The Cleveland Browns’ rushing attack wasted no time gashing the Buffalo Bills’ defense in week two of the preseason. Cleveland’s first possession on offense was a nine-play, 70-yard touchdown drive. Sixty-three of those 70 yards were generated on the ground.
After four quarters of action, the Bills ended up allowing 164 rushing yards to the Browns. Cleveland carried the ball 32 times, resulting in an average of just over five yards per attempt.
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Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier was asked if those struggles to stop the run are concerning.
“It’s a concern any time they run the ball successfully, whether it’s preseason or the regular season,” said Frazier. “You want to really hone that up and get it taken care of, and that’s something we’ll work on this weekend.”
The sight of opposing running backs roaming free last week was eerily reminiscent of the Bills’ inability to stop the run a season ago.
In 2017, opponents averaged 124.6 rushing yards per game against Buffalo. Only three teams in the NFL had a worse run defense, with the Bills ranked 29th in that category.
They may have been a bottom-five unit when all was said and done, but Buffalo’s rushing defense actually showed some promise at the beginning of the season last year. Over the first eight weeks, the Bills held opponents to 80.1 yards per game on the ground. If the team would’ve stayed on that same trajectory all season, they would’ve finished with the second-best run defense in the league.
However, that’s not how things transpired. The defense’s ability to stop the run did a complete 180 in the season’s latter half. In those final nine games, the team allowed 159.2 rushing yards per game to opponents. That’s practically twice as many yards as they surrendered in the first seven games of the season.
Considering the drastic regression in Buffalo’s ability to stop the run, additions were made this offseason with the hope of revamping that area. The Bills bolstered their defensive line by signing Star Lotulelei and Trent Murphy in free agency. The team also improved through this year’s draft, adding linebacker Tremaine Edmunds in the first round (16th overall) and defensive tackle Harrison Phillips in the third round (96th overall).
Buffalo’s DC didn’t hesitate when asked if those moves were made to tend to the struggles in stopping the run last season.
“Absolutely,” said Frazier. “Bringing in a guy like Star [Lotulelei] was a tremendous addition, and then having Tremaine [Edmunds] as a part of our defense, as well.”
Lotulelei, a 6’2″ 315 lb DT, may be the most intriguing player acquired by the Bills this offseason. His sheer size should make running lanes hard to come by for opposing RBs.
Lotulelei’s entering his sixth season in the league, following a five-year stint in Carolina. He was a first-round selection (14th overall) by the Panthers in 2013. Since being drafted, he’s gone on to start in 75 of 76 career games played.
The availability of Lotulelei is without a doubt a large part of his appeal. Not only is he consistently on the field, but he’s also consistently producing. In five seasons, he has 150 total tackles, 11.5 sacks, five passes defended, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries.
The 28-year-old DT shone in Carolina, and the Panthers’ defense was equally successful. In Lotulelei’s five seasons down south, the team’s rushing defense ranked second (2013), 16th (2014), fourth (2015), sixth (2016), and third (2017), cracking the top-10 during four of his five seasons.
For the Bills, they’re hoping that success carries over, though they’ll have to wait until the regular season opener on September 9th to truly see how effective the team’s defense is with Lotulelei and the other first-year members of the team. Until then, two more preseason games remain to get the kinks worked out, with the next contest coming this Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals.
“You like to find out what some of the issues are during the preseason, so you can work on some of those things the following week and throughout the regular season,” said Frazier. “I think there are some things that are certainly correctable, and we’ll be able to get those questions answered, hopefully on Sunday.”