You wouldn’t know it from their record, which sits at a putrid 2-6. You wouldn’t know it from their points allowed total, which is well below average. And you certainly wouldn’t know it from household names, of which they have none.
But the Buffalo Bills have one of the better defensive units in football, and they’re going to remain near the top for a long time. They have underrated talent, both young and veteran, at all levels of the field and they’re a very well coached group to boot.
However, that doesn’t mean it’s invincible. There are some soft spots of which teams can take advantage. And that’s just what the Chicago Bears are looking to do on Sunday in Buffalo. Here is a complete scouting report on the Bills’ defense.
I’ll start with the Bills’ linebackers because that’s where their best player (on either side of the ball) resides. He plays the “Will” position (weak-side linebacker), and his name is Matt Milano. If you don’t know that name, it is totally understandable. Soon enough, though, everyone will know who he is and what he’s capable of.
While he’s undersized for a linebacker at 6 feet tall and 221 pounds, Milano plays much bigger than he is, first and foremost in his tackling – he’s as sure-handed as they come. What makes him special is the way he utilizes physicality and technique in coverage, while just avoiding the line of illegal contact. He has this down to a science and can cover any tight end in the league including, as we learned on Monday night, Gronk.
Milano’s best attributes, however, are speed and instincts, both downhill and sideline to sideline. Once he senses a hole in the run game, he will burst through it and make a play. Think about Milano as the Bills’ Akiem Hicks: he goes completely under the radar on a national level, but when you watch him play he’ll jump off the screen.
At the other linebacker spots, the Bills feature rookie Tremaine Edmunds (but he’s probably not playing due to a concussion. If he plays, read about him here.) on the inside and Lorenzo Alexander on the strong side. With Edmunds sidelined, backup Julian Stanford, a typical backup-caliber player, will step in. Alexander is in his 13th (!!!) season and still going strong as a hybrid off-ball backer/edge rusher. In one of their nickel sets, he’ll play the role of a stand-up outside linebacker and rush the passer, mainly on third down.
In zone coverage, the linebackers show their athleticism but they tend not to get enough depth, causing soft spots in between them and the safeties.
Alexander and defensive end Jerry Hughes make up Buffalo’s two best pass rushers. Hughes likes to work his outside rip move until the offensive tackle takes the bait and cheats outside, at which point he’ll counter it with a deadly spin move. Fellow starter Trent Murphy is also sidelined with an injury which means the Bills will have to rely on first-round disappointment Shaq Lawson (who can play Alexander’s role as the stand-up edge guy in a pinch) and/or backup Eddie Yarbrough as the end opposite Hughes.
There is nothing spectacular about their group of defensive tackles – the starters are Kyle Williams and Star Lotulelei with Jordan Phillips rotating frequently – but they have a few common traits. They are smart and experienced; they will snuff out “surprise” QB sneaks and stop them before they start. They won’t provide much of a pass rush threat inside but they can recognize blocks and they play the run game well.
Phillips has the most potential of the three and based on his recent play, the Bills have very high hopes for him and his massive frame.
In the secondary, there are three very good players to keep an eye on come Sunday. I’ll start with Tre’Davious White, the cornerback they took in the late first round in 2017. He has been their main counter to true #1 receivers of all types (size-oriented and speed-oriented alike). He has shown superb ball skills when he needs to use them.
The way White operates is playing off coverage most of the time and using good judgment on when to bite on the ball. He tends to be very careful not to be beaten off the line of scrimmage, though, because he doesn’t have the make-up speed to counter it.
The other two studs in this defensive backfield are the safeties, Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer. They are interchangeable due to skillset but you’ll see Hyde at a traditional free safety spot and Poyer at the strong safety position about 60-70 percent of the time. In their primary set, Hyde will play deep (and I mean deep) centerfield and Poyer will put himself in the box, almost at an outside linebacker hole. They like to disguise their coverages, with one safety starting to roll down towards the box and then hurrying back to center at the snap for example.
Both have outstanding ball skills but in different ways. Hyde is more likely to jump the route; Poyer is more likely to go up and get it. Poyer additionally is more than willing to help out in the run game.
Outside of those three, the secondary is average to below average, especially inside. Phillip Gaines will play outside corner opposite White, Taron Johnson plays in the slot and Rafael Bush is listed as a backup safety but he can play slot corner as well. All three do some things well but can be beaten in man by a good route runner.
The one drop in performance from this year to last year has been a sharp decline in turnover production. Either the secondary hasn’t had as many opportunities to take the ball away or they haven’t capitalized as much as they should. But the Bears would be wise to avoid giving them chances.
McDermott’s background stems from the Tampa 2 scheme, as he learned under Panthers coach Ron Rivera who learned under none other than our old friend Lovie Smith. That being said, this is far from a traditional Tampa 2 system. Think of it as a modified Tampa 2 that’s heavily bent towards personnel.
The most consistently Tampa 2-style aspect of this defense is how the linebackers are deployed in coverage, with two or three of them dropping back a few yards and playing a deeper version of a hook-curl zone.
Regarding the secondary, things become trickier. They will run traditional two-deep safety looks with all-zone underneath but as was mentioned earlier, that isn’t their most commons set. They love to run a single-high safety (usually Hyde) and a safety in the box (usually Poyer). They’ll do this against pass-happy formations occasionally, usually in a nickel package, but they’ll do it all the time against run-leaning ones.
The other variation is that White will often go “Lock” against a top receiver with the rest of the team playing a one-deep, two-deep, or even three-deep look. He can lock up from the outside or from the slot if that’s where the offensive personnel dictates him to be (this is when they’ll run the cover-three set). No matter which coverage they choose, they emphasize disguise. It’s very difficult to determine pre-snap what they plan on doing and it’s imperative that the Bears are aware and adjust accordingly.
Their base personnel package is a 4-3 but they’ll go nickel frequently. They have two different nickel sets, a 3-3-5 (DT exits, Alexander plays edge rusher role) and a 4-2-5 (Alexander exits), with the former being the most common.
Blitz package-wise, this is where they like to get funky if you will. McDermott loves to blitz and will come out with exotic rush schemes on a weekly basis. Their favorites are bringing a nickel back off the edge and bringing linebackers into the A and B gaps. The most Lovie-like thing they do is they “Sugar” their two off-ball linebackers, which means they’ll line them up in both A gaps and have the tackles in the B gaps. They can run so many blitzes and/or coverages out of this, including dropping a tackle into coverage and sending only three or sending the house.
But the biggest staple of this defense is the stunts. Stunts upon stunts upon stunts, particularly the Tackle-End maneuvers where the end slants hard into the B gap and the tackle loops around to the C gap. They use this as their primary method of generating a pass rush because they don’t have the personnel to do it consistently on their own. They want to get Hughes going inside and draw attention to him while they bring Alexander or Williams off the edge, and that’s generated a few big hits this year including one from Williams on Tom Brady.
They’ll also loop one tackle around the other occasionally. It’s always something with these Bills and it makes communication on the offensive line especially crucial this week. Which brings me to…
Kyle Long‘s injury will hurt the Bears this week more than it usually would because his first week out will come against a defense that loves stunts. This could be especially hard to deal with for Kush and Massie because as far as I can remember, they have never played next to each other yet (and if they have it’s been two years).
Dealing with T-E stunts requires constant communication; both players need to know and tell their linemate who’s taking who and which attacker is coming when. Those communications can take time to develop, and while neither Kush nor Massie is a bad player, neither have enough skill to make up for the bond that hasn’t completely formed between them. They need to be on the same page in order to protect Mitch Trubisky on Sunday.
When the Bills’ defense has been beaten this year, it’s often been in that medium area in between the linebackers and the safety that traditionally plagues Tampa 2 defenses. In-breaking routes like digs and skinny posts, especially from the slot, have killed them all season and it doesn’t help that other than Milano, their MOF defenders – Stanford, Johnson, Bush, Alexander – are their main personnel weaknesses this year (and even when Edmunds was healthy, he doesn’t have the instincts quite yet to be effective against athletic slot receivers and running backs).
This is where the Bears’ weapons come in. I expect Milano to have eyes on Burton or Cohen on almost every play but he can’t take both at once. An I have no doubt that Miller is going to win against Johnson or Bush one-on-one. Guys should be open over the middle 10-20 yards downfield on nearly every passing play and the Bears – specifically number 10 – have to take advantage.
Overall, this is one of the stronger defenses that the Bears have faced all year, and they’re only going to get better. I don’t believe in Josh Allen but I badly want him to succeed because this would be a fun team for years to come if he does.
However, the Bears are deeper at skill positions than the Bills are in the back seven, and given how little their offense will be on the field, that depth factor will come into play sooner or later. While I don’t expect a particularly high scoring output from Chicago, they should be able to put together multiple scoring drives in the fourth quarter and win the game by double digits.
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