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 in 2020. 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.
Pt. 1 Edge Defender
The one constant for the Bills for the better part of the past decade has been defensive end Jerry Hughes. There was very little change in that fact this past season as Hughes once again led the pass rush for the Bills. The curious issue for the longest-tenured defensive lineman on the roster is despite getting pressure on the quarterback, Hughes doesn’t get as many sacks as you’d think. Hughes ranked 5th according to PFF’s pass rushing grades in 2021, yet nabbed only five sacks.
Hughes also showed up in a big way during the 2021 postseason, where he racked up more pressures than any other defender that didn’t make the Super Bowl (once again per PFF).
The problem? Missed tackles.
Like much of the defense, Hughes struggled against the run and making plays when they were there to be made against the opposing ground game. Hughes missed 11 tackles in 2020 according to Pro Football Reference’s Advanced Stats. His 27.5% missed tackle percentage was the highest on the team as well. This is not far out of his range however, as he’s missed 20% or more of his tackles for the last three seasons and has generally been a tackling liability during his time with the Bills. It’s an issue, but at least it’s not a new one.
Hughes is 33 years old and entering the final year of his contract which brings up plenty of questions about the future. His skills against the run are declining but Hughes is paid primarily to rush the passer at a high level. Until someone else steps up to take his place, Hughes is a cornerstone of the Bills defense.
There’s really no other way to look at the signing of Mario Addison last offseason as anything other than a disappointment, though not an unexpected one. It’s also a cautionary tale against looking at stats as the only indication of pass-rushing success. Addison had nine or more sacks per season since 2016. Yet if you were to ask Bills fans, his impact as a pass rusher was minimal despite a statistically similar performance in 2020. While his sacks were down slightly, his pressures and hits on the quarterback were nearly identical to his time in Carolina.
* Pro Football Reference
Addison is a physical, veteran defensive end with a limited upside and like Hughes is on the wrong side of 30. He’s a fine enough run defender but With an oversized cap number and limited production, Addison is a potential veteran cut this offseason despite having two years left on his deal.
The rookie defensive end for the Bills struggled out of the gate in 2020 because of the transition from Iowa according to Beane at his end of the season press conference.
“A.J. Played at a much heavier weight at Iowa. We asked him to get his body weight down and make it a better body comp from a fat percentage standpoint. Not only did he get it down but he went way down. He probably came in a little to light, probably lighter than we wanted but that showed how hard he was working. He came in and started a little slow and we were worried how he was going to hold up against the run. I thought he played well, he improved his pass rush. I’m very pleased with how he played in the second half of the year.”
The transition for all rookies in the NFL was a tough one in 2020 with no rookie OTAs, minicamps or preseason. If you add on top of that a change in body composition, it’s not a surprise that Epenesa struggled early in the season.
The good news is that there is evidence that he can be a vicious pass rusher at his current weight. As a situational pass rusher in 2018, Epenesa recorded 16.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks. His junior season he took the starting defensive end spot for the Hawkeyes, who ask their defensive line to play the run first (constituting Epenesa’s weight gain). While he still crossed the 10-sack threshold in 2019 he did it in twice the amount of snaps. With another year to adjust his body type and fully integrate into the Bills defense, Epenesa is a breakout candidate for the team in 2021.
Johnson has been a quality project player for the team heading into his third season out of North Carolina A&T. While he’s regular action on defense over his first two seasons, Johnson has been a standout on special teams for the Bills.
Johnson came into the NFL with the opposite problem of Epenesa, needing to gain at least 20 pounds in order to hold up against tackles at the highest level of competition. He’s listed at 6-6, 253 pounds, but he’s still growing into his body as an athlete. While he’ll likely never turn into a superstar pass rusher, he could still become a valuable part of the Bills rotation in the future. Heading into year three is a make-or-break moment in that proposition however. That being said, his value on special teams, along with his youth and low cap number make him a reasonable lock to stay with the team next season.