last year, which is a testament to their athleticism. Those same traits can be seen on Joseph’s film. In 2018, Joseph registered four sacks, three QB hits, and two QB hurries, so he definitely has the timing and range to affect the quarterback when schemed up properly.

Pass Coverage

During Milano’s rookie season, McDermott spoke about his innate ability to make plays:

“He has a knack for being around the ball, and he’s instinctive enough to make plays once he’s around the football.”

Joseph’s skillset is slightly different when it comes to pass coverage. He’s got a little more of a ‘tone-setter’ mentality to his game than pure cover and ball skills.

Milano was further ahead in the pass coverage department because he was a former safety and played all four years of college ball. But when you turn on Joseph’s tape, you will see flashes of his athleticism and knack for the ball, as well.

Once the pads are strapped on and camp starts, I have a feeling that Joseph is going to add more fans to his club. He is a player that played on every special teams unit at Florida, so he is willing to put in the dirty work for new special teams coach Heath Farwell. Beyond that, his athleticism and playmaking ability are going to flash when given reps on defense, even more than they did in college.

McDermott and Co. know the exact traits and brand of football they want their linebackers to play with, and it appears they may have hit the nail on the head again with Vosean Joseph.