It’s the side of the ball for the Bills that has been largely ignored through the preseason. Buried under the polarizing interest of the team’s quarterback competition, Buffalo’s defensive unit has quietly gone about its business.
Set to begin season two in their defensive system under coordinator Leslie Frazier, the bar has been collectively raised for what they expect of themselves in 2018.
The defensive unit also knows with a new starter at quarterback, operating a new offensive scheme, they will need to be the spearhead of the team in the early going.
“Our goal is always to win and to do that you have to take the ball away. We want to be a top five defense,” said Lorenzo Alexander. “We want to be the leaders of this team as far as giving our offense advantageous field position, short fields. The main reason why is because we understand we’re going to have a young quarterback in terms of experience. So, we need to help the offense out as much as we can.
“It’s going to take time until Nate is able to develop and really take the reins of the offense and make it his own and become that guy. So right now, we feel defensively we have the pieces in place to be the bell cow of this team and lead the way.”
While there is no debate that the defensive unit can take the ball away, the areas of focus heading into the 2018 campaign have been the run defense and pass rush.
Those were two areas that languished in the bottom quarter of the league when it came to production last season. They feel it will be noticeably better in 2018.
"We can be tops in every category. I believe that. We’ve got the guys to do it and we have the heart and the effort. That’s all you can ask for, a bunch of guys who buy in, are intelligent and give great effort." Bills defensive tackle Star Lotulelei
“I think we can be one of the best defenses in the league,” Star Lotulelei said flatly. “We can be tops in every category. I believe that. We’ve got the guys to do it and we have the heart and the effort. That’s all you can ask for, a bunch of guys who buy in, are intelligent and give great effort. We have the talent, so I think we have everything to be a top two defense in this league.”
That expectation may be lofty, but Lotulelei is betting on himself. He’s a key piece to fixing what ailed Buffalo’s defense last season. Known for doing the dirty work, he’s expected to tie up two linemen so the linebackers behind him can run free and make plays.
“He’s been one of the top nose tackles in our league, so he definitely can be a stabilizer for us inside, which we need,” said Frazier. “We needed that. We needed a guy with some girth and some power and he’ll provide that for us.”
Through the course of the preseason when the starters played, Buffalo’s run defense was more consistent than it was last season, allowing 95 yards per game on the ground. The players however, factor in preseason figures less and game tape review more.
“We’ve been inconsistent,” admitted Micah Hyde. “We’ve gone out there and made some good plays, but we’ve given up some big plays too. As a defense one of the worst things you can be is inconsistent. So, the number one thing is to be more consistent and it starts with us not beating ourselves.
“There were a lot of things in the preseason that we messed up on where we beat ourselves, whether it’s technique or mental errors. It’s easily fixed, but at the same time that’s what is beating you. So, we’ve gone over the corrections and will get it fixed.”
Lotulelei is also going to be asked to help push the pocket from the interior so quarterbacks can’t step up to elude Buffalo’s edge rushers.
The defense logged three sacks in their preseason games where their starters saw action. And some of the best pressure by the Bills came on blitzes by nickel corners or safeties.
Though the defensive unit wasn’t scheming in the preseason they want to have far more production than that.
“Obviously, up front we want to be able to put more pressure on the quarterback with our four-man rush. So still working through some of those things,” said Alexander.
The defensive line has been without Kyle Williams since he suffered a knee injury in Week 2 of the preseason, but he’s working his way back as he practiced with the team on Monday.
Trent Murphy missed the entire preseason with a lingering groin injury but is healthy now. And though Shaq Lawson posted just a quarterback hit and a batted pass in three preseason games, he had perhaps the strongest camp of his young career.
Buffalo’s defense will also be relying on a good deal of youth in some important roles. Tremaine Edmunds will run the defense at middle linebacker, Taron Johnson is expected to at least share the team’s nickel corner duties and Harrison Phillips is expected to rotate in at both the one and three-technique on the defensive interior.
It might seem like a lot to ask of first-year players, but Tre’Davious White and Matt Milano capably filled roles for Buffalo’s defense last year.
“Most teams have a nucleus of veteran guys who you can count on and you know what you’re going to get out of them. However, your rookies and how well the rookies play in the NFL… if they all play excellent like Matt and Tre’ last year, it gets you over the hump and makes an average team a good team or a good team into a great team,” Alexander said. “A lot of this league is preventing yourself from losing and a lot of times young guys make costly mistakes. Those guys last year, to their credit, prepared well, showed up and made a lot of plays for us to win a lot of games.”
The men on defense are expecting be better in 2018. They’ve been grinding since the spring and that will continue right up until kickoff Sunday at Baltimore to play sound, fundamental football.
“I think the things we’ve had to correct we fixed in practice,” said Tre’Davious White. “We have to try to limit any miscommunication or mental errors because teams are going to come at us.
“It’s about us as a unit just having the pride to be competitive and have a better showing that we did last season. We’ve got to polish everything up so when we get to the opener we’re playing our best ball.”