Sean McDermott sat down with Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier on Monday to revisit their files from the 2020 NFL Draft. The subject was Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor.
"We gave him high marks all the way around," Frazier said. "Everybody thought that he would be a real good NFL back. I don't think any of our scouts or any of our coaches who had a chance to take a look at him on the offensive side were surprised at what he's doing."
Taylor, who was selected by the Colts in the second round, will be a topic of conversation for Frazier and his defense in the days leading up to their wild-card matchup with Indianapolis. The rookie ended the season with a bang against Jacksonville on Sunday, rushing for 253 yards and two scores in a must-win game that clinched the Colts' entry to the playoffs.
The performance was the culmination of what has been a second-half ascension for the running back, who saw inconsistent carries through the early part of the season as the Colts utilized their three-back tandem of Taylor, Nyheim Hines, and Jordan Wilkins, riding the hot hand for any given game. Against Tennessee in Week 10, Taylor carried the ball just seven times for 12 yards.
Since then, Taylor has totaled 741 yards in six contests, trailing only Titans running back Derrick Henry in that timeframe.
"The way they've run the football the last few weeks, they put a lot of pressure on your defense to stop the run, which can open up some things in the passing game," Frazier said. "So, our defensive line, we'll have to really be on our Ps and Qs in practice this week, really be good from a technique and fundamental standpoint."
The Bills' run defense has seen its own improvement over the course of this season. They have allowed an average of 94.0 rushing yards per game since Week 12, the fourth-best mark in the NFL. Their 4.21 average yards per carry in that span ranks seventh.
When the Bills were struggling to nail down the run defense early in the season, Frazier harped on fundamentals like tackling and gap integrity as keys to a turnaround. While other factors came into play – the jelling of new players and the return to health by linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano among them – Frazier reiterated those fundamentals as being crucial on Monday.
"We're such a big one-gap defense in so many ways when it comes to stopping the run," Frazier said. "When you get out of your gap or you don't tackle well, you're usually not going to play good run defense.
"There were times when we were struggling against the run in 2020 and other years where that's usually the culprit. We're usually out of our gap or we're not tackling well or we're not taking good angles to the football, which you have to be fundamentally good at. When we are, we're a much better run defense. The same thing is going to be true this weekend when we play Indianapolis."
Here are more notes heading into Colts week after hearing from McDermott, Frazier, and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll on Monday.
More on the matchup
Taylor and the rest of the Colts' rushing attack is bolstered by a strong interior offensive line, headlined by left guard Quenton Nelson. The two-time All-Pro ranked fifth among guards by ESPN's pass block win rate metric and second in run block win rate.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Colts boast a pair of star players in linebacker Darius Leonard and defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. Leonard led the team with 138 tackles; Buckner racked up 9.5 sacks and 26 QB hits. They lead a unit that tied for fifth with 25 takeaways.
"They fly around to the ball," Daboll said. "They turn the football over. They're good at stopping the run. They tip balls up in the air. They make breaks on the ball. There's been a lot of bad decisions by quarterbacks against this defense. They've gotten their hands on the ball and turned it over."
We wrote Sunday about the Bills' tendency to pick apart the flaws in their own game, something they did even after a 56-26 over the Dolphins in Week 17. Dion Dawkins explained that their lack of satisfaction had at least some of its roots in last year's playoff loss in Houston.
"That fire and that burn that (we) felt from losing, it's still in us," Dawkins said. "And we still feel it. That's why guys are so hard on themselves, because we have to be the best at all times and we know if we're not, things like what happened in Houston can happen. We're fighting for that never to happen."
The Bills had a similarly difficult loss this season when DeAndre Hopkins caught a Hail Mary catch with the clock expired in Arizona. On the flight home, Frazier thought about a team he knew of that had lost a regular-season game on a series of laterals and went on to win the Super Bowl.
Frazier did not reveal which team he was thinking of, but one candidate comes to mind. The Patriots lost to Miami on a succession of laterals in 2018, then went on to beat the Rams for the title.
"I said to myself, 'If we handle this the right way … this could turn out to be a positive instead of a negative,'" Frazier said. "That was going through my mind."
The Bills have gone 6-0 since that loss and have seen their defense come into its own in the process. Since returning from the bye for Week 12, the defense ranks second in third-down percentage (29.9), fifth in points allowed per game (18.3), and tied for fifth in takeaways (10).
"Just really proud of our players and the way they responded," Frazier said. "I mean, that was a hard loss for a lot of reasons, and they didn't let it hold them back. In one sense of the word, I think it improved us overall, without question."
Beasley remains week-to-week
McDermott said that the status of wide receiver Cole Beasley, who did not practice last week due to a knee injury, remains week-to-week.
"No real update," McDermott said. "You know, he continues to rehab and we'll just see where tomorrow leads us."
The Bills receiving corps remained effective against the Dolphins in Beasley's absence, thanks in part to the return of John Brown from a five-game absence. Brown caught four passes for 72 yards and a touchdown while Isaiah McKenzie, filling in for Beasley in the slot, amassed 65 yards and two scores.
Buffalo also shored up its depth with the additions of Kenny Stills and Tanner Gentry to the practice squad.
"We're just getting started with Kenny now in the mix," McDermott said. "We'll just see what he's able to digest. I know he's a good player, and (we'll) see how we can integrate him into what we're doing here."
Take a look at photos of the best plays from the 2020 season, presented by Toyota.