We recently wrote about how the the talent and discipline possessed by the Bills Defense enables Head Coach Sean McDermott and Defensive Coordinator Leslie Frazier to successfully use opponent-specific approaches. It also allows them to use a healthy amount of disguise in both their coverages and their pressure schemes. They do a great job of hiding indicators and not giving the quarterback a clean picture, which often disrupts the passing game altogether.
3rd down is when the Bills love to get crazy. On the below play against the Eagles, Buffalo used a double-A-gap look to put pressure on Philadelphia’s protection schemes. This is an alignment they like to use often.
First, view the play from the sideline. The Bills were showing pressure with 6 men crowding the line of scrimmage. Cornerback Kevin Johnson, who initially looked like he would be dropping into coverage, ended up blitzing. Attacking the quarterback with speed off the edge is another prevalent component of McDermott and Frazier’s schemes.
With the Eagles using a 5-man protection (the running back was motioning out of the backfield), they could not protect against all 6 potential rushers on the line of scrimmage. They chose to protect the 5 potential pass rushers to the right, including the two linebackers in the A-Gaps.
This is what these double-A-gap looks can do. They put pressure on the offense and the quarterback to anticipate where the pass rush will come from. They sometimes make the offense have to guess. Here, they guessed wrong.
Middle linebacker Matt Milano and defensive end Darryl Johnson (who were both accounted for in the protection) dropped out into coverage at the snap. Tremaine Edmunds initially blitzed to occupy the left guard and center before dropping out into coverage also.
When it was all said and done, the Eagles’ five offensive linemen accounted for just two pass rushers and allowed two others to get in free to the quarterback. The combination of quick pressure and potential pass rushers dropping into underneath coverage disrupted the design of the play entirely. There were no clear and quick options to throw to, and Carson Wentz was forced to flee the pocket. The desperation completion was not enough to move the chains, and the Eagles punted on the next play.
Sacks and turnovers are the best-case scenarios for a defense, but pressure most often has an impact by simply preventing an offense from doing what it intends to do.
There’s nothing better than watching a defense break down pass protection with great pressure schemes. Generating a pass rush with your front-4 is always important, though, and it was an area of needed improvement for the Bills heading into the offseason.
Despite their ability to manufacture pressure on the quarterback, the Bills still finished 2019 in the middle of the pack in pressure percentage. This was largely because their front-4 did not generate enough of a consistent pass rush on its own. Less than half of the Bills’ sacks in 2019 came from straight pass rushes by their front-4, for instance. And against a seasoned quarterback like Tom Brady, who can recognize pressure schemes and respond accordingly, the Bills did not register a sack in two games.
During free agency, Buffalo lost their two sack leaders from last season, Shaq Lawson and Jordan Phillips. Those two combined for 16 sacks in 2019. However, they were replaced with defensive ends Mario Addison (9.5 sacks in 2019), Vernon Butler (6 sacks in 2019), and A.J. Epenesa (2020 2nd-round pick). We’re guessing the Bills view these additions as upgrades who provide more flexibility and depth on the defensive line. Ed Oliver figures to make a bigger impact in his 2nd season, assuming he can bounce back from his offseason core surgery and avoid discipline for a DWI incident in May.
Still, this will be an area to watch all season. Because if the Bills take a step back in their ability to get consistent pressure on the quarterback, that changes how dynamic they will be as a defense in 2020. While Buffalo’s offense looks to be an improved unit, their ability to win the division will still be dependent on a dominant defense.
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