If Buffalo Bills fans take even a brief moment to think about, let alone mention, Vlad Ducasse, they’re usually not doing so in the most complimentary way.
They mainly see him as a body just taking up space on the offensive line. And when there are struggles up front, such as the pass-protection breakdowns that helped lead to Tyrod Taylor being sacked six times in Sunday’s 37-16 loss against the New England Patriots, Ducasse is usually pegged as a weak link at right guard.
The common refrain goes something like this: the Bills can live with him this season because they don’t have anyone better, but they’ll need an upgrade next year.
Maybe. However, it’s also fair to say Ducasse has contributed to some of the success the line has enjoyed, such as when it played a key role in the Bills’ 24-16 victory against the Miami Dolphins on Dec. 17. One of the Bills’ larger accomplishments that day was not allowing the 6-foot-4, 305-pound Ndamukong Suh, the Dolphins’ dominant defensive tackle, to be all that dominant. He was credited with seven tackles, including three for loss, but wasn't the game-wrecking force he is capable of becoming.
The 6-5, 329-pound Ducasse had more than a little something to do with that.
“I thought he did well,” center Eric Wood said. “As a line, we give a guy like that a lot of attention. We’re not going to go into a game and say, ‘Hey, everybody, good luck when you’ve got him.’ We’re going to get our double-teams where we can. The plays that we are one-on-one, you have a matchup that’s going to be tough. That’s a guy that we give a lot of respect to.
“But I thought Vlad did a good job.”
Ducasse gets another chance to see what he can do against Suh in Sunday’s rematch at Miami. If it’s another game in which Suh’s name isn’t mentioned a whole lot, chances are Ducasse will have performed at a reasonably high level.
The question is, will anyone notice?
“Vlad is probably one of the lesser-known guys on our team,” coach Sean McDermott said.
Some of that's due to the nature of Ducasse’s position. Some of that is because his signing in the offseason generated minimal buzz, even though he entered the NFL with the New York Jets as a second-round draft pick from the University of Massachusetts in 2010. With the Bills, he was viewed as a journeyman beginning his eighth NFL season with his fifth team (including stints with the Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears and Baltimore Ravens).
Conventional wisdom suggested that if Ducasse did challenge to start, he would only do so because the new coaching staff recognized John Miller’s inadequacies and the fact Bills offensive line coach Juan Castillo had coached Ducasse in 2016 with the Ravens.
“He does immeasurably more than what is said about him from a recognition standpoint, just like a lot of guys on this football team,” McDermott said. “He’s been very valuable member of our team and our offensive line.”
Ducasse has proved that at other points during the season, but never as much as he did as part of the individual and double-team blocking the Bills did against Suh. Ducasse made good use of his movement and size, as well as his intelligence and instincts. He was particularly impressive in anticipating Suh’s moves and occasionally, when he was overrunning a play, Ducasse took Suh where he wanted to go.
“Anytime you’re going against a guy like Suh, he’s a great player, maybe a future Hall of Famer,” Ducasse said. “It’s not like I just show up to that game (and say), ‘Oh, I’m facing Suh, I have to turn it up.’ I have to push the same way every week, so whenever I’m facing a guy like that, it just comes (as) second nature.”
Ducasse began the season as Miller’s backup and was inactive for the first four games of the season. In the fifth game, Oct. 8 at Cincinnati, Ducasse unseated Miller as a starter at right guard and has kept the job ever since.
Not that the outside world has embraced Ducasse as a front-line player. Fans do their best to tolerate him as a temporary piece to a puzzle in need of a makeover.
“I don’t know what people think, I can’t control that,” Ducasse said. “All I can control is just go out there and do my job. Credit to Coach Juan. I had a chance to work with him last year, and he helped me take my game to another level in a way. Just like my technique, (point out) that’s what’s going to work for me and that’s why I should do it. And I wasn’t hard-headed. I actually listened and it actually helped me.
“The more time I spend with him, the better I’m getting. He always says, ‘You’re a talented guy.’ Now, he’s teaching me how to use my talent for me. Him coaching me is like my eyes opening even more.”
Wood, for one, has noticed. He has had a Pro Bowler, Richie Incognito, at left guard for three seasons. Therefore, the bulk of Wood’s attention this season has been on developing chemistry with Ducasse.
It didn’t take all that long to form.
“Vlad’s had a good year,” Wood said. “You know what you’re going to get from him. He’s a consistent person, consistent player. He brings it every day in practice, which shows up in the game. He’s very smart, which helps.
“It’s helped him to be around the game for so long because we put in a play, he’s probably run it somewhere else. You go against a team, he’s probably faced them before, he’s faced that scheme before. And all that stuff helps with continuity where I hadn’t played next to him prior to this year, but he’s experienced enough to know enough concepts in defenses where it wasn’t as much of a hiccup with him.
“There’s obviously some different fits where we double-team and where he winds up with me, and all that, we had to like gel in that aspect. But it’s been (10) games and that stuff doesn’t need to be addressed anymore.”
When Suh played for the Detroit Lions, Ducasse faced him twice per season when Ducasse played for NFC North rival Chicago.
As far as Ducasse is concerned, Suh’s reputation for being a dirty player doesn’t overshadow the fact he is also viewed as one of the greats at his position.
“He’s a dominant guy,” Ducasse said. “What makes him a great player is the way he plays the game. He plays with such intensity. I know people, at times, say, ‘Oh, he’s this, he’s that.’ But from what I’ve seen, that’s the way he plays the game. If he knows, ‘Alright, that’s my assignment,’ he’s a hundred percent in the assignment.
“A guy like that, you’re going against him, you have to say, ‘All right, I’ve got to put my hundred-percent assignment to him.’”