New coach Eric Washington: Bills' defensive line will take sacks to 'the next level'

New coach Eric Washington: Bills' defensive line will take sacks to 'the next level'

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Pressuring quarterbacks wasn't much of a problem for the Buffalo Bills last season. Turning those pressures into sacks was a bit more challenging.

Eric Washington is well aware of the maddening trend of Bills' pass-rushers often getting close to the QB but not always finishing the job. Reversing it is his top priority as the team's new defensive line coach.

"We want to take that to the next level and we're going to take that to the next level," Washington said of the line generating more sacks.

Of the 44 sacks the Bills had in 2019, which ranked 12th in the NFL, 35 were by defensive linemen. The Bills were a respectable 10th in the league in percentage of sacks per pass attempt.

Still, when it came to getting after the quarterback, what their defense did best was create pressure. According to ESPN Analytics, the Bills ranked eighth in the league in pass-rush win rate, meaning the number of times they beat blocks to get pressure within 2.5 seconds.

In 2020, they're looking for different results.

"Fortunately," Washington said, "I've been part of some really productive groups in terms of actually sacking the quarterback."

Four months before using a second-round pick in this year's draft on Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa and three months before signing free-agent defensive end Mario Addison and free-agent defensive tackle Vernon Butler, the Bills made perhaps their most important move to elevate the line's performance by hiring Washington. He replaced Bill Teerlinck, who left the staff after the 2019 season to accept the same role at Virginia Tech.

Washington, 50, had spent the previous two seasons as defensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers. Washington rose to that job after five seasons as the Panthers' defensive line coach, following a year in that capacity with the Chicago Bears.

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He sees plenty of reasons to feel optimistic about the Bills increasing their sack total in 2020.

"I'm so excited about this group of men because they're hungry, they're talented," Washington said. "There's youth, there's experience. There's all of these different things that, when you put that together and you try and extract the absolute best from that group, there's a lot to make you excited. We want those hurries and pressures to turn into sacks and sack-fumbles, and I'm very confident in the program that we're going to use to get that done."

One major component of Washington's approach is that the linemen are expected to learn more than their individual assignments.

"We're going to understand the front concept, which is going to allow us to anticipate, because on defense we have to play ahead of the flow," he said. "We can't play with the play and we certainly can't play behind the play. We have to find a way to play ahead of it. So routinely, during a meeting, I'll ask a defensive tackle about specifically something a defensive end's supposed to do. I want their knowledge to improve, I want their discipline to improve. We led the team in discipline excursions, penalties; that's going to cut down. We're going to cut that down by understanding why those things happen and how we have to fix it, starting with me.

"I have to make sure that I'm putting them in positions, routinely during the week, to understand, for example, when are we going to get our count cadence? When is a team going to snap the football quickly and when are they going to take the entire shot clock all the way down before they decide to snap the football? I have to properly inform and I have to test their discipline daily in practice. When the discipline improves, the byproduct of that will be the execution will pick up, the production will pick up. ...

"I believe in isolating skills, concepts, situations and addressing those things in practice. Isolate the skills, develop the habits and make your habits your skills."

In the latest edition of One-on-One Coverage and his first interview since being hired by the Bills, Washington sat down for a Zoom call with The Buffalo News to talk about his outlook for the team's defensive line, his history with Bills coach Sean McDermott and General Manager Brandon Beane, his assessment of some of the new and existing members of the line, and the biggest influences on his life and coaching career.

Buffalo News: What, from your perspective, were some of the key factors in building the sort of trust with Sean and Brandon that helped lead to your being hired?

Eric Washington: The key word that you mentioned is trust, and that was something that's been built over a long period of time, going all the way back to when I first came on the scene in Carolina (in 2011). We all kind of started there at the same time. Brandon had been there, but we just got to know each other and we have been in a lot of different situations together, from the highest of the highs, to certain situations where nothing went the way you wanted it to go.

I think our character and I think our value systems really revealed themselves throughout those different extremes. When you have great success, are you going to go back to work and stay consistent and stay humble and properly inform the players? And when you don't have the success that you would like, are you going to buckle down and continue to work and believe and depend on the things that really make up who you are as an individual?

We saw each other under all of those circumstances. We were able to see those things and begin to appreciate each other's work ethic and how we respond to adversity and know that we could communicate that to the players, when they found themselves in similar situations. I remember, when I interviewed at the Carolina Panthers with Sean, in his office, and one of the first things we talked about was what we wanted to be. We had to learn each other and learn how we communicated different things and I think we just grew to appreciate and respect the type of values that we all have.

And I watched Brandon grow. Brandon, from my vantage point, wasn't fixated on roles or titles, but just doing a good job. That just seemed to be the impression that I got from him – that it wasn't about a title, it was about the work. Whatever he was asked to do, however menial it appeared or whatever, he was willing to put his all into it. And the other thing that's very important to me is the fact that great leaders listen and Sean and Brandon both are tremendous listeners. That's something that I respect with them and they know that I have similar values.

BN: What are some examples of Sean and Brandon being great listeners?

EW: When you're in a leadership position, you really depend on the individuals who have a specific role to give you feedback. Sometimes, in that feedback, are things that maybe you were aware of that are positive and sometimes there are things that may be uncomfortable when we have to make decisions about player discipline, when we have to make decisions about what we want to do in terms of scheme initiatives, or the types of players we want to acquire. If I were to come in, for example, and give some information about a player and what I believed he would do for us that may be counter to what they previously thought, they allow themselves to be enlightened or informed.

At the end of the day, leaders have to make decisions, but Sean and Brandon were always open. Whether it was game preparation, whether it was doing things in preparation for free agency or the draft, they were always open to your perspective. That doesn't mean that they were going to act on it every time, but they at least genuinely wanted to hear that so that they could make the best possible decision.

BN: How does your previous job as a defensive coordinator come into play with what you see yourself doing now as a defensive line coach?

EW: It was invaluable. As a position coach, you are locked and focused on the role of that group, or that individual within that particular group. You're focused on their execution, their part, their assignment, and how it affects the overall defensive concept. I could afford to really have tunnel vision and to communicate that to the guys that I had to work with. Moving into the coordinator's role, I was forced to look at things from a broader lens and to consider things that I didn't previously have to do from one day to the next and especially on Sunday, from one play to the next. Calling a game is different than managing a position, so my experience with that will allow me to provide information to (defensive coordinator) Leslie (Frazier), to Sean, that previously maybe I wouldn't have been in the best position to have done.

When it comes to decisions that fall outside of how the defensive line group is performing or executing or functioning, I think I can lend some experiences. And having been in that seat, you want to hear experiences and perspectives because at the end of the day, you want to make a great decision. And as much good information as you can get and expose yourself to, that's extremely valuable. So I know that I'm in a better position to help Sean and Leslie and our entire coaching staff with information that really goes beyond just my area of assignment and focus.

BN: How much of a role did you have during the free agent process, especially with the acquisitions of former Panthers Mario Addison and Vernon Butler?

EW: We just went through the normal process of discussing who they are, how they would fit, and then just talking about my involvement with them. At the end of the day, you make a recommendation and the decisions are made by Brandon and Sean and the powers that be. I felt really good about how Mario and Vernon would fit into our culture, the skill set that they bring to the table, especially with the type of defense that we want to be able to play.

Mario is a very, very productive pass rusher. He's a three-down player. Over the last three or four years, he's averaged almost 10 sacks a game, so he's a person that can really affect the quarterback. Despite less than ideal size, he can compete on three downs and against any personnel group. He can set the edge of your defense. He's able to provide population plays that originate away from his assignment because of the speed and quickness. He's able to rush and to win against a left tackle in the NFL and that person is usually pretty much the most talented person on the offensive line in terms of how they choose to try and protect the quarterback.

Mario keeps himself in very good shape. He's a person that embraces the practice element of what it means as a one-on-one pass rusher to put himself in position to win every week, and that's tough. Every left tackle that we face is going to know that Mario Addison's going to be rushing them one-on-one, and he's going to have to try and stop that, which means that he's got to prepare himself accordingly every week.

I had a chance to work out Vernon Butler at Louisiana Tech in advance of the 2016 draft. We really, really liked his versatility. Vernon can align at the three-technique position, he can align at a one-technique, outside shade to the center. He can align in the zero-technique position, which is very similar to what he did in college, and he can align as a base five-technique. So there's a lot of versatility with Vernon Butler. And that tends to create matchup issues, because I think offensive linemen, if they can get settled into one particular person that they have to compete against, they're more comfortable that way. When you potentially could see a Vernon Butler all the way down the line of scrimmage, that kind of stresses your preparation a little bit. And he can win from those positions.

Very quick off the snap, good strength, good power. He's a bigger guy with good agility, good short-area quickness. And he's still developing. Vernon had his best season last year, statistically, and I don't think Vernon has really, really realized what he's able to do. With some people, that happens later than sooner. I think Vernon's best football’s in front of him.

BN: The Bills are obviously hoping that's the case with Ed Oliver, too. Jordan Phillips replaced him as a starter for the final seven games of the regular season and the wild-card loss at Houston. What do you see in him?

EW: Ed Oliver is as talented as I've seen at the three-technique position, just raw talent. ... Ed is highly unusual because the first thing when you look at Ed, he's not very big. But when you watch him on tape, he plays big. He's very strong, he can anchor. He has elite quickness, change of direction, burst, all the things that you need to really kind of depend on at that particular position affecting the quarterback and getting him on the ground.

BN: What will it take for him to consistently play at the level you expect from a ninth overall draft pick?

EW: The very first meeting that we had with the position group before I started talking about scheme, before I started talking about position fundamentals or rush fundamentals, the very first thing that I said to the guys was we have to be extremely disciplined. It's going to take unbelievable discipline. And when you are featuring the front four, when you're depending on the front four to really be disruptive and to win one-on-one and you don't have this exceptionally large menu of defensive concepts, your personnel, each individual, has to be disciplined. That's everyone across the board, including Ed. From one snap to the next, he's going to have to have his eyes in the right place, he's going to have to have great situational awareness and he's going to have to work hard to execute based on what his particular position calls for.

BN: What are some of the qualities you see in Jerry Hughes and how much more do you think you can get from him to be that primary outside pass-rushing force?

EW: One of the things that I noticed when I started just looking at the guys was the opportunities that Jerry kind of missed to get the quarterback on the ground. So from a finishing standpoint, we're going to really focus on that with Jerry: finishing your rush. That's something that you have to actively pursue during practice. The finishing part is the least practiced aspect of pass-rushing because once we get to the team periods, you can't hit your own quarterback, even if it's the scout team quarterback. So we have to really be intentional about focusing on the finishing aspect when we're in our individual period.

Jerry was in position a number of times, and we didn't come away with the production that we should have. Well, that's something that we're really going to isolate and focus on. I've already spoken to Jerry about some stance adjustments that I'd like to see him incorporate, even after 10 years in the league. I think that's going to buy him, a person that already has quickness and agility and the ability to turn tight off of the edge, another yard or so. And his knowledge. Jerry sounds like a player that's been in the NFL for 10 years when you start to query him about situations, about one-on-one rush. He has got a tremendous amount of knowledge and he can articulate that, not only to me, but for the benefit of the entire group so that they can benefit from his experiences.

There's some finishing things that we're going to look at, that Jerry's going to be exposed to on a day-to-day basis in practice, I think will help him. He had a tremendous last game against the Houston Texas, and I'm looking at that and I'm saying, "OK, we want to pick up from that point when we start against the Jets, and take it from that point going forward over the course of 17 weeks."

BN: What's it going to take to get greater production from another former Panthers player, Star Lotulelei?

EW: The  most important thing with Star is that, fortunately, Star sees improved production as a necessity. If he sees it, then we can form a fantastic partnership. When Star signed with Buffalo, I texted him and congratulated him, and he responded. And then when I came to Buffalo, I said, "You thought you were getting rid of me." And he was excited and congratulated me for coming back. We've had some really productive conversations. There's been a lot invested in our relationship. Star understands that in this particular system, we need production from everyone.

I hear people characterize the nose tackle as "he eat-up blocks, he does this, he grabs this guy." The nose tackle is the first position that I start to focus on in terms of pass rush, believe it or not, because he has the most direct path to the quarterback. And he's routinely one-on-one in an over-front and a gap-aligned technique. So I go to that position first, despite what people's opinions may be about the athletic ability or the rush prowess of that position. ...

Star had some productive seasons with us (in Carolina). That takes a certain amount of conditioning and discipline, like I mentioned, and then there's some technique things that we have to make sure are extremely sharp so we can react in a timely way to really put ourselves in the best position. We're going to go and unpack all of that stuff again, start from the beginning like we would, and I think both of us are excited about just working together again.

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