What Makes the Bills Defense So Good?

With Tom Brady’s exit from the AFC East, many are picking the Bills as the early favorites to finally steal away the division from the Patriots. While I do think that’s easier said than done (there is someone named Bill Belichick who still runs the show in New England), the Bills have a defense that can help them match the Patriots pound for pound. The primary reason for that is their opponent-specific approach, similar to what we’ve seen out of New England for the last two decades.

In 2019, the Bills were as good as any defense in the NFL statistically. They finished 2nd in the league in points allowed and 3rd in total yards. They limited big plays through the air, allowing the fewest completions of 20 yards or more. Their success was the result of great talent and scheme. It was also the result of discipline throughout the defense.

Head Coach Sean McDermott and Defensive Coordinator Leslie Frazier deserve credit for the way they’ve been able to instill that discipline in their defense. This, along with the Bills’ talent, enables them to utilize a versatile scheme. Buffalo is flexible enough to be able to play with unique wrinkles and game plans from week to week based on the opponent.

For instance, against the Patriots in Week 4, the Bills made a concerted effort to take away Julian Edelman (Brady’s favorite target) on 3rd down. They did so in multiple ways with the consistent theme of not letting Brady get a clear pre-snap view of where help on Edelman would be coming from.

Take this 3rd-and-10 play below. Edelman was aligned in the slot with cornerback Kevin Johnson playing over him in man coverage.

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

The Bills were crowding the line of scrimmage and showing a pressure look. Would they bring everyone and leave Edelman alone 1-on-1? Would they use a conventional look with a linebacker dropping out in the middle to provide help inside?

They did neither. Instead, safety Micah Hyde, who was aligned on the other side of the field as a potential blitzer, raced to the middle to help out on Edelman at the snap.

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

Brady eventually saw Hyde, knew Edelman’s route was dead, and was forced to look elsewhere. The result was an incompletion.

2019 Bills Defense_1_vsPatriotsSL

The Bills did a great job of varying where the help on Edelman came from all day. Sometimes it came over top from a deep safety. Other times, a defensive lineman would drop out and try to disrupt Edelman’s route. Keeping a quarterback unsure of what the coverage will be slows down his decision-making. Possibly the most important reason for disguise is that it also prevents the quarterback from being able to get into the best play pre-snap.

The approach worked. The Bills held the Patriots to just 9 offensive points on the afternoon. Brady threw for only 150 yards with Edelman being on the receiving end of just 30. Buffalo lost the game but won handily on this side of the ball.

Against NFL MVP Lamar Jackson and the Ravens in Week 14, the Bills sought to try and take away one key element of what Baltimore does best. That is, run the ball off of various motions. Specifically, Buffalo employed a unique tactic to handle the Ravens’ use of “escort” motion.

Escort motion (as shown below) is where an offensive player will align to one side of the formation and motion across to the other side. However, the ball gets snapped before that motion man crosses the center. This is the key element of escort motion. Normally 2nd-level defenders won’t shift pre-snap until the motion man has crossed the center. This is because shifting too early could give the offense an advantage if the motion man ends up coming back to his original side. With escort motion, by the time the ball is snapped, the motion man has outflanked those 2nd-level defenders to the play-side, giving the offense a distinct numbers advantage.

The Bills had a plan to deal with this motion, though. It sounds simple, but whenever they saw this escort motion, their linebackers shifted before the motion man crossed the center. This negated Baltimore’s numbers advantage to the play side.

Below is a great example. This was a run to the left. You can see that the tight end was initially aligned to the right. He would motion across the formation.

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

Bills linebackers recognized the motion and shifted prior to the tight end crossing the center.

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

2019 Bills Defense_3_vsRavensEZ

With no running lanes to the left, the ball carrier was forced to the weak side for a minimal gain. That early shifting by the linebackers doesn’t work if those backside defenders don’t stay disciplined and play to their responsibility. Here, they stayed in their gaps to handle the cutback.

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

Discipline enables flexible scheme.

The Ravens saw early in this game that the Bills were over-shifting early vs. their escort motion. So they tried to counter with play-action boots and Lamar keepers away from the motion. Again, Buffalo was ready.

Below, the escort motion was going from the offense’s left to right.

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

You can see that Bills linebackers were calling out and pointing to the escort motion. Again, they shifted before the motion man crossed the center.

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

This time, Lamar kept the ball and booted away from the motion. Again, because of great discipline backside, this play went nowhere.

2019 Bills Defense_5_vsRavensLJEZ

At a time when the Ravens Offense was absolutely pummeling opponents, the Bills held them to a season-low 118 rushing yards and 3.6 yards per carry. Jackson, the league MVP, was held to just 40 yards rushing and 145 through the air.

Overall, the Bills Defense has very few holes. They can get to the quarterback. They have talented linebackers. Their secondary, led by TreDavious White, Levi Wallace, Micah Hyde, and Jordan Poyer, is versatile, which enables flexibility in scheme. It’s also returning mostly intact, with the addition of Josh Norman to add to that flexibility. Sure, the Bills can improve against the run (bottom 10 in the NFL in 20-yard runs allowed), but this is a seasoned unit that has all of the elements needed to lead Buffalo to a division title.

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