Inside why Sean McDermott is more connected to his team than ever before as he steps in as Bills DC

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If you're looking for an illustration as to how the Bills defense will operate under Sean McDermott in 2023, there's a story that former NFL All-Pro LB Luke Kuechly thinks will help paint an accurate picture.

Late in the 2013 NFL season, McDermott — the defensive coordinator at the time with the Carolina Panthers — was faced with a big challenge in, possibly the most significant matchup of the season to that point.

It's the week before Christmas and only two games remain on the NFL calendar. The Panthers are tied for first in the division (10-4) with the Saints (10-4). Two weeks prior, Carolina traveled to the Superdome in New Orleans and lost 31-13. This week, the Panthers have the a rematch at home with the winner gaining set to gain a massive edge in the NFC South race and potentially a first-round playoff bye.

With such an important matchup looming, McDermott, coaching whose Panthers defense that allowed the second-fewest points in the league that year, wanted to make sure everyone on the defense believed in the game plan for the rematch.

"He really valued all of our opinions during the week and I think that helped craft his game plan," recalled Kuechly, the eventual 2013 Defensive Player of the Year. "He valued what we had to say, and he called it in the game."

The resounding message that McDermott heard from his players was that they needed to simplify things and get back to being aggressive. So, McDermott sided with his defensive leaders and crafted the scheme around that idea.

"We had a very limited number of calls on the game plan that week," Kuechly said.

"It was basically just a line up, play fast."

BUILDING THE FOUNDATION

During the NFL Owners meeting this offseason, Bills head coach Sean McDermott announced that he would step into the role as defensive coordinator for 2023 and call plays for a Buffalo defense that ranked 2nd second in points allowed on a per game basis last year (17.9).

McDermott last called defensive plays with the Panthers 2011-2016, guiding them to multiple top 10 finishes in overall defense.

"It''s how he got the job here (in Buffalo). He was such a good play caller for us in Carolina and was a big part of our success," Bills GM Brandon Beane said.

Though McDermott will act as both head coach and defensive coordinator this year, the decision was far from cut and dry. McDermott, Beane and the rest of Buffalo's coaching staff had to all feel comfortable with the process.

Not only would McDermott's day-to-day responsibilities change, but so would other coaches' on staff.

"I think that the key here is I've got a really good staff around me that will allow me to," McDermott said. "Even going back to the decision, it allowed me to even think that that was possible. It was because of the staff that I have around me. If you don't have that type of staff, then it could go in a lot of different directions."

Throughout the offseason and training camp, numerous coaches have stepped up. The team promoted defensive line coach Eric Washington to assistant head coach, while retaining his role as D-line coach. When McDermott had to attend a family matter one day during training camp this summer, Washington conducted the day's practice.

"I've seen Sean do just about everything, but the only thing I haven't seen him do is be the head coach and oversee the defense. But in terms of when he moves into that role, it's like just stepping back onto a bike, onto a role that he's very familiar with," Washington said.

The way the staff complements each other, McDermott explains, is in the way they communicate with one another, particularly when breaking down practice film from the day and assessing specific areas where the team needs to improve.

"It's more putting things in place from when I'm not around that I can still have that level of communication. So, for example, if I go sit in with the offense to watch after practice this morning, I'm not hearing the communication of what went well, what didn't go well through the course of the film with the defensive staff," McDermott shared. "So just making sure that when I'm watching it through a defensive lens, then the (defensive coaches) saw it like I saw it in terms of what needs to improve."

That flexibility allows McDermott to rotate between spending the right amount of time with both the offense and defense on any particular day.

But one of the most important aspects of McDermott's new role — one that is evident as the Bills prepare to begin the 2023 season in primetime — is that Buffalo's head coach is more connected with his players and coaches than ever before.

"The byproduct is getting closer and building closer relationships with the players and with the coaches," McDermott said.

When he says he puts on his head coaching hat and his DC hat, there’s a difference — you can actually see it DT Jordan Phillips

BUILDING THE RELATIONSHIPS

Coaching is about more than just about X's and O's for McDermott. Setting the right culture and standard is paramount; and he establishes it by building relationships.

The night before training camp began at St. John Fisher University in July, the Bills had a team meeting where McDermott expressed his eagerness and hunger to get to work for the 2023 season. Players could feel McDermott's competitive energy flowing even before Buffalo stepped foot on the field for their first training camp practice.

As DC, McDermott now leads the defense-only meetings and made it apparent he wanted them to set the tone for camp early on.

"It's a different dynamic for sure. Because Sean's attention to detail, not saying it wasn't like that before, but it's just on another level," defensive tackle Jordan Phillips said. "Guys like it, I like it. When he says he puts on his head coaching hat and his DC hat, there's a difference — you can actually see it, it's not just lip service when he says that — so it's cool to see."

Separating how he approaches wearing the hat of head coach and the hat of defensive coordinator is an intentional artform for McDermott. When he was strictly just the head coach in previous years, McDermott's role in defensive meetings was more limited.

Now that he's leaving his imprint on that room on a daily basis, McDermott speaks to players such as Phillips only through the eyes of a defensive coach.

"I don't want the head coach to in some ways pollute the environment. Because that can happen from time to time," he explained.

"When I'm in there, I'm the defensive coordinator, not the head coach."

As a result, defensive players get to see a more animated version of McDermott, a personality that exudes passion and intensity about doing your job to the best of your ability.

"It's a little more colorful when he's in the defensive room," Phillips laughed.

While the Bills' D returns much of their core from last year's group, there are's several new pieces to the puzzle in 2023, including safety Taylor Rapp, edge rusher Leonard Floyd and defensive tackle Poona Ford.

One of the keys to getting the buy-in from every single guy on the roster is by encouraging players to be themselves and care for the guy next to them. It's not just about the coach-player relationship but also the relationships players have with each other.

"There's nobody that I trust more than the guys I'm playing with in this building. And with Sean, he's the gatekeeper of that," said veteran safety and 2023 team captain Micah Hyde. "The relationships that we've been able to build up over the last couple of years — I think that's why this team has been so successful."

Throughout his coaching career, from the days in Philadelphia to Carolina, to now taking over as the head coach for the Bills, Sean McDermott has always trusted his veteran leaders. 2023 marks Year 7 with the safety tandem of Hyde and Jordan Poyer — which is the heartbeat of the Buffalo defense in many ways.

McDermott, Poyer and Hyde all arrived on the scene in Buffalo the same year. While McDermott hasn't been calling the defensive plays until this year, there's no doubt his influence has been felt. Buffalo has ranked top 5 five in the NFL in points allowed in three of the last four years.

"All three of us I feel like have this lifelong tie together," Hyde said. "We were able to come in here and build this thing from the ground up."

You can tell (Sean) wants to be aggressive Safety Micah Hyde

BUILDING THE '23 DEFENSE

If there's one word that keeps getting repeated about what to expect from the Bills defense this year, it's this: aggressive.

"You can tell he wants to be aggressive," Hyde said one day after practice.

"Aggressive is a good word," added Poyer. "That's how he's always been."

Players explained this summer that the playbook itself won't change as much as the philosophy and overall approach to how certain calls are made in a game.

"Sometimes situational football, calls may be different from the past and we're trying to get a clue on what we might be doing," Poyer detailed during training camp.

NFL Network insider Tom Peliserro took in a day of Bills training camp the week before the first preseason game. He observed exactly what Hyde and Poyer mentioned.

"Sean's always had some level of his fingerprints on this defense. But just in terms of how he calls the game, yeah I think he's going to err on the aggressive side," Pelissero said on One Bills Live.

Now that won't mean all out blitzes on every play, but more so a tendency to find new ways to attack the opposing offense.

"Just in terms of the exotics and blitz packages. That's really what the foundation of Sean McDermott as a play caller has been," Pelissero shared.

Fast forward to the Wednesday after Labor Day and the Bills are starting the first day of Week 1 practice leading up to MNF. The Bills now have all 11 starters finalized on defense as McDermott named the team's starting middle linebacker (Terrel Bernard) and second cornerback (Christian Benford).

With all the pieces in place, NFL analysts remain confident in Buffalo's defense even with a coordinator change.

"I'll trust the infrastructure here," The Ringer's Sheil Kapadia wrote in his ranking of top NFL defenses. "In the past five years, the Bills have finished in the top eight in defensive DVOA four times and have never been lower than 12th. This should once again be a strong defense."

Pro Football Focus echoed that sentiment and believes Buffalo is positioned to field a top five unit.

"If they can have a healthier season on the back end in 2023, the unit could be dramatically improved even without significant changes to personnel," wrote PFF lead NFL analyst Sam Monson.

From his years playing safety at William & Mary to his tenure coaching in the NFL, take a look at Bills head coach Sean McDermott through the years.

That December afternoon in Carolina, three days before Christmas in 2013, McDermott's defense had their way with the Saints. The Panthers sacked Pro Bowl QB Drew Brees six times and intercepted him twice. New Orleans had their lowest scoring output of the season as the Panthers won 17-13 en route to an NFC South crown a week later.

Kuechly learned that day that McDermott is willing to do whatever it takes in any given week to craft the best defensive game plan.

"I think that Sean's competitive attitude is one of his biggest attributes," the former All-Pro LB said. "He is going to do everything he can to be really good at what he does. He is so driven. He's gonna find a way to do a really good job."

It may have been a few seasons since McDermott put on the hat of defensive coordinator, but Kuechly has a feeling it's going to lift the Bills to new heights.

"I think he's got a really good feel for in-game situations and then just being a defensive play caller again," Kuechly said. "I don't think you forget how to do that."

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