Ever since Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott arrived in Orchard Park in 2017, he’s shown his ability to put together a top-tier defense.
The Bills have had a top-five defense in two of the four years that McDermott has been in Buffalo, and he also put together some of the NFL’s best defenses as a coordinator for the Carolina Panthers and Philadelphia Eagles. That trend took a downturn this past season as the Bills struggled to stop the run throughout the year. Eleven of Buffalo’s opponents ran for over 100 yards, and the Kansas City Chiefs tallied a total of 245 rushing yards in their Week 6 matchup.
Buffalo’s defensive decline, in which they also allowed nine of their opponents to record 400 or more total yards last season, could be attributed to several factors, but the absence of veteran defensive tackle Star Lotulelei was one of the biggest.
Lotulelei, who is 6’2”, 315 lbs., chose to opt out last year due to the coronavirus, which left a considerable hole to fill in the middle of Buffalo’s defensive line.
“Pretty much with all the uncertainty that was going around at that time, not knowing exactly what was going to happen and what protocols were going to be, I felt like the best decision for myself and my wife and my kids was what I decided to do. That was it,” Lotulelei said during Buffalo’s mandatory minicamp in mid-June.
Lotulelei’s last snap for the Bills came during their AFC Wild Card game against the Houston Texans on Jan. 4, 2020, and he played a crucial role along the defensive front as they went 10-6 and had one of the best defenses in the league. According to pro-football-reference.com, the Bills allowed the second-fewest points in the league last year and the third-fewest total yards.
Although he only tallied 19 tackles and two sacks during the 2019 season, Lotulelei’s presence in the middle of the defensive line clogged up running lanes, occupied multiple defenders, and allowed linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano to go unblocked and stop runners at the line of scrimmage. Defensive tackle Ed Oliver took advantage as well and racked up five sacks, one forced fumble, and 43 total tackles.
Oliver’s numbers dipped slightly in his second year due to Lotulelei’s absence; he only tallied 33 total tackles and three sacks.
After a year off, Lotulelei has returned to the Bills, and during their mandatory minicamp in June, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said that they will benefit from his presence.
“It will be good to have Star back,” Frazier said during a mini-camp press conference.
With new opponents on the schedule, the Bills will have different styles of offense throughout the year. Frazier believes adding Lotulelei back into the mix will allow the Bills to give teams a different look.
Taking an entire year off can also cause decline, though, and despite looking strong during mini-camp, Lotulelei has a lot to catch up on. McDermott made note of that, but he also touched on the importance of his presence as well.
“There’s going to be some catching up to do,” McDermott said. “It is good to have him here and participate. I’m sure his teammates feel the same way. He can help us, we all know that. It’s just he’s going to have to continue to put the work in to get himself back, acclimated, comfortable, if you will, and ready to go.”
Although Lotulelei wasn’t on the sidelines this past season for the Bills, he was still working to ensure that he was ready for the 2021 season. Ahead of mini-camp, a video of Lotulelei’s offseason workout was shared on social media and the Utah alum looked to be ready for the upcoming season.
In order to get back to form, the Bills will have to take several steps. Lotulelei’s presence is just the beginning.
Led by Pro Bowl cornerback Tre’Davious White and the safety tandem of Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, the Bills have one of the best secondaries in the league. That will only improve with former Pitt cornerback Dane Jackson entering his second season and cornerback Levi Wallace returning for another year as well.
The Bills battled through several injuries last season, which also may have led to their decline on the defensive side. Both Milano and Edmunds missed time with injuries and, at just 22 years old, Edmunds played through a shoulder injury that he suffered early on in the season. Veteran linebacker A.J. Klein was also forced to play out of position during Milano’s stint on the injured reserve list, and it showed at times.
The Bills still have several steps to take heading into next season to improve on last season’s defense, but Lotulelei gives the Bills a point of attack upfront. The entire defensive line will benefit from his presence as it will free up players like Oliver, Hughes, Addison, second-year defensive end A.J. Epenesa, and defensive tackle Harrison Phillips.
His presence won’t solve all the problems, but now that Lotulelei is back in the mix, the Bills’ defense has a real opportunity to take another step forward in 2021.