The 2021 Bills defense had the best statistical season of the Sean McDermott/Leslie Frazier era. After finishing first in seven different statistical categories - including total defense, points per game allowed, and total yards allowed per play - it's hard to imagine how the unit can improve this upcoming season.
Even with all the success, there's still room for growth on the defensive side of the ball. Here are three reasons why the Bills' defense will improve in 2022.
1. Revamped Defensive Line
One of the most discussed positions on the entire Bills roster this offseason has to be the defensive line. When a player of Von Miller's pedigree gets added to the room, there will be a lot of chatter about it. But Miller's presence isn't the only reason why this group has received plenty of attention.
Besides the three young pass rushers, most of the contributors on the Bills' 2021 defensive line (Jerry Hughes, Mario Addison, Harrison Phillips, Star Lotulelei, and Efe Obada) are not with the team this season. The players brought in earlier this spring (Von Miller, Jordan Phillips, Shaq Lawson, DaQuan Jones, and Tim Settle) provide the position group with more size, speed, aggressiveness, and experience.
One thing that stands out about this year's additions is the position versatility that they all bring.
"They're all jack of all trades," Jones said. "They all can move around and play different positions, which I think is very important at this level. To have [defensive] ends that can play inside, outside, and move all around – to be a good team, you can be more diverse in what you do. I think the depth and what they can do is really going to help."
The depth of the position heading into the season will be an advantage for the Bills in 2022. Another advantage the team has is that two of the additions, Phillips and Lawson, have been a part of this team before, are familiar with the defense, and understand what to expect from the coaches.
In 2019, during Phillips' and Lawson's last season in Buffalo, the team recorded 44 sacks which are the most by the team since McDermott was hired. The defense racked up 38 in 2020 and 41 in 2021 which ranked T-12th and T-9th respectively. The team also was T-12th in the NFL with 51 QB knockdowns. Getting the opposing quarterback to the ground and increasing the number of sacks will improve the entire defense in 2022. Frazier is overjoyed to have Phillips and Lawson back in Buffalo to help with that effort.
"It just warms your heart when guys that left for what they thought were greener pastures come back and say, `You know what, this is the best place for me, no matter the money or anything else. This environment, this culture is the best place for me,'" Frazier shared.
"And those were two guys who played at a high level for us. They're bringing a lot of juice, a lot of energy to our practices, to our meetings, because they are excited about being here. And I look forward to them, the both of them, really helping our team this season. They're good players and they're good people as well."
In addition to the veterans that were brought in, the three young pass rushers (AJ Epenesa, Greg Rousseau, and Boogie Basham) are also expected to take another step forward in their development this season. After two seasons riddled with Covid protocols, and remote meetings, the pass rushers that heading into only their second or third offseasons are taking full advantage of the first "normal" offseason program.
"I'm way more comfortable now," Basham stated. "Just learning to play but also knowing all the guys. Coming in my rookie year, I didn't know anybody, maybe like two or three guys. But now comfortable with the guys around the locker room and everybody in the facility so I feel way more comfortable than last year."
2. Unmatched Motivation
Even though the Bills' defense ranked number one throughout the 2021 season, it was the infamous 13 seconds at the end of regulation in the divisional round that ended the Bills' playoff run.
The players and coaches have had that in the back of their minds for the past six months and won't get that putrid taste out of their mouths until Week One. When it comes down to it, the players don't care as much about stats and standings as they do wanting to bring a Super Bowl title to Buffalo.
"We didn't win it all," Ed Oliver said on the source of motivation for the defense. "It was something missing, something there that I could have done better. Something as a defense that we could have all done better. Even if you're the No. 1 defense, (if) you're not playing for it all, it's more meat on the bone to win it all. But you gotta be damn near perfect everywhere. Everybody's gotta be working together, so it's more left on the bone, we just gotta go get it."
The coaches are consistently preaching a one game at a time mentality and keeping the past in the past, but this team has displayed how they can use a tough loss to their advantage. After the tough playoff loss to the Texans in 2019, the team came back more focused and made it all the way to the AFC Championship Game in 2020. Even though the ending of the divisional round game in Kansas City wasn't what anyone in Buffalo wanted, it will be used as an important lesson and as motivation going forward.
"Everybody's been motivated, and this is a team that doesn't blink," Tremaine Edmunds said. "Obviously things weren't the way we wanted it to be, but it's a new year. You can't look back because if you look too far in the back, you're gonna be stuck moving forward. So, you gotta continue to just get better, continue to come in every day, and it's one mission still. That doesn't change. It's another year, and we still got that same mindset."
Even with the Bills not making it all the way, the defense finishing number one in seven different categories is an impressive accomplishment. Especially given the fact that they were without All-Pro corner Tre'Davious White for the last six weeks of the season. With White expected to be healthy for the 2022 season, the return of almost all the 2021 defensive starters, and many new additions brought in this offseason there are high expectations that the Bills can repeat with the number one defense in 2022 – something that hasn't been done since 2013-2014 (Seattle Seahawks).
"We just have to take what we did last year and add those guys coming in, the new guys to our defense, and just build on that," Dane Jackson shared. "We got guys that came in, Kaiir (Elam), Big Phil [Jordan Phillips], and Shaq (Lawson) back. All those guys, they've been here before and they know how to operate. So just taking from what we did last year and carrying that on."
Scroll to see the photos from Buffalo Bills Rookie Media Day.
3. Another year of continuity for coaches and players
For two seasons, many have been surprised that defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier hasn't been hired to be a head coach for another team. He brings so much to the defense as a coordinator and as a teacher for the players. Along with him, nine out of the eleven starters on the Bills' defense will be returning this season.
Buffalo has one of the more veteran defensive squads in the league. With the core group of guys having consistently played alongside one another for four to five seasons. That level of continuity can't be taught or trained and it's one advantage this team has going into 2022.
"With Frazier coming back, it was big," Siran Neal said. "And keeping most guys here, just keeping the group together, it just feels like there's really no drop-off. It's basically picking up where we just left from and with that being said, he's trusting his players just like we trust him. So, we got his back just like he got our back."
Having familiarity with a coach is one thing but having a bond and long connection with a teammate is another. Because a majority of these Bills' players have battled alongside each other for multiple seasons, they've had the ability to pick up little things about one another's playing style that helps during games. That experience helps strengthen the core of the defense but also allows the Bills' veterans to teach the newcomers how things are done.
For linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano, their strong connection and understanding of each other help them both play faster and communicate to the rest of the defense more efficiently.
"It factors a lot," Edmunds said. "Obviously with Matt (Milano), going on five years, it's a lot. A lot of things we learn from each other. A lot of things we know how each other plays a little bit. So, it's just like talking to my brother, you know what I mean? Obviously, it's only been five years, but that's the kind of connection we built with each other. We can tell each other anything.
"If something comes up in the game, we have that good connection where we know what one is thinking, so it makes it a lot easier to make sideline adjustments when the game is going. So, it definitely helps me out a lot, definitely helps the defense out a lot, and I'm excited to experience this round with him another time."