Perhaps no player on the Buffalo Bills’ defense is more excited about Star Lotulelei’s return than defensive tackle Ed Oliver. After two solid, yet unspectacular seasons with the team since being drafted No. 9 overall in 2019, Oliver believes the stars are aligning in a way that will allow him to finally perform to the level he did during his monstrous collegiate career at Houston. And through one week of Bills training camp, Oliver is excited to begin building the team’s pass rush from the ground up – something he said wasn’t a possibility last offseason due to his recovery from a groin injury.
“This is my first year coming into camp healthy and being able to be with the guys to really build that rush,” Oliver told reporters following Saturday’s practice. “Last year I was coming off a groin injury, so I had limited time. But this year is the first time we’re building that rush from the ground up. Not me coming in halfway through camp, which was kind of weird. Even through the first few games, it was kind of weird. We’re starting from day one building that rush and camaraderie which will carry over to the regular season.”
Building a formidable pass rush will be critical to Buffalo’s defensive success in 2021 as they look to push for a Super Bowl. In 2020, the defense tallied just 38 sacks and no defensive lineman than Mario Addison’s five. General manager Brandon Beane clearly saw the defensive line as a position of weakness entering the offseason and made a concerted effort to rebuild the unit, adding Efe Obada in free agency, before using their first and second-round draft picks to select edge rushers Greg Rousseau and Boogie Basham.
Oliver knows the pieces are now in place for this unit to rebound in a big way from their overall performance in 2020.
“They did a great job drafting guys to put around me, and bringing Efe too,” Oliver explained. “Including the guys already here, Jerry and Mario. So we have all the tools to be great. We just have to make it happen on Sundays and that’s what we’re doing here in camp. Building that camaraderie, building that rush. So on third down, third-and-long, it’s automatic, we’re taking the ball away and getting off the field.”
With all of these new moving pieces in place, Oliver knows that training camp is the time to really get to know his teammates. The groin injury that sidelined him early in training camp last year didn’t allow him to gel with the other defensive linemen and synchronize a pass rush by working off one another – something that he says will not be the case this season.
“I feel like me not being there during camp, the camaraderie was off. Just the cohesiveness,” Oliver explained. “We had Q-Jeff last year and me and him had to figure out how to rush together. He was rushing with Vern, so I had to learn to rush with him. You gotta be there to rush with guys, to learn how guys rush, learn how guys think and know, oh, he’s going to do this, so I have to react like this. It just took longer. You only get about seven true dropbacks a game so it just took a bit longer to get that cohesiveness.”
Beane spoke to WGR550 on Monday about Oliver’s development and he pointed at his collegiate role as a nose tackle and explained that he’s learning all new keys, reads and how to play the position as a whole. He also talked about how the learning curve from being able to run wild against an offensive line, to rushing as a unit and off of his teammates has been steep and something that hindered Oliver’s early production.
“Ed plays so hard,” Beane said. “I’d take his motor all day, give it to 53 guys and we’d have a heck of a competitive team. He loves it, he’s a dog. The defense he played in in college, he played a lot in the zero, right over the nose guard and he was clearly the best player. They just let him run. To either way. So it was just learning, reading the guys up in front of him. Are the guys in front of you giving you a tell sign? And learning to work with the guys next to him. He never had to work with a defensive end or another d-tackle in pass rush games. So just working those things and understanding what the offense is telling you, I think that will lead to more production for him.”
Oliver recorded 33 tackles, six tackles for loss, three sacks, one pass breakup and one forced fumble in 2020 while playing out of position at the one-technique in place of Lotulelei for a significant amount of snaps early in the year. Commanding those double teams was something that the 6-foot-1, 287-pound lineman wasn’t accustomed to and it prevented him from utilizing his most special traits – his speed, burst, and power – that allows him to shoot gaps and terrorize opposing passers.
“I just learned how to play the one,” Oliver said of his role in 2020. “I’d ask to play the one, like on YAC Motion, I’d slide down to the one and I got comfortable. It was something I was uncomfortable doing but as the season went on I learned how to play it and I was alright there. But I’m definitely glad Star’s back.”
Lotulelei’s return brings Ed back to his natural three-technique alignment, where the 23-year old should thrive.
“Star is Star. Star’s gonna draw a lot of attention, he’s a great nose guard,” said Oliver. “He’ll allow me to play more three, heavy three this year, so I’m happy about that.”
Oliver isn’t the only one who believes his production and overall caliber of play will improve with Lotulelei back in the lineup. Beane has high hopes for his former top-10 draft pick, but also doesn’t think his 2020 season was as poor as many have been led to believe.
“It’s year two in Eric Washington’s system,” Beane says of Oliver’s outlook for 2021. “He’s very comfortable this year and I think his production numbers will go up. Obviously, he’ll have to show that, but I think he was a factor, even though he didn’t have a lot of sacks last year, he factored in for us down the stretch and made a lot of plays. People are looking at stats and expect more, and Ed expects sacks too, so I’m looking forward to what he’ll bring in year three.”