Despite so much change, Bills defense appears ahead of schedule

Even Sean McDermott wonders if things came along quicker than he thought they would

Sal Capaccio
October 06, 2017 - 11:48 am

Photo: Bob Donnan - USA TODAY Sports


New York Jets - 12
Carolina Panthers - 9
Denver Broncos - 16
Atlanta Falcons - 17
Cincinnati Bengals - ??

When the Buffalo Bills take the field Sunday in Cincinnati, they’ll be looking to do something they haven’t done in fourteen years - hold their opponent to 17 points or less for a fifth straight game.

Most analysts and observers felt the team’s defense would be improved in 2017 under new head coach Sean McDermott. It wouldn’t take much to at least be better from the disastrous last two seasons when communication breakdowns were happening on a weekly basis, tackling ranged from atrocious to invisible, and several players were more suited for a 4-3 and not the 3-4 hybrid Rex Ryan brought with him.

While defensive coordinator in Carolina, McDermott’s defenses ranked in the top ten in the NFL in yards allowed in four of the past five years. They ranked in the top-six in points allowed in two of the past four seasons, and top-ten in takeaways in each of the past four years. His system is such better suited for the players the Bills have.

But a lot of those players changed. So did the entire coaching staff. And success usually takes time after so much turnover. No one could have really expected this Bills defense to jump right out of the gate and replicate the type of success the Panthers had for the majority of McDermott’s tenure, right? Could McDermott himself even have anticipated that?

“That’s a good question,” he admitted Friday. “Give credit to the coaches. They do a phenomenal job with outlining the key parts of the system, and so we were able to get those installed early. That said, there’s still room for growth in those areas, and then once you get those areas it’s kind of the boulders, the rocks, and the pebbles. We’ve got to start moving and evolving. As was asked earlier about the offense, we have to evolve on defense and special teams, as well.”

Looking back, getting defenders to know the scheme and gel might have come along even quicker than most realize. Going all the way back to the preseason, the Bills haven’t allowed an opponent to score more than 20 points. The Vikings, Eagles, Ravens, and Lions scored 17, 20, 13, and 17 points, respectively, in exhibition games against the Bills. I’ll be the first to tell you don’t read anything into the preseason. But it looks like that was a clue that this defense was getting what the coaches wanted early-on and a glimpse into what they might do when the real games started.

It’s not just the points allowed through the first five games that stands out about the defense. Here are their rankings in some key categories headed into this weekend’s game at the Bengals:

  • Yards allowed/game - 8th
  • Yards allowed/play - 5th
  • Rushing yards allowed/game - 13th
  • Rushing yards allowed/play - 12th
  • Passing yards allowed/game - 11th
  • Passing yards allowed/play - 4th
  • Red zone defense - 3rd

And the big one that matters most. Points allowed. The Bills are tops on the NFL through the first quarter of the season, allowing only 13.5 points per game, a full 1.3 points per-game fewer than the next best team, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

McDermott likes the way they’ve come along, whether he expected it this quickly or not. But don’t expect him or the rest of the staff to settle for where this unit is, or think they can’t get even better.

“I’m encouraged by the early progress, and optimistic," he said. "That said, day-to-day. Improvement.”

If they improve even more from where they already are, the Bills have an excellent chance to go into their bye week at 4-1.

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