Photo Credit: All-Pro Reels from District of Columbia, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Last year the Bills defense finished the year leading the NFL in total yards and total points allowed. By all accounts, they were one of the elite defenses last year. Eight different players finished the season with three or more sacks. Their two safeties, Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, were both named All Pro. They held an opposing quarterback to less than 100 yards passing three times.
And as if the secondary needed the help, two-time All Pro cornerback Tre’Davious White returns after suffering an ACL tear in November. The 27-year-old is particularly sticky in man coverage, and gives the Bills the shutdown, field-halving presence they lacked last year. It may take a minute or two for White to return to full strength (he’s currently on the Physically Unable to Perform List [PUP]), but as insurance the Bills added Florida corner Kaiir Elam in the first-round of the NFL Draft.
To top everything off, in the offseason, the Bills went out and added eight-time Pro Bowler Von Miller, last seen bringing down Joe Burrow twice in the Super Bowl. The eleven-year pro has had at least eight sacks in the last seven years and adds some serious juice to the Bills pass rush. Fellow defensive ends Carlos “Boogie” Basham and Gregory Rousseau are both heading into their second seasons, and if they continue to grow as expected, this could be a potent edge rush.
Soooooo…what’s the problem? It’s not the D-line, which was reinforced with a Super Bowl champion; it’s not the linebackers, where Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano form a dependable duo; and it’s not the secondary, with…okay, we’ve covered the secondary. Where is the issue with this team? Why can’t I shake the feeling that repeating their 2021 performance is a pipe dream?
It actually has nothing to do with the players at all, but it has everything to do with the offenses the Bills faced. Get a load of the quarterbacks the Bills defense faced in 2021:
Week 1 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers: a washed-up Ben Roethlisberger ---> Bils lost by 7
Week 2 @ Miami Dolphins: Tua Tagovailoa started, but attempted just four passes before leaving the game with a rib injury (Jacoby Brissett came in and stunk) ---> Bills won by 35
Week 3 vs. Washington Football Team: Taylor Heinicke, who, for as great a story as he’s been, is now a backup to Carson Wentz in Washington and is only three years removed from being out of the NFL entirely ---> Bills won by 22
Week 4 vs. Houston Texans: Rookie third-round pick Davis Mills making his second career start (he would throw four interceptions) ---> Bills won by 40
Week 5 @ Kansas City Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes when the Chiefs offense was a mess early in the season ---> Bills won by 18
Week 6 @ Tennessee Titans: Ryan Tannehill, who looked more than a little shaky during the Titans Divisional Round loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in the playoffs ---> Bills lost by 3
Week 8 vs. Miami Dolphins: Full Tua Time! And it was 39 attempts for 205 yards and a pick ---> Bills won by 15
Week 9 @ Jacksonville Jaguars: Trevor Lawrence during the full-blown Urban Meyer meltdown-oramma experience (118 yards and 2 picks for Lawrence, good grief) ---> Bills LOST by 3
Week 10 @ New York Jets: Mike White, a former fifth-round pick back in 2018 who was already on his second team and was making his third career NFL start - he would throw four picks and no touchdowns in 44 miserable attempts (mercifully, Joe Flacco made a token appearance at the end of the game) ---> Bills won by 28
Week 11 vs. Indianapolis Colts: Carson Wentz, who threw for 106 yards in another Bills loss (Jon Taylor ran for 185 yards and 4 TDs) ---> Bills lost by 26
Week 12 @ New Orleans Saints: Trevor Siemian (I swear I’m not making this up) who was starting in place of the injured Jameis Winston ---> Bills won by 25
Week 13 vs. New England Patriots: The epic “Wind Game” where the Patriots beat the Bills 14 - 10 with QB Mac Jones throwing for a grand total of……wait for it……nineteen yards!!! ---> Bills lost by 4
Week 14 @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Tom Brady, the first true test the Bills faced in 2021. He would throw for 363 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions ---> Bills lost by 6
Week 15 vs. Carolina Panthers: a washed-up Cam Newton starting in place of the injured Sam Darnold ---> Bills won by 17
Week 16 @ New England Patriots: Bad Mac Jones, who threw two picks and finished with an ugly 31.4 passer rating ---> Bills won by 12
Week 17 vs. Atlanta Falcons: Matt Ryan, who might not be washed-up but is closer to washed than unwashed ---> Bills won by 14
Week 18 vs. New York Jets: Zach Wilson, who threw for 87 yards, was sacked eight times and completed 35% of his passes ---> Bills won by 17
That is…a remarkably pathetic slate of passers. This year will be different. Much, much different. This is the list of (projected) QBs the Bills will face in 2022:
Week 1 @ Los Angeles Rams: Super Bowl champion Matt Stafford
Week 2 vs. Tennessee Titans: Ryan Tannehill (okay, okay, so not every QB will be a major problem)
Week 3 @ Miami Dolphins: Tua Tagovailoa, now with a better offensive line and WR Tyreek Hill, the fastest man in the NFL, in tow
Week 4 @ Baltimore Ravens: Lamar Jackson, only the second unanimous MVP in NFL history
Week 5 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers: likely Mitchell Trubisky, but could be Kenny Pickett, the Steelers top pick in the 2022 draft (but, at the very least, not Big Ben!).
Week 6 @ Kansas City Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes, who, admittedly, no longer has Tyreek Hill, but should be beyond the issues that plagued the team at the beginning of 2021
Week 8 vs. Green Bay Packers: Back-to-back MVP Aaron Rodgers
Week 9 @ New York Jets: Zach Wilson in year two
Week 10 vs. Minnesota Vikings: Kirk Cousins, who might be on the border between “good” and “replaceable” but has always been able to put up numbers - and don’t forget about the phenomenal Justin Jefferson at wide receiver!
Week 11 vs. Cleveland Browns: Jacoby Brissett (is it even fair to say that they’re lucky to miss out on Deshaun Watson? I have a feeling Watson isn’t going to look good when he returns from his suspension)
Week 12 @ Detroit Lions: Jared Goff, who should have first-round wide receiver Jameson Williams fully integrated by Week 12.
Week 13 @ New England Patriots: Mac Jones in year two.
Week 14 vs. New York Jets: Zach Wilson (Part II)
Week 15 vs. Miami Dolphins: Tua Tagovailoa (Part II)
Week 16 @ Chicago Bears: Justin Fields in year two
Week 17 @ Cincinnati Bengals: Joe Burrow (and Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd and Joe Mixon, etc.)
Week 18 vs. New England Patriots: Mac Jones (Part II)
Now, is this a gauntlet of hair-raising, nightmare-inducing, bone-chilling quarterbacks? Not entirely (there should be plenty of wayward Zach Wilson passes to go around), but Stafford, Jackson, Rodgers, and Burrow will present the kind of challenge the Bills rarely faced last year. The Bills had a lot of victories handed to them (almost literally). Don’t expect that to happen again.
Making matters worse, the cornerback situation still looks muddled, even with White expected to recover from his injury. With his PUP-designation to start the year, he will miss at least the first four games of the season. Levi Wallace, who took up the mantle of #1 corner when White went down, left for Pittsburgh in the offseason. That means the Bills will likely start either Elam or sixth-round rookie Christian Benford on the outside opposite Dane Jackson, the Bills seventh-round pick from 2020.
Poyer and Hyde should be able to help stem the tide to some degree but expecting them to repeat their incredible 2021 performances might be too much to ask. Hyde has been an All Pro in the past, but he’s turning 32 in December. Poyer, likewise, is 31 and coming off a breakout season. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if they fell back to Earth a little.
Miller should be an upgrade as an edge rusher, but, again, he’s getting long in the tooth. He turned 33 in March and has already missed large portions of two seasons with season-ending injuries. He can still win reps against some of the better tackles in the NFL, but the days of him being a 10+ sack guy are probably over.
Even worse, the Bills lost defensive ends Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison in free agency. Hughes, who turned 34 just a couple weeks ago, is near the end of his long career, but he was still a capable presence on the edge, recording 2.0 sacks in a specialized role. Addison, meanwhile, led the Bills with 7.0 sacks last year.
Still, there’s a possibility the Bills can replace these losses internally. The Bills, it seems, were already preparing for these departures last year when they drafted Rousseau and Basham Jr. with their first two selections. Neither made a huge impact in 2021, but they showed enough to suggest they could suitably fill the roles Hughes and Addison vacated.
The most important piece for this Bills defense might be 24-year-old defensive tackle Ed Oliver. The fifth-year player was selected with the 9th pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. While in college, Oliver looked like the next great interior pass rusher, in the same mold as superstars like Aaron Donald or Jeffery Simmons. He hasn’t quite lived up to that billing, but he’s been a steady presence since his rookie year, recording at least 3.0 sacks in every season. If he can raise his game to a Pro-Bowl, or even All-Pro-level, that will do wonders for a Bills pass rush that doesn’t have a lot of guys that will regularly win one-on-one matchups.
Don’t worry, Bills fans - this defense will still be fine, even if their opponents aren’t self-sabotaging on nearly every drive like last year. Head coach Sean McDermott is an excellent defensive coach and has been able to get star performances from unheralded guys like Poyer, Hyde, Addison, and Milano. He hasn’t lost his touch - not yet anyway.
However, this Bills defense won’t lead the NFL in yards allowed by a wide margin in 2022. They probably won’t allow fewer than 100 yards passing in multiple games. They probably won’t get to face Mike White again (darn).
There’s still plenty of reasons to be excited about the Bills season. Josh Allen looks like the most explosive QB in the league. He’ll throw over your head on one play and run you over on the next. Good luck stopping that, NFL defensive coordinators.
But the Bills will probably end up regressing a little on defense in 2022. They won’t end up at the bottom - McDermott is too competent for that (somewhere in the 8-12 range feels right). 2021 was a dream for Buffalo’s defense and a nightmare for their opponents. This year will be a wake-up call.