In a word, Buffalo’s turnover margin in 2018 was subpar.
A year after ranking seventh in the league in turnover margin at plus-9, Buffalo fell back to Earth in 2018 ranking 23rd with a margin of minus-5.
The figure had less to do, however, with Buffalo’s defense than their struggling offense. In fact, the Bills defensive unit notched two more takeaways in 2018 (27) than they did in 2017 (25). The problem was all the giveaways with the instability at the quarterback position. Buffalo quarterbacks threw 23 interceptions last season, good for the second-highest total in the league.
With Josh Allen the entrenched starter, there is now stability at the position and armed with the experience of 11 starts there should be better decision making on the offensive side of the ball overall.
But that hasn’t kept the Buffalo defensive unit from setting the bar higher again this season for their takeaway exploits.
Entering 2019, the chief focus of Buffalo’s defense in season three under head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, is takeaways.
It has been a hallmark of most of McDermott’s defenses, when he was a coordinator himself with most of his units ranking high in that category as well as sacks. Knowing those two elements of defense often go hand-in-hand, here are three good reasons why Buffalo’s takeaway ability should spike again this fall.
1. Healthier pass rush
Last season Buffalo’s pass rush was really good at times (see: Minnesota, Houston), but sustaining a level of consistency from week to week proved difficult. By season’s end, the Bills ranked 26th in sacks with just 36 on the year.
Even McDermott admits that sacks aren’t the only measuring tool for pass rush effectiveness. In fact, he’s only concerned with affecting the quarterback’s normal timing, rhythm and set up point in the pocket. He doesn’t care if it comes by a quarterback hurry, a quarterback hit, a batted pass or a QB takedown.
“I think a lot of interceptions, a lot of incompletions come from just getting the quarterback moved off his spot,” he said. “Affecting his vision. Affecting the trajectory of the ball or his arm. It's important that you can sack the quarterback but at a minimum, you've got to be able to affect the quarterback in some way, shape or form.”
Buffalo’s pass rush should have greater success in helping their teammates in the back seven. Jerry Hughes is coming off one of his most effective seasons. ProFootballFocus had him second in the league in pressure rate behind only perennial Pro Bowl DT Aaron Donald.
Fellow end Trent Murphy is now fully healthy after 2018 proved to be a rebound year coming off an ACL injury in 2017.
“I told him a few different times in OTA’s how different he looks,” said Frazier of Murphy. “Last year he was coming off the injury and the surgery and really kind of feeling his way. The confidence, the movement, everything looks so much better. We’re hoping that continues as we get farther along, but he’s a different player.”
After seeing Shaq Lawson kick down to defensive tackle in some pass rush packages last season, the increased use of Lorenzo Alexander up on the line on passing downs and knowing the penetrating ability of top draft choice Ed Oliver, the Bills pass rush figures to be hurrying and affecting a lot more quarterback passes.
2. Better depth on back end
The first two seasons under McDermott and Frazier, Buffalo’s secondary had a strong starting group. Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer have made up three quarters of that group with EJ Gaines and Levi Wallace being the final piece in 2017 and 2018 respectively.
After a one-year absence in Cleveland, Gaines is back and former first-round pick Kevin Johnson is in the fold as well. Taron Johnson has proven himself a worthy nickel corner and is fully healthy after playing with a torn labrum in his shoulder almost his entire rookie season.
The linebacker contingent might not be quite as deep, but Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano are an impressive duo in nickel package situations. Milano was leading the league in takeaways with six before his season-ending injury in Week 15, and Tremaine Edmunds’ play was surging as the season closed with him being named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month in December.
With most of those players now entering the third year in the system under Frazier, the anticipation skills and ability to just react to balls in the air or on the ground will be peaking.
“Since we got back in the spring, our main emphasis has been taking the football away, whether it’s punch outs or interceptions,” said Poyer. “Having all the guys around the football is important too. If the ball is on the ground or in the air your chances are better of coming up with it. Three out of four of my picks last year were tipped balls. Just being around the football it may not happen the first, second, third, fourth or fifth time, but that sixth time it might sit right in your lap.”
Though interceptions for the Bills were slightly down in 2018 to what they were in 2017, Buffalo did improve when it came to recovering forced fumbles with 11 last year, up from seven the year prior. Their goal however, is to recover a higher percentage of them. The Bills only came up with 11 of those 24 fumbles forced (46%).
“The emphasis in getting takeaways is making sure everybody's running to the ball because you never know what can happen,” Milano said. “Somebody strips it out, whatever it may be, but just good things happen when you do that.”
It may sound unconventional to count on one’s opponents when it comes to racking up takeaways, but when one considers that Buffalo has six games in 2019 against opponents that ranked in the top 12 in giveaways the year before it could very well make a difference.
The Jets ranked fourth in giveaways last season with an eye-popping 30. Pittsburgh had 26 to rank seventh with Cleveland right behind them with 24 to rank eighth. Miami was 12th with 23.
The Bills face all of those teams this fall, obviously with a pair each against the Jets and Dolphins.
Even Denver, which ranked 14th in giveaways last season with 21, has a new veteran quarterback in Joe Flacco, who will be acclimating himself to a new scheme. Those opponetns could present more opportunities for Buffalo’s defense.
Knowing the collective dedication on the part of Buffalo’s defensive unit to film study, and the experience gained by a host of young players in 2018, making plays on the ball in 2019 figures to be on the upswing.
“Knowing the situation and obviously anticipating is really what it comes down to,” said McDermott. “If you know the situation that you are in you can anticipate not only what you are going to do but what the opponent is going to do. That gives you a chance to be a step ahead or half a step ahead and in this case and that’s where turnovers happen.”
“I think with the guys who have been here throughout the McDermott time period, it’s safe to say the guys who have been here are a lot smarter,” said Micah Hyde. “Just from coaches’ interactions, the film study, the detail in it. Just talking down and distance to clues that the offense might give you. Just the nuggets that we talk about day in and day out. I think this is a lot smarter football team.”