The defensive masterpiece of the Buffalo Bills' 2017 season came in Week 12 at Kansas City.
The Bills' season was hanging by a thread after three straight blowout losses in which they had given up an average of 32 points a game. The team was reeling after the one-game benching of Tyrod Taylor in the disastrous loss to the Chargers. Lose a fourth straight and kiss the playoffs goodbye.
Kansas City's offense ranked No. 1 in the NFL in rushing, No. 5 in overall yardage and No. 6 in points, and Chiefs QB Alex Smith led the NFL in passer rating at 107.6.
Yet the Bills shut down the Chiefs, 16-10. It was the second lowest point total of the year for the Chiefs, and Smith's passer rating was a miserable 76.0.
"He had no idea what we were in," safety Micah Hyde said of the Chiefs' QB. "I think there were some plays on third down where we really executed well and disguised well. I think we did a really good job disguising."
The game epitomized the Bills' defensive season: The whole was greater than the sum of the parts.
Consider some of the unimpressive numbers for the Bills' defense:
- 26th in yards allowed
- 18th in points allowed
- 29th against the run
- 20th against the pass
- 32nd in three-and-outs forced
- 18th in third downs
- 31st in sacks per pass attempt
Yet despite a mostly impotent pass rush, the defense was able to rank:
- No. 6 in interceptions
- No. 5 in passer rating allowed
- No. 8 in yards per attempt allowed
- No. 7 in fewest 20-plus passes allowed
- No. 1 in fewest 40-plus passes allowed
"That's pretty good numbers for a team that's not sacking the quarterback," said defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. "It speaks to our guys' resiliency in finding ways to overcome lack of sack production."
Call it whatever you want: Overachieving. Doing it with mirrors. Coaching 'em up.
The season was a testament to the superb defensive coaching of Sean McDermott and his staff, led by Frazier . . . along with assignment-sound execution of the players.
The results of Year One of the McDermott regime bode well for the defense in 2018. The Bills have more defensive talent than last year.
"Not giving up big plays, making teams earn what they get, forcing teams to kick field goals and not scoring touchdowns," said Hyde, ticking off defensive essentials. "At the end of the day, you can have a good defense without getting sacks as long as you limit the big plays and get the turnovers."
Takeaways tend to absolve a lot of sins.
Frazier & Co. benefited from what surprisingly became an elite safety tandem in newcomers Hyde and Jordan Poyer. Their combined 10 interceptions led all NFL starting safety duos. Cornerback Tre'Davious White added four INTs in a brilliant rookie campaign.
"Credit to the guys we had and the coaching staff putting them in position," Frazier said. "Then we had guys like Micah and Tre'Davious and Jordan making plays when they were in position. That's the other part of it. As a coach you can put 'em in position. But if you don't have the guys who can execute it, you're not going to get results. . . . Fortunately we had some guys on the back end who could make the plays."
Credit McDermott and Frazier with playing to the strength of their secondary.
The coaches did not panic about their lack of pressure by gambling with more blitzes. Bend but don't break was the path to victory.
The Bills blitzed – rushed five or more men – only 21 percent of passing plays, according to News figures. They ranked 18th in the NFL in blitzing, according to Football Outsiders.
"You try to figure out what your guys can do well, and you try to cater things to what they do well," Frazier said. "It varies. You can't be stubborn and say this is what we do, we better do it."
The Bills, instead, were good at the "illusion of pressure."
They feinted the rush and dropped back into coverage. The veteran safeties disguised coverages before the snap. Make the three-deep zone look like a Cover 2, and vice versa.
"That's a big part of successful pass defense," Frazier said. "It's something we work on a lot, trying to give the quarterback a look like we might be bringing pressure when we're not. Then at times giving him the same look and then bringing pressure. We spend a lot of time on that."
"We do a good job of disguising," Hyde said. "Leslie preaches it a lot. Sean comes in the room and preaches disguising. We hear it every day from our coaches. Being able to disguise and not let the elite quarterbacks in this league like Tom Brady, who we play twice a year, know what you're in. Because if that's the case, it's going to be an open book. Brady's going to read it every time and put the ball wherever he wants."
The Bills mixed fronts and coverages well in Kansas City. They blitzed 10 of 41 pass plays (24 percent). Smith went only 5 of 10 for 55 yards on those plays. The Bills showed five or more men threatening to blitz but backed off and dropped seven or eight into coverage on nine other plays. Smith was just 4 of 9 for 33 yards and an INT on those plays.
"We might not have had the big sack numbers, but we hit Alex Smith a lot," Frazier said. "We had him on the move a lot, which goes back to the point we did enough to make him feel uncomfortable."
The Bills are planning on making quarterbacks feel uncomfortable more often this offseason. The illusion of pressure can be good. Consistent pressure is better. Overachieving is nice. Overpowering is better.
One way is to force opponents into more obvious passing situations by improving the run defense.
The Bills faced the sixth most rushing attempts in the NFL last season. They gave up the most rushing TDs (22).
"With Star, it's having a guy who from a single-block standpoint is going to be very, very hard for offenses to do that," Frazier said. "There were times last year where as we got further in to the season, people could block our nose and knock him off the ball. That creates other issues for your run defense."
"You didn't see that much with Star at Carolina," Frazier said. "You saw a guy holding his gap, separating from blocks. And if you were going to move him you had to get two people on him. If you get two people on him, that frees up somebody else to run through. That was something we were lacking a season ago at that position. We think he can really help our run defense."
The Bills are counting on free-agent edge rusher Trent Murphy to bolster a significant weakness from last season and offer much-needed help to Jerry Hughes, who managed four sacks last season.
"We feel like he’s more than capable of being a double digit sack guy year in and year out," Frazier said of Hughes. "We’ve got to figure out ways for that to happen. Teams gave us opportunities and there were times he had really good pressure and didn't come away with the sack. If you watch our Miami game the last game of the season, Jerry touched the quarterback at least two or three times and didn't get him on the ground. This year we've got to turn those into sacks."
"That dovetails into one of the reasons we signed Trent," Frazier said. "We think Trent Murphy can help us in that way and should help Jerry as well. Right now he's the one threat we have, so you see people taking their protection to him at times and keeping a tight end in or chipping. Those contribute to his numbers being down also. Hopefully Trent will take some of that pressure off of Jerry."
For the coaches and players, the pressure will remain to create the same kind of assignment-sound execution that made last season's defense effective.
"It's kind of like the old finger analogy," Murphy said. "One finger alone is weak but you put it together with a fist and it's very strong. I think that's what this defense is working to be. Eleven as One. Everyone doing their job, knowing the man's job next to them. Coach Frazier and Coach McDermott lay that foundation of the team, your job, playing together."