Throughout the 2020 season, the Buffalo Bills offense put up big numbers, but the defense was the complete opposite.
In nine games last season, the Bills allowed 25 points or more. They also gave up 23.4 points per game, which was the 16th best mark in the league and a step down compared to the type of defense the Bills had produced since head coach Sean McDermott took over in 2017.
In both 2018 and 2019, the Bills had a top 3 defense in terms of yards allowed and only allowed 16.2 points per game in 2019, the second-lowest total in the league. But despite the down season last year, things might return to normal this season.
Throughout the offseason, the Bills focused on bolstering their defensive unit, and one of the biggest pieces is the return of defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who opted out of last season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At 6’2″, 315 lbs., the former first-round pick was a huge loss in the middle of the defensive line.
In McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier’s defensive scheme, Lotulelei is meant to take up space in the middle of the line and occupy blockers, which in turn should free up players like third-year defensive tackle Ed Oliver and others along the line. His absence was evident last season as Oliver’s numbers dipped from 43 tackles and five sacks as a rookie to 33 tackles and three sacks in 2020. Lotulelei’s presence will also free up linebackers Tremaine Edmunds, A.J. Klein, and Matt Milano.
Now, with Lotulelei back in the mix, the Bills should be able to get more pressure along the line of scrimmage and clog up running lanes to limit their opponents’ rushing attack. It was one of their biggest struggles last season as opponents rushed for 4.6 yards per carry and a total of 1,914 rushing yards.
Lotulelei’s presence wasn’t the biggest addition (or re-addition, if you may). The Bills also addressed their defensive line through the draft and brought in two talented rookies in Miami’s Gregory Rousseau and Wake Forest’s Boogie Basham at defensive end.
The Bills rookies have impressed so far through the offseason. Rousseau has tallied a sack in Buffalo’s first two preseason games, and Basham also tallied a sack against the Chicago Bears this past weekend at Soldier Field. Both players have a different skill set and give the Bills different energy off the edge.
At 6’6″, 266 lbs., Rousseau is a freak athlete that used his natural ability off the edge in college to dominate offensive lines. Basham has a high motor and is a player that general manager Brandon Beane targeted during the draft. After completing this year’s draft, Beane admitted that the Bills were going to trade back unless Basham was available for their second-round pick. Basham ended up being available, and the Bills took him to bring even more youth to their defensive line.
The addition of their two rookies will bring energy and athleticism to the Bills defensive front to go along with veterans like Mario Addison and a tenured vet in Jerry Hughes, who will both play a big role in Buffalo’s defensive front this season. But one of the biggest pieces this year might be second-year defensive end AJ Epenesa.
The former Iowa Hawkeye was asked to beef up heading into his rookie season, but COVID-19 kept teams separated throughout the offseason, which also means he didn’t have the full opportunity to be around teammates and learn things throughout training camp. As a rookie, that can be detrimental to a player’s development as they get used to life in the NFL.
Epenesa has shined so far this offseason. He took social media by storm during Buffalo’s second preseason game against the Bears when he bulldozed through the offensive line and took down Andy Dalton in the backfield.
With his improvements heading into the season, the Bills will have another weapon to lean on and create pressure along the line of scrimmage and in the backfield.
The Bills also shored up their linebacking corps by re-signing Milano and creating a sense of continuity. They also have plenty of talent returning in the secondary, highlighted by cornerback Tre’Davious White, safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, and a slew of corners competing for the second starting spot.
Last year was also a season where NFL teams didn’t get a full offseason together. It showed throughout the year as it took time for the Bills to come together as a defense and find their identity. With a full offseason and plenty of time together to find that identity this year, the Bills should be ready to go when the first whistle blows Week 1.