For the past four seasons, Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator, Leslie Frazier, has led one of the most dominant defenses in the NFL. Despite losing players like Stephon Gilmore along the way, the Bills defense was a constant wrecking force, and in 2019, they were ranked the second-best defense in all of football. Players like Kyle Williams, Lorenzo Alexander, Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Jerry Hughes, Tremaine Edmunds, and Matt Milano were all pivotal to helping the Bills win and make their long-awaited return to the playoffs. But if you’ve been watching the Bills this year–and I know you have been–you can see the defense has been playing nowhere near its capability, especially with a highly-touted defensive coach like Frazier.
There are many areas to spread the blame for this year’s lackluster defensive performance: poor play from players like Edmunds, Josh Norman, and Taron Johnson; injuries to Matt Milano and Levi Wallace; even the loss of Star Louteleli (something I never thought I would say) to an opt-out. However, I think the biggest cause of the defensive downfall has been the loss of Jordan Phillips and Shaq Lawson.
Phillips and Lawson held court as a one-two punch on Frazier’s defensive line last season, with both players having career years. Despite the division-leading statistics and their dominant play, however, Brandon Beane & Co. felt it was best to let these two defensive stalwarts leave town. So far, however, this decision has come back to haunt them.
As a unit last season, the number two overall ranked Bills defense accumulated 44 sacks, the 10th-most in the league, with Phillips leading the way with 9.5 and Lawson coming in second with 6.5. On top of the gaudy sack stats, the Bills also ranked 10th league-wide in rush defense, allowing an average of 103.1 yards per game. Pretty impressive numbers, especially considering the players that made up the defensive crew.
This season has been quite the opposite. At this writing, the Bills defense ranks at 15, a considerable drop compared to last season. Although they defensively dominated the New York Jets this past Sunday with six sacks and only allowing 219 total yards, including only four (four!) yards in the second half, most other teams have had their way with this defense, including the Tennessee Titans, Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Rams, and even the Jets at one point in that game. Against the Titans, the Bills allowed over 334 yards and six touchdowns on defense, with an offense run behind former Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill, while picking up a grand total of zero sacks. If that wasn’t bad enough, their worst performance of the season came the following week, when the defense was simply unable to contain Chiefs rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who had the best game of his young career with 161 yards on 26 carries, averaging more than 6 yards per carry. Clearly, this defense is in shambles.
While these struggles are ongoing in Buffalo, Phillips and Lawson have each settled into their respective grooves in Arizona and Miami. Phillips has been the anchor on the defensive line, amassing 10 total tackles and two sacks as we approach the halfway point of the season. He was hurt during Sunday night’s thrilling victory over the Seattle Seahawks, but the injury does not appear to be serious. Meanwhile, as a starting defensive end, Lawson has easily fit into his new role down in South Beach under head coach Brian Flores. Despite missing a few games due to a left shoulder injury, Lawson is still putting up solid numbers with nine tackles and a sack.
This weekend’s game against New England, like any against a division rival, is important, but the real test comes the following week at home against Seattle. The way the Bills defense looks now, they need all the help they can get–a situation they could have avoided, at least in part, had they re-signed Jordan Phillips and Shaq Lawson. It’s safe to say Beane made a mistake–actually, two mistakes–by not bringing back at least one of these two players.