Written by: Thomas Frank Carr
For the first time under Head Coach Sean McDermott, the Buffalo Bills were not a team highlighted by their defense in 2020. After he and General Manager Brandon Beane spent the last two seasons building up the offense, Josh Allen and Co. took off. Yet it wasn’t just that the offense out-performed the defense, the defense genuinely took a step back last year. We’ll examine where each unit stands heading into the offseason with The State Of the Bills.
Is Tre White that good?
The Bills top corner received a massive 87 million dollar contract before the start of the 2020 season, making him the highest-paid corner in the league, if only for a few short hours. Yet some Bills fans will point to big plays downfield and a sophomore slump in 2018 as reasons to put down the energetic defender and his play.
The reality is that cornerback is one of the hardest positions to play in the NFL and White has been uber-consistent over his four years in the NFL. While he’s never reached the lock-down status from his rookie year in 2017, he’s been very good and has allowed the Bills to do quite a few exotic things on the back end of their defense
White has been impressive in press coverage as well as being one of the most consistent players in single coverage, locking down the opponents top receiver. White doesn’t get his hands on the football as much as other defenders, with only 11 passes defensed according to Pro Football Reference. Despite the lack of memorable big-time plays, White is a consistent nuisance at the catch point for receivers and continually forces quarterbacks to make stellar throws in order to get completions against him.
White is the engine that makes the defense run. Over the past several years the Bills have shifted to running more Cover 1, putting White on an island. This allows them to add another safety in the box for run support for their undersized front. Without a top flight coverage defender like Tre’Davious White, the Bills would be hard-pressed to have as much defensive success as they have over the past four seasons.
Serviceable is the first word you’ll likely hear when it comes to Wallace and his play for the Bills over the last three seasons. After stepping in to settle the second corner position in 2018 with some outstanding play, Wallace has been much more average over the past two seasons. He’s given up eight touchdowns in 2019 and 2020 combined according to PFF and he allowed nearly 13 yards a reception in 2020, which ranks in the bottom half of the league for starting cornerbacks.
Wallace’s biggest shortcomings are seen when the team tries to play press coverage. His lack of elite movement skills or strength means that he’s routinely beaten off the line of scrimmage, sometimes for big plays and touchdowns.
Despite that, Wallace is a solid zone corner with good instincts and the ability to play within the Bills zone-heavy system. While no corner has been able to unseat the former undrafted free agent in his two years starting, it’s not like the Bills have brought in serious competition. That’s why he’s back this season on a one-year deal worth less than the 2-million dollar RFA tender he would have been tagged with in a normal year. Wallace represents the status quo for the Bills, which has been pretty good over the last three seasons. With a dip in the impact of the pass rush in 2020, some of the warts on the back end were exposed. If that trend continues, Wallace will continue to stand out as a problematic piece of the puzzle.
No Bills defender has created more iconic plays over the last two seasons than slot corner Taron Johnson. The third-year defensive back is responsible for two of the biggest interceptions of the 2020 season that helped deliver key games against the Steelers and Ravens as well as one against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving in 2019.
Yet between those big plays, Johnson has been more average of a player than his highlights indicate. Again, per PFF, Johnson has given up the most yards, receptions and is bottom-ten in yards on a per snap basis from the slot in 2020. This should be put into context though. No corner on the team sees the field more than Taron Johnson aside from White. He’s a full-time starter on a defense that expects him to play the run as well as the pass on a regular basis.
In that respect he’s been above average for a corner. Johnson has excelled in underneath zone coverage for the Bills, stopping runs and short passes for little to no gain over the last several seasons. For a sub-200 lbs player, he’s a solid run defender who is routinely asked to play in, and around the box. The physicality with which he plays has caused him to miss significant time over his first two NFL seasons, which has spelled trouble for the Bills defense.
The bigger issues come when he’s forced to play downfield and defend as a traditional slot corner. He simply doesn’t have the elite speed or coverage skills to keep up with dangerous slot receivers. Johnson was exposed in the playoffs, much like the rest of the Bills secondary, to the tune of 210 yards and 15.0 yards per reception against Indianaplis, Baltimore and Kansas City. While he’s not a perfect player, Johnson is a solid, dependable role player for the Bills who adds value to their defense. He’s entering the final year of his rookie contract and it will be interesting to see if the Bills value his consistency and play against the run, or if they will try to find a player who is better in coverage.
Could Dane Jackson actually be the answer to the Bills woes at CB2? General Manager Brandon Beane thinks it’s a possibility,
“He’s a young man that we believe will be able to compete to start next year. We’re obviously gonna bring in competition for him but he’s a guy we’ve got high hopes for as a young player that showed us it wasn’t too big for him,” Beane said when asked about under-the-radar players on his team during a guest spot on the Cris Collinsworth Podcast.
Jackson made an immediate impression on the Bills in Week 7 against the Jets in his first NFL game. Not only did he start and play the majority of the game, he also picked off a pass and broke up another. He showed the physicality and aggressiveness getting to the football that he displayed at Pitt. Like Wallace, Jackson is not an elite physical talent, but he’s big at 6-0, 190lbs and has enough speed to close on receivers in zone coverage.
The question is not if Jackson is a quality corner project for the Bills to work with heading into a potential Super Bowl Run in 2021. The real question is whether he and Wallace are enough to prevent the Bills from taking a swing at a corner early in the 2021 NFL Draft. With Beane’s comments this offseason, that seems rather likely.
Lewis only saw a handful of snaps on both defense and special teams in 2020.