Why the Bills 2019 defense ranks among the best in franchise history

Defense celebrates another interception - Buffalo Bills vs Pittsburgh Steelers, December 15, 2019 at Heinz Field.  
Photo by Bill Wippert
Defense celebrates another interception - Buffalo Bills vs Pittsburgh Steelers, December 15, 2019 at Heinz Field. Photo by Bill Wippert

There have been some really strong defensive units in Bills franchise history. The mid-60's defensive units that helped propel the Bills to back-to-back AFL titles. The physical early 80's units under head coach Chuck Knox. The '88 defense that lifted Buffalo to their first division title in nine years. The '99 defense that topped the league and the 2004 defense that came within a win of the postseason.

The Bills 2019 defense belongs in that same generational category. Leslie Frazier's unit was the first since the 2004 squad to finish in the top 10 in total defense, run defense, pass defense and scoring defense.

This past season, Buffalo's 'D' ranked third in the NFL overall, 10th against the run, fourth against the pass and second in points allowed. They also had top 10 rankings in first downs allowed, (6th), third down defense (7th), total takeaways (9th) and sacks (10th).

To find top 10 rankings in that many categories you have to go back to Buffalo's number one defense in '99.

Table inside Article
Where Bills rank in 2019 NFL defensive rankings Numbers
No. 2 in points allowed 16.2 ppg
No. 3 in total defense 298.3 yds/gm
No. 4 in pass defense 195.2 yds/gm
No. 6 in first downs allowed 262
No. 7 in third down defense 35.8%
No. 10 in run defense 103.1 yds/gm
No. 10 in sacks 44

With head coach Sean McDermott's mantra of 'doing your one-eleventh' and Frazier's clever game planning, Buffalo's defense often had their opponents stifled. Only one opponent (Philadelphia) scored 25 points or more and just four managed more than 20.

They embraced the concept of true team defense knowing they were an 11-man unit of very solid talent, rather than a defense that had two or three elite playmakers.

"We talked a lot about doing the things that we do and just really living up to our standard as a defense," said Frazier. "That was the approach throughout each week. Just don't feel like you've got to do anything extraordinary. Just do the ordinary things very, very well. We felt like if we could just stay in that frame of mind, good things would happen."

"There's no guy on our defense that just stands out," said Tre'Davious White, the lone Pro Bowl representative for the unit. "Anybody on any given Sunday can make a big time play and it just shows by the way we go out there and play each and every game. Our coaches do a great job challenging us each and every weekend. We do a great job of responding and taking the coaching and preparing well and believing and playing your one-eleventh and doing a job where we play together and as a group. We're better that way anyway."

Though it's the second straight season Buffalo's defense is a top three unit overall (2nd in 2018) and top five against the pass (1st in 2018), last year's defense couldn't put it all together when it came to run defense (16th) and points allowed (18th).

This year's Bills defense was able to improve dramatically in those areas even though their team's total offense was marginally better than the year before.

The players attribute it to a complete dedication to the offseason process beginning with OTA practices in May and carrying that commitment all the way through the regular season.

"I just saw a lot of guys who wanted to play ball," said Tremaine Edmunds, the team's leading tackler. "A lot of hungry guys out there determined to get to the ball and make a play. When you have guys out there like that it's hard to beat us."

Though the unit did not lose many players to injury, in the times they were down a player or two, their depth came through for them. Whether it was a combination of Kevin Johnson, Dean Marlowe and Siran Neal filling in for an injured Taron Johnson, Kurt Coleman stepping in for Jordan Poyer, Maurice Alexander filling in for Matt Milano or Corey Liuget and Ed Oliver helping to cover for the loss of Harrison Phillips, reserve players responded.

"That was the difference for us this year was the depth of this football team," said Micah Hyde. "In years past, I don't think we had this much depth. This year we did."

After their one subpar performance in the loss to Philadelphia in Week 8, Buffalo's coaches challenged their defenders to be more physical, particularly at the line of scrimmage. The result was a run defense that shaved more than 10 yards off their average allowed per game from 109.4 at midseason to 98 by season's end.

"We've got a great defense, but we were challenged by Philly and Washington on the ground," said Lawson. "The coaches wanted us to step up and play more physical. I feel like we did that. We started with our leader, Tremaine who was leading us great on defense. So that's what we did."

Among the other notable categories where Buffalo's defense ranked in the top 10 were total takeaways (9th), turnover differential (9th), forcing three and outs (4th), negative plays forced (2nd) and passes of 20 yards or more allowed (1st).

"That's what we're all about," said White. "We don't give up big plays. We're a top down defense. We've got a great group of guys up front who have been getting pressure on the quarterback all year and just making the secondary's job so much easier so those guys deserve the credit just as much as we do."

Both Jordan Phillips and Shaq Lawson put together career seasons as Phillips led the AFC in sacks by defensive tackles and tied Lawson for the team lead in tackles for loss. Lawson (18) and Phillips (16) also finished first and second in quarterback hits.

The lack of Pro Bowl recognition for the group did disappoint some, but Lawson sees the Pro Bowl as a popularity contest and that's not something Buffalo's defense expects to win.

"We're built different. We grind different. We don't have that standout star that everyone wants to praise," he said. "We're in Orchard Park. Small area. We're different man. We don't need all that. We've got the team we've got, and we all do our one-eleventh and we're great."

Praise and recognition for Buffalo's defense would be welcome of course, but the coaches and players know that will come only if they improve one key statistic next season.

"What's most important is that we play hard, play smart, play fast, every single Sunday that we're out there and do the things that are necessary to help our team to win," said Frazier. "I think our guys take a lot of pride in their work and what they're trying to get accomplished. The recognition will come as we continue to work as hard as we can to do things the right way. We really can't get caught up in public perception of what's out there. Just come to work every day, just work as hard as you can to get better and help our team win. That's what really matters."

In 2019, the Buffalo Bills celebrated their 60th season as a franchise by going 10-6 in the regular season and clinching the AFC's fifth seed. It is the second time in three seasons under Sean McDermott that the Bills have qualified for the playoffs, and was a great way to celebrate the 60th season of the Buffalo Bills and the 100th season of the NFL. Scroll through to view the top photos and moments from the season.

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