Star Lotulelei doesn’t appear to have much of a presence on social media.
No verified Twitter account. No Facebook or Instagram.
That’s probably for the best.
The Buffalo Bills’ defensive tackle has taken plenty of scorn online over the last few weeks as the team’s run defense has been repeatedly gashed.
“Star Lotulelei is washed up.” “Star Lotulelei has been terrible. I don’t care about him taking up double teams. If you’re being paid $10 million a year, you’ve got to put up some numbers. He hasn’t done ... ” “Should the Bills cut their losses and cut Star Lotulelei? He does nothing good for the defense except collect lots of cash.”
That’s just a small sampling of the results that pop up in Twitter when searching Lotulelei’s name – not that he sees any of it.
“I don't really listen to anything that comes from outside of our room,” Lotulelei said this week in the Bills’ locker room. “I think my teammates understand the kind of player I am and how much everything here means to me, how hard I work. The talk outside really doesn't mean anything.”
Grading football players comes with a certain subjectivity. Even as coaches’ film – known as the “all-22” because the overhead camera angles show every player on the field – has become more available to the general public in recent years, there is still an asterisk that comes with that type of analysis. Even the most astute football minds reviewing such film don’t know the play call and the specific responsibility of each player on it. That doesn’t stop them, or even the average fan at home on his or her couch, from opining, though.
Analytics website Pro Football Focus ranks Lotulelei tied for 81st among 129 interior defensive line players who have played at least 100 snaps, with a 62.1 overall grade. His run defense grade of 64.8 ranks tied for 74th and his tackling grade of just 24.8 is dead last. Lotulelei has missed five tackles, according to PFF’s charting. His pass-rush grade of 53.3 ranks 116th. Again, those grades are subjective.
“Being in the league, everyone is going to have an opinion,” Lotulelei said. “Everyone thinks they know what they're talking about and everybody thinks they're an expert. They really have no clue.”
Another thing Lotulelei has learned in his seven NFL seasons is the more money you make, the closer your performance will be dissected. After signing a five-year contract that could pay him as much as $50 million, he’s aware of being under that microscope.
“You get paid to come here and primarily stop the run, so when runs hit, of course it's going to fall back on you,” he said. “People are going to look at, ‘Why isn't he doing more? Why isn't he helping?’ I can't help what people think and feel. All I can do is focus on the team and focus on what we've got going next week. If you allow everything outside to get in your head, it'll affect the way you play and I don't want that.”
Understandably, Lotulelei’s teammates and coaches were eager to come to his defense this week.
“Overall, Star has been our most consistent player throughout training camp, preseason and through the season,” defensive line coach Bill Teerlinck said Thursday. “Versus the run, his footwork, pad level, key recognition, block recognition, step and punch, it’s all as good as anybody we've had, day in and day out.”
After the Eagles ran for 218 yards in a Week 8 win over the Bills, coach Sean McDermott defended Lotulelei’s play, repeating a line he’s used frequently before when talking about what’s asked of the “one-technique” defensive tackle in his scheme.
“It’s the most unselfish position on the defense,” McDermott said. “Your name doesn’t get in the paper a lot and sometimes that’s a good thing as it relates to staying in your gap and doing your job. … Those defensive tackles don’t get a lot of recognition for the dirty work.”
At least, not from the outside world.
“He does so much stuff for this defense that people have no idea about,” fellow defensive tackle Jordan Phillips said. "I know he's never going to say anything about (outside criticism). That's just the way he is. He doesn't care. He goes out there and he does his job at a very high level. A lot of people can't do the stuff that he does, including me. I try to go in there and do what he does, and it doesn't always go right. But that man does it every play. He eats up blocks and lets us go out there and do our thing. There's a reason why he's paid what he's paid, because he does it right. He's the centerpiece of our defense.”
Lotulelei has started all eight games this season and been credited with eight tackles, all of which have come in run support. He’s played 236 snaps, 44.8% of the defensive total. He was on the field for 29 defensive snaps against the Redskins, and admitted this week that his performance was not good enough.
“Speaking for myself, I tried to do too much,” he said. “There were two big runs that were on me, where I tried to do too much. I'll peak into a different gap when that's not my gap. We're supposed to be a gap-sound defense and everybody is supposed to do their job. It's just a matter of everybody trusting each other and then being disciplined. They were both huge runs, and I take full responsibility for those. It's just a matter of trusting the guy next to you and being disciplined.”
Washington running back Adrian Peterson put up huge numbers against the Bills in the first half. Peterson started the second quarter with three straight runs of 18, 17 and 28 yards. On the first of those plays, Lotulelei was blocked one-on-one by Washington guard Ereck Flowers, with Peterson going straight up the gut. On the next play, Lotulelei got doubled teamed by center Chase Roullier and right guard Brandon Scherff, with Peterson cutting back to the middle of the field. On the last play of the sequence, Lotulelei was again double teamed, this time by Roullier and Flowers. Peterson appeared to be bottled up at the line of scrimmage, but somehow managed to break the run outside.
“Not just Star, but overall we haven't handled the run as well as we'd like the last couple weeks,” Teerlinck said. “Just because a run gets loose or we let an explosive run out, people might look to 98 and that's not always the case at all. Each guy in the last week or two has had a play or two they'd want back, and Star would be the first to admit when he's wrong. That's the beauty of Star, his sideline communication, he can come off the field and tell you how they're blocking and what runs are attacking us. So his knowledge, even on the sideline in game days, helped us make adjustments in the second half.”
Those adjustments made a huge difference against Washington. After Peterson gained 101 yards in the first half, he was held to just 7 in the second as the Bills pulled away for a 24-9 win.
“He knows the playbook as well as anybody with his experience in this system in Carolina,” Teerlinck said. “So Star can get aligned, get everybody else aligned and help people make plays. Again, that stuff doesn't always show up in the stat sheet, but Star's been very effective, Star's been very unselfish, Star leads in a different way. He helps the young guys before and after practice and in meetings. His knowledge and his power are huge assets to us, and it sometimes does go unnoticed, but everyone in this locker room respects him and knows how much hard work he puts in.
“Everybody has the right to their opinion, but we love and trust Star. He's one of our core guys. His mild manner is a positive for us, because when Star does talk, people listen. He's a guy who doesn't say much, but when he does talk, there's power behind it. There's confidence in what he's saying and what he believes in. It's very powerful. Guys gravitate to that.”
Phillips can attest to that.
“He's the most unselfish guy I've ever been around,” he said of Lotulelei. “He is not only a leader, but he's just a big brother. He wants the best for everybody in the room. … I can't say anything bad about him. The stuff he does, people don't see. They don't understand what he does. The way he goes about his business, the way that he doesn't look too far into anything and just goes out there and does his job – I hope to be a vet like he is.”
Lotulelei and the Bills’ run defense will again be in the spotlight Sunday. Led by Nick Chubb, the Cleveland Browns come into Week 10 averaging 5.2 yards per carry, second best in the NFL. They will also have Kareem Hunt available for the first time this season following the conclusion of his suspension. Until the Bills show they can stop the run consistently, it’s a good bet teams will keep testing them on the ground. If the Browns have similar success to the Eagles and Redskins (for a half), Lotulelei will again bear the brunt of criticism.
That’s something he’s comfortable with.
“For myself, I feel like I've been playing fine according to what's been asked of me to do,” he said. “Especially as a defensive line group, we've been playing fine. … At the end of the day we're 6-2. I don't think it's something to lose sleep over.”
The Bills' injury report is about as small as it gets by Week 10 standards. The only player to miss practice Thursday was running back Frank Gore, who received his customary veteran rest day.
Safety Kurt Coleman (hamstring) and cornerback Kevin Johnson (knee), both of whom practiced on a limited basis Wednesday, were able to participate fully Thursday.
Provided there are no injuries at practice Friday, the Bills will have an entirely healthy 53-man roster against the Browns on Sunday.