The 2021 NFL draft has come and gone, but conversations and spirited debates about the Buffalo Bills team composition persist. Most noteworthy is (arguably) the Bills defense, specifically its pass rush. To the Bills Mafia, the selection of back-to-back Defensive Ends in rounds 1 & 2 of the draft produced reactions of elation and deflation. Many were more than pleased that the Bills front office adequately (or even over-adequately) addressed a need at the position.
This also comes with extensive questions, context, and drill-down analysis that needs to be disseminated. Without it, misinformation and misunderstanding can become rampant. This serves only as an accelerant to debate, most often in an unhealthy manner. What is most important to illustrate is why exactly the Bills implemented the strategy that they did in the draft and what the selection of Greg Rousseau and Boogie Basham Jr. means as it pertains to both grand strategy and tactical schematics.
Dispelling the “Tampa Bay” Narrative
First and foremost is the concept of overreaction and paralysis-by-analysis. One must be careful not to fall victim to both concepts. This is important because many have suggested that Brandon Beane’s primary motivation in selecting back-to-back DEs was the team’s poor defensive performances combined with the effectiveness of the Buccaneers pass-rush against Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl.
This is a false narrative and a massive simplification. Brandon Beane, himself, has dispelled it as false. In the Super Bowl, the Buccaneers were playing a (somewhat) hobbled Patrick Mahomes and a hodgepodge offensive line decimated by injury and cumulative fatigue. To construct a draft strategy around that would, frankly, be utterly ridiculous. The performances of the Bills defense and what that means will become clear soon enough. But the fact is that the Bills defense relies on a heavy rotation and DE depth is as important (if not more) than the individual pass rushers themselves. It is important to understand how these players will be deployed and what the tactical profile of the defense is now, compared to what it has been in the recent past.
In 2019, the Bills had an outstanding pass defense ranked 2nd in the NFL. The one problem with our defense was our pass rush. The Bills had a pass rush win rate of 47% and recorded 44 sacks (12th in the NFL), at a rate of 8.11%. When the Bills were unable to sack the QB, they had a pressure % rate of 23.3% and 143 pressures. Their blitz rate was low at 31.1%, meaning that most of the time creating pressure was up to the front four. The Bills needed to find an edge rusher who could create more pressure for them in passing situations.
The Bills also struggled on offense in 2019 ranking 23rd in total offense. They had a good run game, ranking 8th in the NFL with 2,054 rushing yards. When it came to the passing game the Bills struggled, ranking 26th in the NFL with 3,229 passing yards. The main problem with the Bills’ offense was that they did not have that go-to guy in the passing game. The Bills solved this by trading for Stefon Diggs and giving up their first-round pick along with other picks.
This year, the Bills had the 16th best defense in the league and, at times, struggled to finish the play and get pressure. The Bills had 38 sacks (T-15 in NFL) with a pass rush win rate of 52%. Also, they had a 22.2% pressure % rate and, like last year, had 143 pressures. The Bills blitzed more often this year at a rate of 35.8%, which stands around the middle of the league. Once again, the pressure had to come from the front four. They were able to win off the line and beat their blocks but were unable to finish the play.
This is further evidenced by the Bills ranking 2nd in the league in pass rush win rate in 2020 (according to ESPN). This statistic means that a pass rusher beat his one-on-one opponent’s block in 2.5 seconds or less. (More often than not, they could not complete the play past this point.) Pass rush needed to be addressed again but in a different way this time. This year, the Bills needed a rusher who could not only create pressure but finish the play and get some sacks.
The 2020 Buffalo Bills were a different story, they had a great offense – 3rd in the NFL. They had an amazing passing game and could run the ball when they needed to. There were no glaring errors that needed to be addressed in the first round of this year’s draft.
How to Approach the Pass Rush
Primarily, there are two distinct methods by which pass rushers execute the rush. One way is by using dynamic movements, including bending, swimming (not the aquatic kind), hand-fighting, spins, and stunts. Basically, this means dynamic athleticism. The other way is through the use of brute force, speed, and explosiveness employed off the edge position or kicked to the inside of the defensive line. Both Greg Rousseau and Boogie Basham align with the latter method of rushing and will most likely be used that way. This is not to say that they cannot become dynamic pass rushers; athleticism and the associated techniques CAN be taught.
Strength of Schedule
Now, we can combine statistics, methodologies, and tactics with the matters of schedule and opponents faced (in 2020). It is often said in military planning that “The enemy gets a vote,” and this is true. The opponents the Bills face are never going to cooperate and in this frame of thinking, the games are all wars between the Bills and their opponents. Last season, the Bills had a much tougher “strength of schedule” than what they will face this upcoming season.
Many teams on last season’s schedule featured offenses with QBs that threw the ball quickly from snap to release. As a result, the focus of the pass rush changed from sacks to disruption of the passer. In this regard, the pass rush was a success. With the additions of Rousseau and Basham for 2021, the Bills maintain this approach but also open up new opportunities to evolve the defensive scheme and strategy.
Affecting the DL Rotation
It is highly unlikely that both Basham and Rousseau will start in 2021 but that was likely never the expectation. Brandon Beane used the phrase “affect the rotation,” when asked a similar question. It is also reasonable and logical to point out that Basham is the more polished and prepared prospect in 2021 and will see more usage and playing time in the immediate. Rousseau will likely need some fine-tuning to his game and athletic profile. Facing a “weaker” 2021 schedule and working in a rotation under the tutelage of veterans such as Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison will allow for unique development opportunities in a quasi-“trial by fire” environment.
Another way the Bills defensive line rotation will likely be affected is in the variation of formational setups. Both Basham and Rousseau have proven abilities to rush from the interior part of the line. Conversely, Hughes and Addison mostly rush from the Edge. Other players like Oliver, Zimmer, and Phillips are mostly inside rushers as well. The Buffalo Bills have now GREATLY enhanced the variability of the Defensive Line to fit a wider range of tactical situations.
The final point to touch on is focused on financial concerns. Defensive End is a high-priced position and even more so in pursuit of free agents. To now have three young and promising DEs (including Epenesa) under cost-controlled rookie contracts is a massive boost to the front office’s ability to maintain positive control of the team’s cash flow. This does carry risk and the possibility of becoming an issue year down the road but in all likelihood, the cap will be orders of magnitude higher by that point.
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