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'Everybody has to ramp it up' | Bills defense begins to make changes for the upcoming season

Sean McDermott, Jordan Poyer (21). Buffalo Bills Organized Team Activity, May 23, 2023 at One Bills Drive.
Sean McDermott, Jordan Poyer (21). Buffalo Bills Organized Team Activity, May 23, 2023 at One Bills Drive.

Every NFL team undergoes a change of some kind or another from one season to the next. Most rosters turn over between 20 and 30 percent of their players, and there are usually some staff changes as well even for head coaches who remain employed. The Bills were no different from any other NFL club this offseason, but it's not going to change the way they approach every challenge with which they're presented.

Knowing the way head coach Sean McDermott has operated his entire professional coaching career, that approach will be methodical, painstakingly thorough, and flexible.

"He's done great things in the past and operated a defense in many different ways," said offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey, who coached with him in Carolina before joining his staff in Buffalo in 2019. "And I think one of the best things that he does is when you look at his time, whether it's back in Philadelphia or his time in Carolina, or here. He's always adapted to the type of personnel that he's had, and he's always grown and really kind of done a great job of saying, 'Hey, we've got this skill set that we can build around or this skill set that we can build around.' He's constantly looking to grow and adapt his defense based off of what he has."

The headline for the defensive side of the ball for the Bills this offseason is that head coach Sean McDermott will not only be weighing heavily in putting the scheme and game plans together but will also be shouldering the additional responsibility of defensive play caller.

"Sean's excited and focused every single day, regardless of what he's doing," said defensive line coach Eric Washington, who also has a prior working history with McDermott. "But obviously being in a situation where he can communicate directly to the defense and the staff and just kind of be hands on, that's where he started. That's where his love is. That's where his passion is. And so it was a natural thing for him."

There is an extension to McDermott's play-calling responsibilities that must also be sorted out between now and the season opener on Sept. 11th. Deciding on a starting middle linebacker to replace Tremaine Edmunds, who manned the spot for the past five seasons.

"The hardest thing for our guys is the operation and what we want to do," said linebackers coach Bobby Babich. "Obviously, we just lost a player who had five years of the operation. Anytime you go into a job, you're trying to perform a task. The more repetition that any of us have at what we're doing the better we get. So the operation and making sure that our defense can function through the way the Mike linebacker gets us into a defense, potentially sets a front, sets this, sets that so we can operate at a high level. That's the hardest thing."

To accomplish that the veteran players on Buffalo's roster knows between now and the close of training camp the 10 players on the field around that starting middle linebacker calling the defense need to put in extra work to make everything function smoothly.

"I think everybody just has to ramp it up a little bit," said Micah Hyde. "We've all in the last how many years with those core guys, we haven't won a Super Bowl yet. So we've come up a little bit short. So I think just all around whether it's core guys or guys just getting here, I think everyone just has to ramp it up a little bit and understand that what we've been doing these last couple years isn't getting it done. We all got to get better in every area, and it doesn't matter if guys have come and gone throughout the years. Just continue to work together and get better."

Babich believes repetition is the key, which is why it's imperative that whoever the starting middle linebacker becomes gets as many reps as possible. But a competition at the position must be sorted out first and given an appropriate amount of time so the coaching staff can make the best possible decision in filling that role.

"Right now it's a lot of mixing," said veteran LB A.J. Klein in a recent appearance on ‘One Bills Live’. "Obviously guys are getting a lot of reps out there. A lot of different guys are moving positions. We want to be a knowledgeable defense, especially at the linebacker position. We want guys that know multiple positions who can be plugged in and played because we don't want there to be a drop off. So there are some question marks and those are the things that we're going to be working through this spring and seeing who can be in there and obviously can rotate around."

Check out the Bills as they participate in practice at One Bills Drive on Tuesday, May 30.

For Babich a linebacker capable of matching up in the passing game in coverage while having the ability to carry out the more traditional plays of a linebacker is an ideal fit for the vacant role.

"In anything you're doing in football, if you have a system where you don't have to do a lot of substituting, subbing certain people in and out of things – repetition builds confidence in what you're doing," said Babich. "There's no substitute for game repetition. So, in an ideal world, the same players are on the field, and you can do a lot of different things."

"You've got these pass catching tight ends where you rarely see a guy that's in there to block," said Klein. "So I think us matching body on body, it's just a matchup game. So I think that could be a thing that the coaches are thinking about when we go into game day."

But game day is a long way off. The middle linebacker role will be critically important to the fortunes of the defense knowing they'll be entrusted by the head coach to execute his play calls. There is time to pare that list of candidates down. Time McDermott and his defensive staff plan to fully utilize.

"I think this is going to be a situation where once we decide that Player 'X' is going to be our starter at that position and has earned the job and won the job – I don't think you could put a date on that," Babich said. "Obviously, Sean has final say on it. But like I said, we do things in a collaborative way, so obviously, he's going to take some of my input. (Senior Defensive Assistant) Al Holcomb's here. Shame on us if we don't use Al as another resource, who's coached linebackers for a long time and has coordinated, for more sets of eyes on the situation. And then I think that will happen naturally, and there will be a conclusion at some point."

On May 26, the Bills rookies took a day off from practice and took in some sights around the city of Buffalo and the Western New York region. The group made stops at KeyBank Center, Erie Basin Marina Observation Tower and Hawk Creek Wildlife Center.

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