Last year, there was no continuity. The coaches, the players, the system, the culture – it was all new. But then newly appointed defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier took the first-year defense and made it dangerous. The group played a key role in helping Buffalo end its 17-year playoff drought by making big plays and causing turnovers. Now with a veteran returning core and Frazier entering his second season in Buffalo, the players have spent this spring building off what they learned last season.
"This is my first time being in the same system in back-to-back years," said safety Jordan Poyer, who was the only NFL player in 2017 with 95 tackles, five interceptions and 2.0 sacks. "In Cleveland, I had different coaches about every year, so this is the first time and it's pretty smooth. Especially still having Micah [Hyde] here, Tre'Davious [White] here and Vontae [Davis] is catching on really fast. We didn't have this, this time last year."
One of the captains of the defense, Lorenzo Alexander sees a dramatic difference between this offseason compared to last year's.
"I was just telling our coach now that I feel light years ahead of where I was last year at this time," said Alexander. "I almost feel like I'm in midseason form as far as my eyes with recognition and now I can just worry about the scheme and everyone else's role and how I can make more plays."
Frazier understands how important it is to have a system already in place and already in the minds of many of his players. He also understands that every year there is still room to teach, including the newest players to the roster.
"This time of year, you get a chance to introduce some of the guys to some of the basics that you want to be able to get accomplished during the season that will hopefully carry over," said Frazier. "It's an important time for us. We're not going to do a whole lot of things that will take us to the team that we're going to be facing the first week of the season, but we're really laying the foundation fundamentally, teaching guys how we practice, how we do things right now, so to have a second year with the guys that we do have, it's big. It's big for all of us. You also have to bring along the new guys as well."
There are several additions to the roster this season in veterans like defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, defensive end Trent Murphy and cornerback Vontae Davis, as well as rookies such as defensive tackle Harrison Phillips, cornerback Taron Johnson and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. Having gone through learning the system fresh a year ago, Poyer thinks the newest Bills are catching on quickly.
"This system isn't easy to learn," said Poyer. "I'm still learning it every single day, and I know some days those guys heads are spinning, but they're coming along really well. Everybody in that room has bought into the process, has bought into the way we go about our business here."
Second year linebacker Matt Milano echoed some of Poyer's thoughts. Milano had to earn his way onto the field last year, but is now entering his sophomore season as a possible starter opposite of Alexander. He said that nothing is definite and that he still feels like he needs to earn his spot, but being this is his second year, things feel better.
"I kind of got my feet under me a little bit right now," said Milano. "You know, I have a really clear understanding of the defense and what exactly they want me to do. Last year, I was still learning it as the season went along, but that was my biggest thing this year, having that one year under my belt."
The Bills finished last season ranked 18th in points allowed per game (22.4) and 26th in overall defense (355.1 yards per game). But the Bills tied for sixth in the NFL in interceptions (18) and tied for eighth in the league in forced fumbles (16). The Bills finished the season with the seventh-best turnover differential (plus-nine) and the ninth-most takeaways (25).
Alexander believes 2018 can be a special year for the Bills defense.
"You bring in guys like Star, Tenny, Trent," said Alexander. "You add a guy like Harrison to that front and obviously Kyle coming back and you bring in a guy like Tremaine… and I think having that first year under our belt is going to help us. Just having that mentality knowing that we know we're good already and playing like that and sustaining that for the entire season."