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NFL – Bills’ Season Review – Part 3

09 Jan

In part 3 of our review of the Buffalo Bills’ season, we’ll scrutinize the special teams, woeful in 2018, and the defensive side of the ball, which was the strength of the team overall but still has lots of room for improvement. The team was among the league’s best in yards allowed and was strong against the pass, but had some weaknesses too. They were not very good in red zone defense, had various games where their run defense was gashed, and at times couldn’t seem to get a stop at crucial times. The result – a 6-10 record despite having a respected defensive unit. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier did a decent job overall, but at times wasn’t aggressive enough, to the point where head coach Sean McDermott actually took over the play calling duties during a game. The Bills, in 2019, need to strive to elevate their defense from a “respected” unit to an elite, dominant one. Here is our position-by-position look at the 2018 Bills’ defense and special teams:

 

Defensive Line

 

The team employed a revolving rotation along the line, and the best of the players was Jerry Hughes, despite a drop in his sack numbers. Hughes consistently applied pressure on opposing quarterbacks and was fairly solid against the run. If he can find a way to stop letting those QBs escape when he has them in his grasp, his sack total will go up. Free agent Trent Murphy gets an incomplete grade here due to his inability to stay healthy and contribute regularly. At times he looked like a gamebreaker but just didn’t do it consistently enough. A highlight of the 2018 season was the growth shown by Shaq Lawson, who emerged as a force and may be due for a breakout year in 2019. The retirement of Kyle Williams leaves a hole on the interior line and in team leadership, and Harrison Phillips, Williams’ heir apparent, still has a long way to go to match Kyle’s production. Star Lotulelei didn’t produce any numbers at the other tackle spot but the coaches seemed pleased with his play as a run stuffer. Jordan Phillips was brought in during the season after being waived by Miami and provided a dose of enthusiasm, along with some pretty solid play as a backup tackle. Eddie Yarbrough is the other backup at end, and his playing time seemed to be reduced by season’s end. Mike Love earned a promotion from the practice squad late in the season and got some valuable experience that should help him in fighting for a roster spot in 2019. There are a pair of prospects on the practice squad who will get a look in training camp also – Kyle Peko and Robert Thomas, who had a short stint on the active roster earlier in the season.

 

Linebackers

 

The Bills will have 3 solid starters at linebacker next season provided they re-sign veteran Lorenzo Alexander, who is still performing at a high level at an advanced age. The other 2 spots are manned by possible future Pro Bowlers in Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano. Both showed flashes that they are going to develop into consistent playmakers, and their development is a huge key in this defense, already a respected unit, growing into an elite one. As for LB backups, Deon Lacey has mostly contributed on special teams in his tenure here, and with the bomb squads totally bombing in 2018 the Bills could look elsewhere for a replacement for him. A pair of youngsters, Julian Stanford and Corey Thompson, look like keepers. Both filled in late in the year due to injuries and didn’t look out of place, and Stanford is also a special teamer. There’s one ‘backer on the practice squad about which little is known, Richard Jarvis. He is a graduate of an Ivy League school, Brown, so one can assume he’s an intelligent player.

 

Defensive backs

 

Buffalo was solid in defending the pass in 2018, and a factor in that was the stability of the lineup in at least 3 of the starting spots in their secondary. Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, who were 2017 free agent gems signed by Brandon Beane, manned the safety positions and although their turnover numbers were down, their play was consistently good. Backups at safety are Rafael Bush, a seasoned veteran, Dean Marlowe, a Carolina Panther retread, and rookie Siran Neal, who came on late in the season to show some spark, especially on kick coverage teams. Lockdown cornerback Tre’Davious White is a future Pro Bowler, while across from him a revolving door developed, starting with the abrupt halftime retirement of Vontae Davis in the second game of the year. The Bills tried a number of options at the spot as the year went on, with Ryan Lewis, Lafayette Pitts and Denzel Rice all getting a shot. The revolving door closed when the Bills promoted undrafted free agent Levi Wallace from the practice squad later in the season. He moved into the starting job opposite White and quietly played well to secure the position, winding up as the top-rated rookie cornerback in Pro Football Focus’ rankings. Another rookie, Taron Johnson, won the important nickel corner job, considered basically a starting position in today’s NFL, and was a revelation. He was also ranked among the top 5 rookie cornerbacks until a shoulder injury ended his season. He is definitely a building block moving forward. Pitts did a good job on special teams and when called upon to play corner, while Lewis’s up-and-down play makes him a question mark to make the team in 2019. Rice is pretty much an unknown entity who will get a better look if he’s brought back next year, as are practice squad members Xavier Coleman and Josh Thornton.

 

Special Teams

 

The disaster that was the Bills’ special teams in 2018 resulted in the ouster of ST coordinator Danny Crossman, who had survived in his position since the Doug Marrone regime. Even the most reliable part of the special teams, placekicker Stephen Hauschka, was inconsistent near the end of the season after being blindsided on the return of a blocked kick. The Bills went through 3 different punters in 2018, and after cutting Colton Schmidt a couple of times it’s safe to say the current regime is done with him. Matt Darr, who finished the year as the punter almost by default, was terrible and likely won’t return to compete for the job next season. The coaches seem to be high on the pair of punters who wound up on injured reserve, Corey Bojorquez, who they snatched off waivers from New England, and Corey Carter, who was injured in training camp. That pair will fight for the job in camp. The Bills got almost nothing from their kick return units, and their kick coverage teams were worse. Taiwan Jones, before he was hurt, Marcus Murphy, Isiah McKenzie, Deonte Thompson, Ray Ray McCloud, Micah Hyde and Victor Bolden all took turns returning kicks and none of them did much to win over the coaches, although Hyde was pressed into duty there mainly because there was no one else capable. The coverage teams need a major overhaul in both coaching and personnel. The firing of Crossman got half of that accomplished.

 
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