The Buffalo Bills entered the 2021 offseason with the goal of adding playmakers who could affect the quarterback and during Friday’s 16-15 preseason victory against the Detroit Lions, it looks like their investments along the defensive line are primed to pay off. The unit that Brandon Beane believes held them back against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship game is now one of the deepest position groups on the roster and that talent was put on display in last night’s exhibition.
Greg Rousseau got the party started early, taking No. 7 overall draft pick, Penei Sewell to the woodshed. On the third play of the game, Rousseau bull-rushed Sewell right into Jared Goff’s lap, reaching over the lineman and shoving the quarterback to the ground, forcing a punt.
“I just got off the ball, made sure I worked my hands,” Rousseau said after the game about his first sack. “I think I did a little stutter bull (rush). I saw Jared Goff and I tried to reach out and get him. I think I got a piece of him. I’m just happy that we got him down. It was really great to be back out there.
Rousseau, who stands nearly 6-foot-7, showed off his uncoachable physical traits that led Buffalo to select him with the No. 30 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft. His length and power presented issues for Detroit’s offensive line throughout the first half, as he registered three pressures and one hit on 11 pass-rushing snaps.
Gregory Rousseau vs. Penei Sewell 👀 pic.twitter.com/ebAzJrwXHE— Austin Gayle (@austingayle_) August 13, 2021
Rousseau played the entire first half and wasn’t the only fresh face on the defensive line to make an impact. Buffalo’s 2020 second-round draft pick A.J. Epenesa has drawn high praise from teammates and coaches throughout training camp after undergoing an impressive physical transformation over the course of the last year. Now comfortable with his new, lighter frame, Epenesa looks like a totally different player than the one that took the field last season. His burst off the edge looks much improved, and he still possesses the heavy hands that made him so effective at Iowa.
With two minutes left in the second quarter, the Bills fielded their version of a ‘NASCAR’ package, with Boogie Basham and Efe Obada at defensive tackle, flanked by Rousseau and Epenesa at defensive end. Both Rousseau and Epenesa won their individual matchups, sandwiching Detroit’s backup quarterback Tim Doyle just as he got off a pass that fell incomplete.
I think the Epenesa - Rousseau combination is going to be fun to watch. pic.twitter.com/xHaj5uKbyH— Erik Turner (@ErikJTurner) August 14, 2021
“That’s what we want to see,” head coach Sean McDermott said following the game. “We want to improve our pass rush. We were very intentional about that this offseason, so that’s good to see. Especially against a guy that was picked high – Penei – right on the right side there. So I’m anxious to look at the film and see who else showed up rushing the passer.”
McDermott certainly won’t have to look hard to find others who stepped up.
Obada, who signed with the team as a free agent after notching 5.5 sacks with the Carolina Panthers last year, played through the third quarter and was impactful from a variety of alignments. The 6-foot-6, 275-pounder is quick enough to rush the passer from the edge but powerful enough to kick inside and win against guards. He showed off that ability Friday, lining up all over the defensive line and finishing the game with two tackles and one quarterback hit. Here, he just makes a grown man play – muscling between two Lions’ offensive linemen before stuffing the running back at the line of scrimmage.
Lot of good things happening for the #Bills DL on this 4th down stop. RB starts to see the front of Obada’s jersey(big 🚩), he cuts left where Phillips won the leverage battle giving him no room for another move, that sets up Obada and Rousseau to finish him off #BillsMafia pic.twitter.com/roSI6tOAE8— MeRk (@Merk256) August 14, 2021
“Our d-line coaches know it’s never enough,” McDermott added. “They’ve heard that before. I’ve worked with Eric (Washington) for a number of years and he knows. You’re always wanting more. But it is good, against their ones with the group we had out there, I thought our guys showed up and did a good job.”
One intriguing bubble player, Darryl Johnson, also got in on the action – notching a third-quarter sack to keep his name fresh in the minds of a coaching staff who have some extremely difficult decisions to make in the near future regarding the 53-man roster. Johnson has been a core special teamer that Heath Farwell pointed out as being one of the freakiest athletes to cover kickoffs and punts in the NFL, but his ability to step in on defense brings even more value to the team.
Not only did Buffalo’s defensive line bring pressure in the passing game, but outside of two fourth-quarter breakdowns, they stymied Detroit’s rushing attack – another area the team desperately needs to see improvement on in 2021. Without Star Lotulelei, Tremaine Edmunds, Jerry Hughes, Mario Addison and Matt Milano, the Bills’ defense allowed just 58 rushing yards on their first 20 carries, before a missed tackle resulted in a 20-yard gain on a fourth-down run. In total, the Lions gained 107 yards and one touchdown on 26 carries, but 44 of those yards came on two late runs.
“It’s all about fundamentals as a defense getting off the ball, being fast, physical, using our hands,” said Rousseau about the run defense. “I feel like stopping the run is definitely a mindset.”
Buffalo’s defense finished the game with four sacks and six quarterback hits. Sure, it’s the preseason and you can’t get too high or too low from the results of an exhibition. But for a team that simply could not get after opposing passers without the blitz last season, it was refreshing to see them wreak havoc with their front four, even against an inferior opponent. The Bills invested heavily in their defensive line over the last two seasons, and it seems like their efforts are set to pay off in 2021 as they look to win a championship.