NFL – Buffalo Bills’ Season Review – Part 3

27 Jan

Part 3 of our annual Buffalo Bills’ season review deals with the defense and special teams. It was a tale of 2 seasons for the defense. They struggled to find their footing early in the year as they worked in some new players on the front line, then became a unit that forced turnovers in a late season run in which they wrapped up the team’s first AFC East title in 25 years. They then reverted to that early season form in a brutal championship game loss to the Chiefs. Here’s a position-by-position assessment of the defense and special teams for 2020:


Defensive Line


The Bills walked away from 2 of their mainstays of the 2019 D-line when they lost Shaq Lawson and Jordan Phillips to free agency. In their places, they brought in Vernon Butler, Mario Addison and Quinton Jefferson, and got mixed results. Addison was a force in the pass rush while Butler and Jefferson were adequate at times and invisible other times. Ed Oliver’s play seemed to regress some from the previous year. He was beginning to emerge as a force late in the 2019 season but never showed the ability to be a consistent disruptive player this past season. The loss of Star Lotulelei, who played next to him but opted out of the season, probably was a factor. Justin Zimmer, a street free agent who fought his way into the D-line rotation, made more impact plays throughout the year than Oliver. Harrison Phillips came back from a serious injury and slowly worked his way back as the season progressed, and should improve even more next year with a full year of healing behind him. Besides Addison, the defensive end spots were manned by old reliable Jerry Hughes, veteran Trent Murphy and youngsters Darryl Johnson and A.J. Epenesa. Hughes was the team’s best pass rusher even if his sack numbers don’t show it. Murphy spent a lot of 2020 as a healthy inactive on game day and the likelihood of him returning next season is slim to none. Johnson is still an interesting prospect. He is a key contributor on special teams and a regular in the D-line rotation, and should only get better with experience. The same can be said for Epenesa. He looked like a green rookie early in the year but worked his way into regular duty also with solid if not spectacular play. The practice squad has 3 players who all were recalled for games during the season and will be back competing for jobs again in 2021 – Mike Love, Brandin Bryant and Bryan Cox Jr.




The amount of time NFL teams play standard 4-3 defenses that keep all 3 LBs on the field is almost as extinct as the fullback position is. In today’s pass-happy game even the linebackers who play regularly have to have special skills. The days of snarling physical monsters like Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke have long passed into history. Buffalo’s main pair of linebackers possess those necessary modern day skills. Tremaine Edmunds is an interesting case. He is still very young and has been a twice-named Pro Bowler, yet his game still has a ways to go to reach elite status. He has great physical tools – tall, rangy, quick and intelligent. Yet his playmaking ability still needs improvement. The other backer, Matt Milano, is similar. He can tackle with the best of them and is great in coverage, and until the title game fiasco the team was unbeaten in 2020 in games he played in. He’s also due to be a free agent and hopefully his skill set and still untapped potential make him a top priority to get re-signed. A.J. Klein was an enigma in 2020. He had a target on his back from fans early in the year as a reason the defense was struggling, then shined when Milano was hurt and he replaced him, almost playing at a Pro Bowl level himself. When Milano returned, Klein pretty much went back into obscurity. The rest of the linebacking corps consists of mainly special teams players – Tyler Matakevich, Andre Smith and Tyrel Dodson. Lurking on the practice squad is an interesting name to watch for next season – Darron Lee. He is a former high draft pick with the speed and skills that translate to the modern game if the Bills’ coaches can harness them.


Defensive Backs


Overall in 2020 the Bills’ pass defense was a strength, but appeared lost and completely overmatched against the Chiefs in the title game. It’s uncertain if that poor showing was due to a lack of speed and ability from the players, or a massive failure of the scheme used that day. (Who leaves the best tight end in the NFL, Travis Kelce, virtually uncovered the entire game?) In any case, Buffalo has a good mix of youth and experience in their secondary. Starting safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer are one of the top duos in the league, and have a capable mix of youth and experience behind them in Dean Marlowe, Siran Neal and Jaquon Johnson. Neal especially is a valuable, versatile piece of the roster as he can play corner or safety and is a top gunner on coverage teams. Josh Thomas is on the practice squad and has been signed to a futures contract for 2021, so the team sees some value in him also. At cornerback, the Bills have an All Pro in Tre’Davious White, and have him locked up contractually going forward. The annual attempt to unseat Levi Wallace at the other CB spot failed again in 2020, and at this point it’s time to admit that he has been an overall good player for the club. That doesn’t mean the Bills won’t welcome a better option again next season, and one player who will get the opportunity to take that job is 2020 seventh round draft pick Dane Jackson. He was a PS fixture this season but made some impact plays when his chance came as a recall on game days a couple of times this season. Slot cornerback has evolved into a starting position nowadays in the NFL, and the Bills’ player at that spot, Taron Johnson, cemented himself as a prime time star in 2020 with a pair of pick-six touchdowns. The Bills got mixed results from the free agent signing of veteran Josh Norman. He was hampered by injuries and was never completely able to take over Wallace’s job. He would appear to be an unlikely candidate to return next season, especially with Buffalo looking to add speed to the secondary to compete with Kansas City’s track star receivers. Two other players to consider for competition next year – Cam Lewis, a University of Buffalo product who spent the season on injured reserve, and practice squad member Duke Thomas.


Special Teams


The “bomb squads” made some improvements in 2020. There weren’t many game-changing plays but the units went from hurting to helping the Bills’ effort to win games. The team’s decision to jettison Stephen “Hausch Money” Hauschka in favor of rookie Tyler Bass as their placekicker was surprising, but turned out to be exactly right. Bass set a club record for points and is set as a mainstay for the future. He provided 2 of the few bright spots in the team’s loss in Kansas City with a pair of 50+ yard field goals. Punter Corey Bojorquez joined in the mediocrity of the team’s title game effort, but had a solid season overall. He also teamed with Bass and long snapper Reid Ferguson to form a nearly flawless extra point and field goal tandem. Andre Roberts, who is a free agent, delivered a Pro Bowl effort as the team’s kick returner, regularly providing the offense with good field position to start drives. His backup, Isiah McKenzie, returned a punt for a touchdown in the regular season finale rout of Miami. The coverage teams were pretty solid also all season. Undrafted free agent Reggie Gilliam was a part of those teams. He blocked 6 kicks in college at Toledo, including 4 in one season alone. If the Bills want to follow coach Sean McDermott’s edict to “improve in all areas in 2021”, then special teams coordinator Heath Farwell would be wise to try to take advantage of Gilliam’s unique skill.

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