‘Discipline’ and ‘Effort’ Lead the Way on Defense


For most of the season the Buffalo Bills’ defense has carried — and I mean carried — the offense. In the Week 10 matchup against the Jets, the offense capitalized on the opportunities that the now top-ranked defense in the league gave them. The defense forced four three-and-outs in the first half alone, and the Bills’ offense racked up 31 points.

The defense went out and held the Jets to 199 total net yards, an average of 3.6 yards per play, and nearly shut the home team out on third down by holding them to 1-for-12.  When I turned on the film, the “discipline” and “effort” pointed out by head coach McDermott really stood out.

Leslie Frazier and his staff really didn’t scheme up anything exotic. They relied on their speed and fundamentals to limit quarterback Josh McCown and the Jets’ offense. Let’s dive into a few plays that stood out on film.

The front office wanted to add speed on offense for this matchup, but it was clear that the defense is all set in that department. Early in the game, the Jets tested the speed of linebackers Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds, and they figured out quickly that they needed to take another approach.


Remember when the defense used to have issues with split flow, where a tight end goes across the formation, or when jet action was presented? Not anymore. The Bills have corner Taron Johnson run with the receiver so that the linebackers can come downhill to fill. Edmunds blows by the offensive linemen as he comes off the combo block, while Milano tosses the lineman down to wrap up the running back.


The Bills blitzed on eight out of 38 dropbacks by McCown. The veteran QB attempted five passes in those situations and only completed one for seven yards. When Frazier sent blitzes, McCown had two passes batted down and surrendered two sacks. On this third down, they play Palms coverage. Corner Tre’Davious White is reading #2 to #1. If the #2 WR heads to the flats, which he does, White can jump it and then slot corner Johnson will take the deeper route. White squats and McCown is forced to hold the ball, allowing safety Jordan Poyer to register the sack.


Watch the discipline on the backside of this outside zone run. On the snap, DT Harrison Phillips reads the zone blocking, so he executes a gap exchange into the backside B-gap. That prevents the guard from climbing to LB Lorenzo Alexander, who is consequently able to fast flow to the ball. Defensive end Eddie Yarbrough only gets as deep as the heels of the offensive linemen and rallies to the ball. The running back’s options are limited because everyone did their 1/11th.


As a defense, sometimes you just get lucky. Edmunds blitzes on this play and the running back cuts him down. Safety Jordan Poyer loses his man in coverage, but luckily DT Jordan Phillips is able to bat the ball down. This play could have been a lot different because the Jets had a receiver wide open.


The No. 1 ranked defense prides itself on minimizing explosive plays, and they have done a great job of that in 2018. They only allow an explosive pass play 7% of the time (25 plays total), which is the third-least in the NFL behind the Ravens and Bears. This is because of how well they communicate on the back end. Versus the Jets, they only allowed two plays over 20 yards. Here, the Bills play Cover 3 as the Jets attempt to take a shot deep. The deep crossing routes are meant to put the three deep defenders in a bind, but even with rookie Levi Wallace in at right cornerback, their communication and discipline shone through. As safety Micah Hyde ‘cuts’ one of the crossers, he is replaced by Wallace, while White smoothly continues into his deep third to take away the intended target.


It was pretty clear that Frazier had a pretty good idea of when the Jets wanted to run outside zone because he simply ‘mugged’ gaps with his linebackers. This puts pressure on the offensive linemen to win their 1-on-1s. On the snap, DT Jordan Phillips re-establishes the line of scrimmage by driving the guard into the backfield. Hughes easily sets the edge versus the tight end and brings the running back down by his dreads.


The athleticism that the Bills now have at the linebacker position is unreal. Milano, a former safety, straight shows off on this interception. The former Boston College Eagle is in man coverage, executes a bail technique to keep his eyes on the quarterback, then squeezes the running back into the boundary and intercepts the pass. Not many linebackers have the confidence and fluidity to pull this off.


Defensive end Jerry Hughes had another productive day registering six QB pressures, including one sack, but he got an assist from his longtime teammate, Kyle Williams. On the snap, the offensive line slides to their right, so Williams and Hughes get 1-on-1s. Williams slams into the B-gap, so Hughes starts his loop inside. Williams then hooks the guard, giving Hughes just enough of an edge to win for the sack.


A former walk-on corner at Alabama, Levi Wallace had a shot at his first career interception at the end of the first half. It’s 3rd-and-7 and the Bills play Cover 2-Man. On the snap, the corners protect the middle of the field by taking inside leverage. The Dagger concept fails because Wallace flips his hips and undercuts the route. The aggression is exactly what is expected in this coverage knowing how tough of a throw it is if McCown tried to drop it in the bucket up over the top of Wallace. This was one of the best plays of the day.


One of the best players in the entire game was Harrison Phillips. He only registered two total tackles, but his ability to shrink his surface area to split combo blocks was special. And naturally, his disruption allowed the linebackers to play free downhill.


Safety Jordan Poyer rushed the passer on three occasions versus the Jets, and on this 3rd-and-10 play, they blitz him off the defense’s left side. With the blitz coming from the left, the Bills drop Huges into coverage and assign Williams into a contain rush role. This is typically done to help contain the QB into the pocket when they naturally want to drift away from the blitz. On the snap, Williams recognizes the quick set and the soft edge left by the guard, so he jumps and bats the WR screen pass down.


My only gripe about Wallace’s debut in the red, white and blue is the angles he took to the ball. On the lone touchdown surrendered by the Bills’, defense, Wallace chases the WR into the box even though that receiver was going to block S Poyer. The lack of awareness puts him out of position, and he is unable to hold contain. The back bounces it outside for a touchdown.


The second interception by QB McCown was simply Micah Hyde making a play. On 3rd-and-4, the Bills play Cover 1 and McCown tries sneaking the pass to the slot receiver running an in-breaking route. As Hyde’s assignment breaks for the middle and throttles down, he is funneled to Edmunds, so Hyde peeks at McCown. He recognizes the QB is in a throwing posture, so he trusts his eyes, and it pays off as he plucks the ball out of the air for his first interception of the year.


One thing I loved about Harrison Phillips when I scouted him was his ability to recognize run block schemes. Remember this play from my breakdown on Phillips?


Well, here is that skill showing up on Sunday. The Jets try to execute a ‘CHUG’ call (center under the guard). It’s a form of fold block where the guard will block down and the center will pull. Phillips quickly swims the block, and the entry point for the back is blocked, so he has to bounce it wide. This sort of awareness takes years to develop, and Phillips shows it on a consistent basis.


The kid has a bright future. He may not be the biggest nose tackle, but his awareness, strong hands and motor more than make up for it. The combo block by the Jets moves Phillips about a yard, but then he forces a stalemate, splits the block and makes the tackle.


The story of this game was the offensive explosion at MetLife Stadium, but that just goes to show the level of expectation on defense. They are expected to create negative plays and do. They lead the league in tackles for loss with 60. They are expected to affect the quarterback and create turnovers. They lead the league in forced fumbles with 16, and that’s a testament to their leadership, effort, discipline and fundamentals.

You watch Lorenzo Alexander, to name just one play of his where [it was the] second to last play of the game and he’s from one side of the field to the sideline and trying to make a play. That says a lot about who we are, what we’re trying to do here and the leadership that I appreciate that Lorenzo brings to the table. -Head coach Sean McDermott

It’s been quite the turnaround since last season, but that wasn’t unexpected. They made the commitment to the defensive side of the ball in the offseason. But if they want to become a winning team, then the front office will need to commit to the offensive side of the ball in the same way.