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Bills defense excelled at making opposition take the long road

The answer: DeVante Parker, Jonnu Smith, Hayden Hurst and DeAndre Hopkins.

The question: Who were the only players to catch a pass of 40 or more yards against the Buffalo Bills’ defense in 2019?

Nothing illustrates the Bills’ defensive philosophy or the strength of the Bills’ defense – its secondary – better that the team’s success in limiting big pass plays over the past three years.

Since Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier arrived, here’s where the Bills have ranked in 40-plus yards pass plays allowed:

First in 2017, first in 2018, first in 2019.

Here’s where the Bills have ranked in 20-plus yards pass plays allowed:

Seventh in 2017, first in 2018, tied for first in 2019.

“For us, if we limit explosive plays, it’s hard to move the ball methodically down the field against us,” linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said before the playoff game in Houston.

“Philosophically, we always talk about not giving up big plays over the top of the defense,” said Frazier, the Bills’ defensive chief. “Credit to our guys, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, all those guys who play on the back end. And it’s the pass rush and the linebackers buying into that philosophy, understanding how we want to play defense in Buffalo. Those guys have gotten it done, consistently understanding that we have a chance if we’re not giving up the explosives.”

The Bills gave up four plays of 40-plus yards in the regular season and one to Houston’s Hopkins in the playoff game, when he got behind Tre’Davious White on an all-out blitz play. Parker caught two against the Bills in the game at Miami, one in garbage time. Hurst, Baltimore’s backup tight end, had a 61-yard TD catch on a rare coverage bust by the Bills. Tennessee’s Smith took advantage of a couple missed tackles to take a tight-end screen for 57 yards against the Bills in Week 5.

Having one of the best safety tandems in the league in Hyde and Poyer remains a key to the Bills being so assignment sound.

“Their versatility allows our pass defense to be as good as it has been,” Frazier said. “The safeties aren’t giving away some of our man zone coverages before the snap. Also, their disguise. A certain call comes in and they understand what I can and can’t do in order to try to manipulate the quarterback. Their experience and their understanding of what we’re trying to get accomplished and the fact they’re versatile is important. They can play strong side, weak side. We don’t get pigeonholed as a defense. That has a lot to do with our success.”

Overall, the Bills’ defense ranked near the top of the league in most categories, just as it did in 2018. The Bills were third in yards allowed. They were second in 2018. The biggest difference was points allowed. The Bills ranked second at 16.2 ppg, improving from 18th (23.4) the year before.

The points allowed was the fourth fewest by the Bills in a 16-game season, behind only 1999 (14.3), 1993 (15.1) and 1988 (14.8).

As The News outlined on Monday, an improved offense that made fewer giveaways was the key. The defense wasn’t put in as many bad spots as in 2018.

“A lot of that you can contribute to our offense and our special teams,” Frazier said of the points total. “We’re so much better in those areas vs. a year ago. From a giveaway standpoint, it was a big difference, and the fields we were defending were a lot different. Our guys have gotten better for sure (on defense), but it’s a combination of three phases playing good complementary football.”

Here's a look at some key trends for the defense in 2019:

The weak opposition

The Bills’ defense faced the easiest schedule of offenses in the league based on total yards gained. Bills foes averaged 330 yards per game. The league average was 348 per game. The Bills benefited from seven games against offenses that ranked in the bottom six in the league – the Jets (32), Washington (31), Pittsburgh (30), Denver (28) and Miami (27).

Obviously, teams that played similar schedules all had among the easiest schedules for their defense. Next easiest after the Bills were: Dallas, New England, Baltimore and Miami.

However, even relative to the competition, the Bills’ defense dominated more than most teams.

The Bills held opposing offenses 32 yards per game under their season average, the fifth best performance in the league behind only San Francisco, New England, Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

Miami played 14 of the same 16 foes as the Bills, but opponents gained 62 yards per game more than their average when they faced the Dolphins. That was worst in the league.

Two linebacker weapons

As in the past two years, the Bills were selective in blitzing. They blitzed – rushed five or more men at the passer – on 24.3% of pass plays, according to Buffalo News charts. That was up just a little from 2018, when they blitzed 22.4% (about the league average).

That rate does not count dogs, plays on which they rushed a back-seven defender as part of a four-man rush and dropped a defensive lineman into coverage.

The Bills’ blitzes were a little more effective than the past two years, perhaps because they had the lead more often and due to improvement of young players.

The Bills had 44 sacks in 2019 (10th best in the NFL by percentage), with 19 coming on blitzes. In 2018, the Bills had 36 sacks, with only eight coming on blitzes.

The defense held opposing QBs to a completion percentage of 50.4 on blitzes and just 3.97 yards per play, down from 4.75 per play in 2018 and 6.7 per play in 2017.

The teams the Bills blitzed the most were Dallas, Miami (both games), Cleveland, Pittsburgh and the Jets (in the opener).

“It is purely game-plan related, who the quarterback is, what the situation is,” Frazier said of him calling for blitzes.

The Bills also had success with run dogs on early downs.

“You’ve got to feel comfortable about your matchups in order to do that,” Frazier said. “Most of the weeks we’ve felt comfortable and been able to dog on early downs, it’s worked out for us.”

Both Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds rushed the passer more than in 2018. Edmunds rushed 75 times, compared with 51 in 2018. Milano rushed 91 times, compared with 56 in 2018, according to Pro Football Focus.

The Bills had 10 sacks when either Edmunds or Milano or both rushed the passer, but their impact on the pass rush is greater than the number indicates because of their ability to threaten the A gaps on either side of the center and cause the offense to adjust pass protection.

Tackling

One area in which the Bills had some issues is tackling. The Bills’ defense was given the fourth worst grade in the NFL in terms of tackling from Pro Football Focus. We’re skeptical of the relevance of that ranking, given that Detroit ranked 31st on defense but was fifth best in tackling. Maybe the Lions had no one near the ball on a lot of plays.

Furthermore, good, fast players put themselves in position to make more tackle attempts – and more difficult tackles – than slower players. Lorenzo Alexander got the sixth highest grade in the NFL among linebackers from PFF, while Edmunds ranked 69th among linebackers with at least 200 snaps. Edmunds is in the upper tier of middle linebackers by anyone’s estimation.

Still, in the Week 16 loss at New England, missed tackles were a factor on three big plays.

“We missed too many tackles,” Frazier said of the game. “The fits were there. But the yards after contact were too much. The last touchdown we had two guys hit the running back and he scored. Missed tackles hurt us.”

Etc.

The Bills’ defense ranked second in the NFL in three and outs, forcing them on 27.1% of drives. Only Philadelphia (27.6) was better. ... The Bills allowed the third lowest passer rating (78.8) in the NFL, behind only New England (62.8) and Baltimore (77.5). ... Despite playing with a wrist injury, Jerry Hughes actually played more snaps than in 2018. He played 67.9% of the downs (not counting the regular-season finale), vs. 65.9 the previous year. ... The Bills were fifth best in the NFL on third and 10 or more, holding foes to just 12.3% conversions. On third and 16 or more over the past three years, the Bills allowed just 2 of 41 conversions (4.8%). That made the third-and-18 conversion by the Texans in the playoff game more galling. Oddly, the Texans converted a 3rd and 18 against the Bills in the 2018 regular-season game, too.

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