The Tight End: Still the Bills Nemesis?

Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (87) runs from Buffalo Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds (49) and safety Jordan Poyer (21) after catching a pass during the first half of the AFC championship NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Written by Greg Boucher

Many things felt out of sorts last season as Covid ravaged the country and altered much of the regular operations throughout the NFL, teams were forced to forgo regular workouts, OTA’s and were left without a pre-season to build cohesion. This of course had an effect on the readiness and progress of the players and the continuity of their units. The Bills defense was not immune to this dysfunction, as they appeared to be playing catch up most of the season battling to get in sync. One of the areas that seemed most effected by the lack of a preseason was their ability to cover the tight end, in fact it was a recurring issue that plagued them throughout the season all the way up to their loss in the AFC Championship game.

This definitely seemed out of sorts for the Bills, considering that they employed two of the league’s most capable coverage linebackers in Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds, as well as having Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde on the back end, two safeties very comfortable in coverage having been converted cornerbacks. They also relied heavily on 3rd year pro Taron Johnson to cover TEs from his slot corner position, his strength and physicality at the point of attack appeared to be a decent fit. It seemed they were in good shape heading into the season but the numbers however do not lie, the Bills defense was one of the worst units in the league when it came to covering the tight end, giving up the most receptions to a tight end in the entire NFL (92). They also gave up the second most yards to a tight end (997) only slightly better than the Jets (1,105) they also allowed tight ends to score 8 times throughout the regular season, not counting the (4) TDs they gave up in the playoffs, some would argue those touchdowns cost them trip to the Superbowl as Travis Kelce abused them for 13 receptions 118 yards and 2 touchdowns on the day. Why did this well-equipped unit struggle to limit tight ends this season?

ORCHARD PARK, NY – SEPTEMBER 16: Melvin Gordon #28 of the Los Angeles Chargers crashes into tacklers Tremaine Edmunds #49 and Matt Milano #58 of the Buffalo Bills during the second quarter at New Era Field on September 16, 2018 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Some will point to Matt Milano’s six game absence due to injury as a reason for the drop in coverage production. Dating back to 2019 he was outstanding in when it came to defending the pass, his 83.3 grade ranked him fourth among linebackers allowing just 6.6 yards per reception, which ranked fifth-best in the league that year. Unfortunately, Milano was not as impactful as he was the season prior, an injury hampered season led to him putting up worse numbers in every coverage category and his setbacks certainly came into play down the stretch. While Milano was sidelined AJ Klein stepped in, and while he was solid against the run impactful as a blitzer he struggled in coverage which led to some of the distorted numbers this past season. Quarterbacks completed 72% of their passes against Klein for 359 yards, just over 10 yards per catch and to make matters worse Klein’s tackling was horrid in the open field as he missed a whopping 18% of his attempts in 2020. While Milano clearly regressed in coverage and Klein was being asked to play outside his skill set, Edmunds was a flat-out liability in coverage last season. While has all the tools to be a premier coverage linebacker, with his height, his extraordinary length and speed; statistically Edmunds was one of the worst ranked LBs in the NFL when it came to pass coverage last season. He allowed a nearly 70% completion rate and those receivers who caught a pass against him averaged nearly 13 yards per catch, and was credited with giving up 4 TDs. In the process he allowed quarterbacks to post an eye-popping 129.9 passer rating when targeting him, ranking him dead last among linebackers with at least 400 snaps in coverage. Taron Johnson, the other factor in this equation who played the majority of his snaps from the slot corner last season, who found himself matched up on tight end, who aside from two amazing interceptions, did not play especially well when in coverage, allowing 51 receptions and a staggering 614 yards for an average of 12 yards per reception.

But in order to fix this problem, we must first acknowledge that there is a problem, and based on the happenings of this off-season it does not appear that McDermott or Beane believe there is one, certainly not significantly enough to address it. It would seem that they are betting on the hopes that the trio of Milano, Edmunds and Johnson can bounce back to from this year, as he did little in the offseason to find scheme fit upgrades, players more capable of playing the third LB position or the slot who match up better with tight ends. Beane signed former Texans LB Tyrell Adams as well as former Raiders LB Marquel Lee, while their additions will provide quality depth and special teams play neither is an upgrade in coverage, in fact they performed statistically worse than what we fielded last year. When it came to this past April’s draft many analysts, myself included believed the Bills would target Notre Dame LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in the first round to help elevate our coverage issues. He played the majority of his snaps in coverage and finished with one of the highest rated coverage grades from the slot in all of college football. He had the perfect set of skills to serve as the 3rd LB who could play in the box and flex out into the slot, giving the Bills defense a player who can serve the role of two at once but they ultimately passed on him as it was later reported that a heart condition was found during his medical assessments, forcing his drop all the way down to the end of the second round. The Bills also had opportunities later in the draft to select safeties Hamsah Nasirldeen from Florida State and Devine Deablo from Virginia Tech, two larger bodied hybrid players who possess the athleticism to man the slot, as well as having the size and physicality to match up with tight ends, but again they never seemed to be on Beane’s radar, giving further credence to the notion that he believes there is already a solution in place: the players we have will perform better?

This is somewhat concerning when analyzing the TE talent the Bills will face off against this coming season. The Patriots went out and signed two of the best free agent TEs available in Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith as they look to reignite the glory days of Gronkowski and Hernandez. The Dolphins will feature rising star Mike Gesicki who destroyed the Bills last season for 13 catches, 177 yards and 1 touchdown combined in their two match ups while they also added Hunter Long, a big strong dependable receiver from Boston College in the draft. The Bills will face Travis Kelce in week 5, their new nemesis who dominated them twice last season combining for 18 receptions 183 yards and 4 touchdowns. The Bills will also reignite their rivalry with Rob Gronkowski who has made a career out of torching Buffalo defenses and even though he is only a rookie many consider Kyle Pitts to be one of the best prospects to come out since Tony Gonzales. He is 6’6 245lbs and capable of blowing the top off of a defense and with Hayden Hurst already in place in Atlanta the duo figures to be a schematic nightmare for defenses to contend with.

Clearly this defense will have their hands full in 2021 as they look to contend with many of the league’s top tight ends week in and week out and while nothing may be done at this juncture to upgrade coverage personnel, perhaps the plan has been to bolster their pass rush. The Bills were a heavy zone team in 2020 that failed to generate consistent pressure with their front four, forcing defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier to dial up more blitz packages to compensate for the shortage. In total the trio of Milano, Edmunds and Johnson were sent 140 times last season, pulling second level defenders out of coverage to blitz is risky, it opens up underneath receivers, namely hot read tight ends something that worked against us last season. Beane clearly figured to address the coverage issues by upgrading the pass rush issues this off-season by drafting DEs Gregory Rousseau in the 1st RD and then selecting DE Carlos Basham in the 2nd RD as well as signing Efe Obada a versatile pass rusher. If we can generate more pressure with the front four, forcing quicker, more arrant throws while leaving our second level defenders in coverage it is possible the Bills can limit their deficiencies in coverage and in doing so limit the production from opposing tight ends.

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