In 2017, the Bills defense ranked just 29th in the NFL in total sacks. However, offseason additions, scheme familiarity, and a tandem of linebackers well-versed in the art of rushing the passer; will almost certainly change how the pass rush looks moving forward.
Although they ranked 29th in sacks, the Bills defense was second out of all 32 NFL teams in percentage of passes that were thrown for touchdowns, and total passing touchdowns allowed; behind only the Minnesota Vikings. Also, opposing quarterbacks ranked 27th in total QBR when facing the Bills.
A strong pass rush will help to improve Buffalo's defensive metrics even further, and below are three reasons to believe that a sack resurgence is on the horizon.
1. STAR LOTULELEI'S PRESENCE
Absent in 2017, was a strong presence in the middle of the defensive line adjacent to Kyle Williams. In 2018, the Bills will have the luxury of relying on former first-round pick, Star Lotulelei.
Before signing a five-year contract with the Bills this offseason, Lotulelei made a living plugging up running lanes and preventing quarterbacks from stepping up in the pocket. His style of play allowed for seasoned pass rushers such as Julius Peppers and Charles Johnson to wreak havoc in the backfield. Bills head coach Sean McDermott believes that Lotulelei could help solve some defensive issues in 2018.
"To put him [Lotulelei] in a room with the likes of Kyle Williams, Jerry Hughes, Trent Murphy, Harrison Phillips, and some of the other players that are already in that room; I think he's a good piece to the overall puzzle for us," said McDermott.
McDermott coached Lotulelei from 2013 to 2016 in Carolina, and his familiarity with his strengths and weaknesses should allow for a maximization of Lotulelei's skill set and potential.
Although he will play a big role on defense for the Bills in 2018, Lotulelei does not figure to be a major contributor to the sack total directly, as he has totaled just 11.5 sacks in his first five seasons. Conversely, his indirect impact could do wonders for edge rushers looking to prove they can contribute, such as Shaq Lawson and Trent Murphy.
2. ADDITIONAL TALENT ON THE EDGE
Although the sack numbers in 2017 were down, the Bills believe they've improved their edge rushing talent. Those who were on the roster last year also have a year under their belt in the defensive scheme that coach McDermott implemented.
Sixth-year Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes has set some goals regarding the pass rush game, and all who may contribute in 2018.
"We want to take the next step in the second year in this defensive scheme," said Hughes. "We see it on film, and we see how we can improve as far as pass rush technique goes."
Hughes is also anticipating the hard work and determination of fellow defensive end Shaq Lawson this offseason to pay off this fall.
"I think he [Lawson] did a fantastic job taking care of his body this offseason, just by eating the right foods, and really understanding what his body needs," he said. "He's faster off the line now."
Hughes and Lawson are both looking to return to rebound this season. Hughes is determined to return to the level of play he achieved in 2013 and 2014, recording 10 sacks in each of those seasons. Lawson is hopeful that he can finally carve out a niche for himself in Buffalo after being selected in the first round in 2016.
Another member of the Bills defensive line that is optimistic that he can contribute to the pass rush is new addition, Trent Murphy. Murphy missed all of the 2017 season with a knee injury, but he recorded nine sacks with Washington in 2016.
"My plan is to be better than I was if this did not happen," said Murphy of his injury. "I think I've had a really good support system to make that happen for me. There's no looking back for me."
3. LINEBACKERS WHO CAN BLITZ
Buffalo's defensive approach doesn't rely on the blitz all that much. They typically depend on the front four to generate the required pressure to hurry throws and disrupt opposing quarterbacks. But defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier may want to deploy some of his linebacking talent closer to the line of scrimmage at times, with the players he has on hand.
Lorenzo Alexander headlines the group just after reaching his first Pro Bowl as a defender in 2016. He believes that the low sack numbers in 2017, were merely coincidental, and that things should turn around in 2018.
"You go back and watch film, and there were four or five times for myself, four or five times for Jerry [Hughes] where we either caused an interception, made a strip sack, or made the ball flutter," he said. "Last year, for whatever reason, the quarterbacks were not taking sacks."
Alexander's observation is correct to an extent, as the Bills finished top 10 in the NFL in percentage of passes intercepted, and total interceptions.
"Our thing isn't necessarily sacking, it was more about affecting the quarterback," said Alexander. "We were effective in making the quarterback move around."
Tremaine Edmunds is another name to watch for in the pass rush game. Before being selected 16th overall in this year's NFL Draft, Edmunds compiled 10 sacks at Virginia Tech.
"I know this is a different stage, but I'm a mature guy and my parents did a good job of raising me. So, I'll compete with other guys and work for my spot, and work to play my role on this team," said Edmunds.
Joining Alexander and Edmunds in the effort to effectively blitz from the linebacker position, is second-year pro Matt Milano. Milano impressed in limited duty in 2017, and even earned a starting role as the season progressed. Although he did not record a sack in 2017, Milano recorded 14.5 sacks during his tenure at Boston College; and he only started in five games last season.
"Last year I was just getting my feet underneath me," said Milano. "But with the addition of a couple new guys and with the experience of just learning the defense last year, I think our goal is top five."
With analytical evaluation on their side and a strong track record of sack production with McDermott-led defenses, it is safe to assume that the Bills' defense should see their sack total increase dramatically.