The Buffalo Bills’ defense has certainly stepped its game up this season. They went from being ranked 26th in Football Outsiders DVOA metric last season to now sitting 3rd overall. The quick turnaround is due to the front office’s commitment to improving that side of the ball.
By adding defensive end Trent Murphy, defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, DT Harrison Phillips, then DT Jordan Phillips just a few weeks ago, Leslie Frazier now has a well-balanced group of run stoppers and pass rushers.
Safety Rafael Bush’s ability to hold down the ‘Big Nickel’ role freed up the Bills’ ‘Swiss Army Knife’, Lorenzo Alexander, so he could be a key cog in their third-down packages.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”Leslie Frazier” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=”22″]”He’s playing defensive end for us, we line him up inside at tackle at times in our third down defense, he’s playing inside linebacker, outside linebacker, making plays.”[/perfectpullquote]
Of Alexander’s 203 defensive snaps thus far, he has aligned as a defensive tackle or edge defender 120 times, as an inside linebacker 50 snaps, an off the ball linebacker 30 snaps, and in the slot for three snaps.
On Sunday against the Texans, it seemed like every time the defense needed a big play, Alexander was involved. Late in the second quarter, Houston was driving after they took possession at their 40 yard line. They face a 2nd-and-3 from the Bills’ 17 yard line. As Alexander surveys where QB Deshaun Watson is going to set up in the pocket, he stabs with his right hand, so Lamm brings his hands up to engage. Zo has the corner already, so he dips under the block and snatches Watson’s right leg. Teammate Kyle Williams then swats the ball out, but the home team recovers the fumble. Williams and Alexander are each credited with half a QB sack.
This sets up a 3rd-and-long, where the Bills have thrived all season. On these obvious passing situations, Frazier likes to use Alexander as a quasi-defensive tackle. Zo and Murphy have shown the chemistry needed to create chaos on stunts and games. Alexander and Murphy work a TEX stunt while Defensive end Jerry Hughes and DT Kyle Williams execute an EXIT stunt. On the snap, Alexander crashes hard into the B-gap to get the attention of both offensive linemen. Then, Murphy loops inside and gets a free shot at Watson. Watson breaks free and flees the pocket to his right. But Alexander doesn’t quit; he keeps the pressure on Watson and it forces an interception. With the Bills already down 10-0, this was a huge play for the defense, and it was all thanks to the hustle of the vet.
Alexander’s incredible play carried its momentum into the second half. On the Texans’ first drive, they are faced with a 3rd-and-5. Buffalo continues its attack on right guard Zach Fulton and right tackle Kendall Lamm by sending a blitz right at them. Watson calls out the ‘Mike’ as being Edmunds, so the left tackle, left guard and running back have the three defenders to their left. That leaves the center, right guard, and right tackle responsible for the three most dangerous defenders to the right.
Alexander is lined up as a defensive tackle in a two-point stance. On the snap, he and Murphy crash hard inside to get safety Jordan Poyer a free run at Watson. But as Edmunds screams to the flats, the center smartly goes to pick up Poyer. This leaves a nice lane for Alexander to see Watson’s eyes. Knowing that he isn’t going to get home, Alexander waits for Watson to throw it over the middle. He times the jump perfectly, bats the pass up into the air, and then goes up and gets it for the 2nd interception of his career.
The former Cal Bear always does his job, his 1/11th, and on this 3rd-and-5 play, it once again helps the Bills’ defense get off the field. Buffalo sends an overload blitz from the boundary and they play Cover 3. As Watson receives the snap, he glances at safety Micah Hyde. With the overload coming from the left, Watson drifts to his right. He wants to escape the pocket to hit the flood concept to the field. But Zo stays disciplined, remains as the contain rusher, and it doesn’t allow Watson to extend the play outside the pocket, which could have led to a big gain down the field.
While he only finished with four total tackles, they were some timely plays. On this 3rd-and-4 play, the Bills only rush three defenders and play Tampa 2 on the back end. Alexander is aligned as a defensive tackle in a two-point stance and plays the ‘Rat’ defender role. The ‘Rat’ defender is essentially a spy; he will drop into the short area and read the QB’s eyes, and this call pays off. On the snap, Zo fakes as if he is going to rush into the A-gap, and it catches the center’s attention. This gives DT Williams an inside lane, so he takes it. With Hughes and Murphy coming off the edge, Watson is forced up into the pocket, and with his internal clock running out and no one open, he checks it down to RB Alfred Blue. But Alexander was locked into the play the entire time.
The Bills have compiled a wealth of talent along the defensive line and can affect the quarterback in several ways. They have created pressure on 38% of their pass rush snaps, which ranks them fourth in the NFL.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”Lorenzo Alexander” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=”22″]“Obviously, (Deshaun) Watson makes it special with his ability to run and stuff, with him being a little knicked up I think he was staying inside of the pocket a little bit more and a little bit more hesitant as far as getting out.” [/perfectpullquote]
It’s only a three-man rush, but the pressure from Murphy, Williams, and Hughes is enough to flush Watson to his left while Alexander is again spying him. The back seven do a fantastic job of eliminating any options for the former Clemson Tiger. So Watson looks to leave the pocket and Zo wastes no time at choking the escape route. He attacks and brings Watson down for the sack.
The start to Alexander’s 2018 NFL season has been incredible. The 35-year-old is currently the highest-graded edge defender in the NFL, per PFF. Zo is fourth on the team in total tackles with 19 and fourth in stops with 13, and he has only missed one tackle through the first six games. He is one of the more effective pass rushers in the NFL, sitting eighth in pass rush productivity at 10.2. When asked to drop into coverage, opposing QBs register a 34.5 passer rating when targeting him and have only completed five passes for 2o yards.
There is no denying that Alexander is filling the stat sheet in 2018, but it’s his leadership on and off the field that has made the biggest impact on the Bills roster, and more importantly, in the Buffalo community.
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) October 16, 2018