This is the second in a series looking at key analytics trends that impacted the Bills in the 2022 season.
The Buffalo Bills had their best four-man pass rush in the Sean McDermott-Leslie Frazier era in the 2022 season.
It’s one reason the defense ranked second in the NFL in points allowed. The Bills had 33 of their 40 sacks with a four-man rush, their most since the 2017 season.
The problem at the end of the season for the Bills was the four-man rush had a lot less teeth after Von Miller went out with torn knee ligaments against Detroit in the 11th game.
The Bills ranked fourth in the league in pressure rate (34%) with a four-man pass rush and Miller in the lineup, according to Pro Football Focus. They were 27th in pressure rate (25%) with a four-man rush or less without Miller in the lineup.
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“You don't have a replacement in the cabinet for Von Miller, and our D-line was really playing well with Von out there,” general manager Brandon Beane said. “He allows more guys to be singled up.”
It’s hard to survive by blitzing elite quarterbacks like Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow. The four-man rush, either with four defensive linemen or using zone pressures with back-level defenders joining the rush, has to succeed in getting heat on the quarterback, if not sacks.
That’s part of the story of the Bills’ playoff exits the past three seasons.
In the last three playoff losses, to the Chiefs in 2020 and 2021 and the Bengals this year, the Bills’ defense has forced a combined total of just five punts.
“I thought we were probably more inconsistent that I would have liked to have seen this year, particularly after Von went down,” acknowledged coach Sean McDermott. “I thought each one of those guys had their games where they played well, just overall as a group, I didn't feel like – or I felt like we were a little bit too inconsistent, and ... again” against the Bengals.
Miller had eight sacks in 11 games and 45 quarterback pressures which, if you project for a full season, would put him sixth best in the league among edge rushers. That’s consistent with ESPN’s pass rush win rate, which placed him sixth best among all edge rushers.
Greg Rousseau took an impressive step forward in his second season, going from four sacks to eight. His 51 pressures in 15 games (counting playoffs) were 27th best, according to Pro Football Focus. But 20 of the players ahead of him played more than 100 more pass rush snaps. Rousseau also was excellent setting the edge against the run.
Defensive tackle Ed Oliver didn’t take the kind of jump the Bills would have liked to see. He was a solid player but not elite. He played four fewer games than last season and saw his sacks drop from 5.0 to 3.5 and his pressures drop from 48 to 37.
"What we saw Sunday was Joe Burrow make some of the toughest throws (far hash, back shoulder) look routine, and Patrick Mahomes doing things on one healthy ankle that defy science and gravity," writes Ryan O'Halloran.
The Bills’ defense finished second in points allowed (17.9 a game) and sixth in yards allowed (319 a game) in 2022. It ranked first in points allowed (17.8) and first in points in 2021 (273).
The defense was better this year, because the competition was tougher. Way, way tougher.
The Bills faced the second-easiest schedule of offenses in the league in 2021 according to offensive efficiency and the worst schedule of passing offenses by both efficiency and yards.
This season, Buffalo faced the 12th hardest schedule of offenses, according to Football Outsiders’ value-over average metric, which tracks results vs. the quality of the competition.
The Bills faced the ninth hardest schedule of passing offenses.
Only three playoff defenses faced a harder schedule (Baltimore, Cincinnati and Tampa Bay).
The easiest schedules faced by playoff defenses: 32, Jacksonville; 31, Philadelphia; 30, Kansas City; 28, San Francisco.
The poor run defense showing against the Bengals, who gained 172 yards on the ground, was unfortunate because this was the best run defense the Bills have ever had under Frazier.
The addition of 1-technique defensive tackle DaQuan Jones was a home-run acquisition. The Bills allowed the sixth fewest rushing yards per game, and they were third best in the league in run-defense efficiency, according to Football Outsiders. That’s despite playing the 11th hardest rushing schedule and the fifth hardest among playoff teams.
The previous best season by a Frazier defense against the run was 11th in efficiency in 2021.
Coordinators who blitz tend to be more popular than coordinators who don’t, but it doesn’t always equal success. A case in point is Arizona, which ranked top-three in blitz rate the past two years and top-two in points allowed both years. The New York Giants led the NFL in blitz rate this year (48%) and finished 17th in scoring.
The Bills rushed five or more men at their lowest rate in Frazier’s tenure, 17.3% of opponent dropbacks, according to Buffalo News charting.
Pro Football Focus ranked the Bills 26th in blitz rate. The Bengals were 23rd. Philadelphia had 70 sacks, only two short of the NFL record of 72 by the 1984 Chicago Bears. The Eagles were 16th in blitz rate, at 24.6%. The Eagles also faced the second-worst schedule of passing offenses in the NFL this season.
The NFL’s long draft season gets going in earnest this week when the football scouting converges on Mobile, Ala., for the 74th Reese’s Senior Bowl. Here’s a look at five players for Bills fans to watch, with an eye toward Buffalo’s needs.
The absence of Micah Hyde on the back end and all the other injuries to the Bills’ defensive backs, no doubt hindered the Bills coverages. But the Bills did mix coverages as much as ever. Their reputation has been to play a heavy dose of quarters and Cover 3 but they played Cover 2 like last year, robber coverages and employed a spy on occasion. Safety Jordan Poyer rushed the passer less than ever before, and no doubt the absence of Hyde was a factor.
The blitzing didn’t really go up after Miller got hurt. The quarterbacks the Bills blitzed the most were Detroit’s Jared Goff (42%), the Jets’ Zach Wilson (38%) and Chicago’s Justin Fields (31%). The Bills blitzed Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers just once. They didn't blitz the Rams’ Matthew Stafford. Playing with four backup defensive backs in Miami, they blitzed Tua Tagovailoa just twice in a 21-19 loss.
“ ‘Why didn't you blitz more?’ Or why were the corners off?’ I mean, you can second guess these guys all day long,” Beane said. “But statistically speaking, we've had really good defenses.”
Big plays allowed
The truest indicator of how much Hyde was missed, along with the tougher schedule, was in big plays allowed.
The Bills gave up 25 completions for 713 yards and seven touchdowns on passes 20-plus yards downfield, according to Buffalo News charting. The catches were 11th most in the league. The yardage total wasn’t bad – the 11th fewest. Ten of those completions came in the two games against Miami and the game against Minnesota and Justin Jefferson. Last year, the Bills gave up just nine pass plays 20 yards downfield.
As far as pass plays that gained 20-plus yards, whether it was through the air or on catch and runs, the Bills gave up 48, which tied for 14th most. The Bills allowed an NFL-low 31 last year.