Despite finishing the 2020 NFL season with a 13-3 record, the Buffalo Bills have several major question marks that they hope to answer during training camp. Here at Cover 1, we’ll be taking a look at the top storylines to follow throughout the summer at Bills’ training camp as the team looks to dethrone the Kansas City Chiefs and earn a Super Bowl nod in 2021.
In this series, we’ll dive into the biggest position battles, under-the-radar players, and narratives surrounding key players, while taking a look at the numbers game that general manager Brandon Beane will need to play as he trims the roster down to a final 53-man depth chart.
After examining the team’s running back competition, wide receiver depth, second-year impact players and some that are on the hot seat, we’ll now look at some areas of uncertainty that need to be figured out at Bills training camp.
General manager Brandon Beane made it clear that he wasn’t content with the Bills’ pass rush in 2020, doubling down on defensive linemen in the 2021 NFL Draft. He selected edge defenders Greg Rousseau and Carlos Basham Jr. in the first and second rounds, adding to a position group that already features Jerry Hughes, Mario Addison and A.J. Epenesa, among others.
Buffalo struggled to affect opposing quarterbacks consistently last season. The defense ranked 15th in sacks (38), despite posting the eighth-highest blitz rate in the NFL (33.8-percent). They generated pressure on just 22.2-percent of their defensive snaps, good for 22nd in the league.
Hughes was once against the team’s most disruptive edge rusher, but his 66 total pressures resulted in only 4.5 sacks. While pressure and disruption definitely help force quarterbacks out of the pocket and into rushed passes, the Bills simply need more. They don’t have that feared pass rusher that can get those critical third-down sacks and get the defense off the field on the roster.
Rousseau and Basham are promising prospects that possess wildly different skill sets and traits. Rousseau showed a knack for sacks, tallying 15.5 takedowns in his lone year as a starter with the Miami Hurricanes. The 6-foot-7, 266-pounder is incredibly long and his 34 1/8-inch arms allow him to get those drag-down from behind sacks that some players simply can’t. He’s a versatile player that can kick inside in sub-packages, which could allow him to thrive in different matchup situations.
Basham is more of a pure power rusher that has some juice off the edge. The 6-foot-3, 274-pounder had 19.5 sacks in his final three seasons at Wake Forest and also has the ability to kick inside, while A.J. Epenesa slimmed down to get more explosive and looked like a completely different player down the stretch for the Bills.
Versatility is obviously valuable, but until someone steps up and makes a consistent impact off the edge, it doesn’t really matter. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ edge rusher duo of Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul proved just how valuable a strong pass rush is when it comes to knocking Patrick Mahomes off his game.
Buffalo’s newfound depth and talent at the defensive end position should undoubtedly improve their success of rushing the passer in 2021. But the coaching staff will need to find a way to maximize their talents and put them in positions to succeed early on if they hope to get the most bang for their buck out of these three young, unproven players that are crucial to the team’s success this year.
Defending Tight Ends
The Bills were one of the worst defenses in the league when it came to defending opposing tight ends in 2020. They allowed the most receptions (92), second-most yards (993) and tied for 12th in touchdowns allowed (eight) to tight ends. In their three playoff games, they allowed 31 catches for 282 yards and three touchdowns to the position, including Travis Kelce’s 13 catches for 113 yards and two scores in the AFC Championship Game.
Much of these struggles against tight ends can be attributed to linebackers Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds dealing with injuries throughout much of the season. However, it’s an issue that the team needs to find a way to solve. Leslie Frazier’s zone-heavy defensive scheme funnels passes inside, which leave tight ends in a position to thrive, but teams simply had too much success in the passing game, picking up huge chunks of yardage by targeting them. Tight ends had at least seven catches and/or 65 receiving yards in nine games last season.
The tight end is one of the most difficult positions to game plan for, as the players are some of the most gifted athletes in the world. But Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde form one of the most talented safety duos in the NFL, and with Milano and Edmunds at full strength heading into the season, Buffalo has no excuses when it comes to defending opposing tight ends.
Will crowd noise lead to regression for Josh Allen?
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, NFL teams played in front of empty stadiums for most of, if not all of their games last season. Buffalo played in front of fans at home during the playoffs, but during the regular season, they played in an empty stadium with crowd noise being pumped through the speakers. One of the bigger narratives emerging this offseason is just how much of Josh Allen’s success was as a result of leading the Bills’ offense in calm, quiet situations.
Some may downplay just how big of an advantage crowd noise can be for defenses, but it’s obvious that offenses can struggle to make adjustments and call audibles at the line of scrimmage.
Mike Sando of The Athletic took a look at some situational football from the 2020 NFL season that was affected by a lack of fans in the stands. He found that on 3rd-and-7-to-10 yard situations on the road – the time when fans are counted on to be at their loudest – Allen’s Bills added 1.25 EPA, the highest total in the NFL. He completed 15-of-18 passes for 199 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, zero sacks and a 149.8 passer rating in those road situations last season.
Now, this isn’t suggesting that Allen’s dominant play in 2020 was simply due to playing in largely controlled environments. However, there’s a reason why the Bills kicked off OTAs with loud crowd noise being pumped in, especially after getting flat out embarrassed in the AFC Championship in front of a rocking crowd at Arrowhead Stadium.
Buffalo fans know just how much of a home-field advantage that they provide in Orchard Park, but it will definitely be interesting to see how Allen and the offense fare on the road this year.