1 – Pass rush is fierce
One of the biggest offseason priorities for the Bills was to bolster their defensive line after finishing near the bottom of the league in both run defense and sacks. The additions both in free agency and the draft have been well documented. On Wednesday, Buffalo's improved pass rush was let out of its cage and it could not be tamed.
In the final 11-on-11 period of practice, Kyle Williams got to AJ McCarron, not once or twice, but on three consecutive plays for tap out sacks. He won a one-on-one on the first play, slipped a double team on the second and got around the edge on a stunt on the last play.
It proved to set the tone for Buffalo's pass rush for the final 20 minutes of the practice session.
"Me and one of the other DTs were looking at each other after watching Kyle saying, 'Bro, he makes it look so easy,'" said DT Ricky Hatley. "How old is he? He makes it look so easy. He's got that grown man strength. He's never lost a step. It doesn't matter what scheme you throw at him… that's a great player right there."
After Williams' trio of 'would be' sacks, Terence Fede walked his offensive tackle right back into Nathan Peterman for another play that was blown dead.
Two incompletions followed that, with a screen pass to Marcus Murphy completely swallowed up by Ramon Humber.
Even the third team defense won, forcing Josh Allen to scramble on his first snap as the pocket collapsed on both side. He did manage to hit Quan Bray down the right sideline for the only completion in a span of nine plays.
"The rush and the coverage work together so when we can get home and our DBs work together it throws the offense off balance," said Hatley.
Jerry Hughes tapped out McCarron not long after he got to the top of his drop for another sack when the first unit came back for a second series.
"We need a lot of reps, and we need to do things over and over again," said Dion Dawkins. "Mistakes happen when people don't practice things enough. Whether it is hand placement, footwork, or anything else; you have to keep working at it."
The offense tried to counter the enormous pressure the defense's front four was generating going to a hard count, and it helped to limit the effectiveness of the rush as McCarron, Peterman and Allen were all able to get rid of the ball for some short completions on each of their second series.
The two-minute drill however, led to much of the same with the defense getting the better of the action.
McCarron led the first unit from their own 35, with 1:40 on the clock. After a five-yard completion to Charles Clay, McCarron was sacked by Kyle Williams, who at this point looked like he was being fired out of a cannon.
Williams sack on second down, forced the offense to use a timeout and brought up a 2nd-and-11 after the coaches huddled with officials. Williams swooped in again for another sack to bring up third down with 1:16 on the clock.
The defense blitzed on third down and both Jerry Hughes and Lorenzo Alexander had free runs at McCarron. The quarterback threw the ball away quickly, which brought up fourth down.
On fourth down, McCarron trying to make something happen, threw a pass over the middle intended for Jeremy Kerley, but it was picked off by Tremaine Edmunds, who dropped into the hole in coverage.
"Just knowing what the situation is and trying to get off the field and just coming up with a big play and executing," said Edmunds of his INT. "I was in the right spot at the right time. But a lot of guys were busting their tails to get their assignments down and it showed."
The second and third team offenses experienced similar circumstances. Nathan Peterman had to hurry his first two pass attempts under pressure and was sacked on a 3rd-and-5 in his two-minute series. He had to roll out on fourth down to avoid the rush and threw incomplete.
Allen took a good shot down the left sideline for a 26-yard pass play to Cam Phillips but had to throw it away under pressure on the next play and was sacked on second down by Mike Love. A dropped pass on third down brought out Stephen Hauschka, who was good from 52 yards away to salvage the drive.
"We've got a great defense," said Peterman. "Competition is great this time of year. Such talented players over there. That makes our game so much better. It could've been a little bit better. There are going to be days like that. We've just got to take this day in stride. Get better in any way we can from film and then be ready."
"I told the guys, 'It's not always going to be perfect.' When it comes down to those situations you strive to be perfect, but sometimes you win some and lose some. Today we just lost that opportunity, but it's also a chance to learn and get better for the next time."
2 – Run game gains traction
If there was a bright spot for the offense it was their running game, which over the past two days has made good progress. The offensive line has opened good holes consistently the last two practices now and the quarterbacks are taking note of it after reviewing the practice tape.
"Yes, for sure," said McCarron. "I think the O-line has been doing a great job, all three of them, of creating holes. The backs have done an unbelievable job of hitting the hole on one cut. We've had some very explosive plays. It's always great to see that because then it opens up the passing game, especially play action. It's good for our offense."
Ryan Groy got Thursday's practice off to a good start when he down blocked to open up a big hole for LeSean McCoy, who quickly scampered into the secondary for a big gainer.
Chris Ivory was the beneficiary of a good hole over the left side from the starting unit as he quickly reached the second level and ran for a 15-yard pickup.
Marcus Murphy ran to the back side off good flow to the right to get a first down and more on a carry. And even third team RB Keith Ford got a good hole from the line to get deep into the secondary for a 25-yard run.
3 – Heavy linebacker rotation
Head coach Sean McDermott singled out the linebacker group this week as one of the two position groups that has provided him with some unexpected excitement based on the competition level.
"There's a lot that is getting me excited in terms of the competition, depth, whatever you want to call it," said McDermott of the linebacking group. "I've seen, obviously, the introduction of Tremaine [Edmunds] into that group but also the way that Deon Lacey has improved from a year ago, watching him develop.
"Coach [Bob] Babich has done a nice job with that group. You look at what Tanner's [Vallejo] been able to do with that group there with Julian [Stanford] as well and watching the level that Ramon [Humber] is playing at right now."
Not surprisingly, a handful of those players were rotating anywhere from the starting unit to the third unit in practice Wednesday as the defensive staff made a point of shuffling the deck.
Lacey was one of the primary beneficiaries as he got some snaps with the first unit on the weak side. In fact, on one play he was lined up as the coverage assignment on Charles Clay.
"You've got to be ready for stuff like that," Lacey told Buffalobills.com. "Coach was trying to tell me what to do when I lined up against him. Clay got me a little bit, but it's part of the learning curve, so I've got to get better when I'm matched up on Charles Clay."
Lacey has largely been an accomplished special teamer in the league, but he's looking to take the next step and be a contributor as a defender too.
"I'm just humble and waiting on the opportunity to come and when it comes I'll be ready," he said.
Free agent signee Julian Stanford is another quality special teamer, who's looking to land a middle linebacker role. He's run with the second team the last two days lining up alongside Ramon Humber.
But the rotation didn't end there. Veteran Keenan Robinson, who is learning the defensive scheme in crash course fashion, moved up to the second team from the third team for some reps for the first time in camp.
All the linebackers seem to like that everyone is getting a shot to show what they can do.
"It's a good way to critique the defense and keep everybody engaged and ready to move forward," said Lacey.