How a late season surge by Bills pass rush could be critical against Patriots' Mac Jones
ORCHARD PARK - Ed Oliver came up with the perfect description for how the Buffalo Bills chewed up and spit out New York Jets rookie quarterback Zach Wilson last Sunday afternoon at Highmark Stadium.
“Everybody eats,” the affable Oliver said after the Bills devoured Wilson as if he were the main course at Ruth’s Chris, taking him down nine times for 82 yards in losses, the two highest figures since Sean McDermott took over as coach in 2017.
“Everybody was just on it today,” Oliver continued. “It just seemed like everybody was flying around so that was a good sight to see, especially in a game like this with so much on the line.”
There will be much more on the line Saturday night when the Bills open the postseason by hosting the New England Patriots, and Oliver and company know that the play of Buffalo’s defensive line - which has been much better of late - needs to stay on a roll and get pressure on another rookie quarterback, Mac Jones.
The nine sacks were just one off the team record of 10 set in 2011 when the Bills treated Washington quarterback John Beck like a pinata in a 23-0 victory up in Toronto. And while the number is unusually high, and was also partly possible because the Jets were just so awful up front, the Bills’ pass rush has been heating up for weeks.
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On their way to four straight victories, according to Pro Football Focus, the Bills have generated 96 QB pressures which include sacks, hurries and QB hits. There were 19 sacks and because of that spike, a pass rush that felt like it was lacking most of the season wound up finishing with 42 sacks, tied for 11th in the NFL, while their sacks per play percentage of 7.34% was sixth best.
“I’ll just say I think you’re seeing the younger guys grow through the course of the season, and understanding with better clarity of what’s expected and how we want to do things and make the system theirs, basically,” McDermott said.
Rotating and keeping the defensive linemen fresh has always been a priority for McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, and that’s also a reason why the Bills never have anyone high on the NFL’s sack charts. Oliver (53.7%) and Jerry Hughes (51.8%) were the only linemen to play at least half of the defensive snaps this season.
By comparison, Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt tied the NFL single-season sack record with 22.5 while playing 63.7% of the time. However, had he not missed two full games and part of a third with an injury, his snap percentage (and probably sack number) would be much higher.
In Chicago, Robert Quinn had 18.5 sacks while playing 71.5% of the time, Cleveland’s Myle Garrett made 16 sacks playing 78.0% of the snaps, and Rams superstar Aaron Donald played 89.5% of the snaps to get 12.5 sacks. For Buffalo, Mario Addison led the team with seven sacks, doing it on just 44.7% of the snaps.
Frazier credited the defensive line coaches, Eric Washington and Jacques Cesaire, with doing, “A terrific job in really bringing our defensive line along. Early in the season, we were going through our rotation, trying to figure things out and just to make sure that we were playing our best football in late December, early January with our defensive line.
“To get that many sacks in the final game of the season just speaks to how well Eric and Jacques did of keeping our guys fresh and having a rotation where we’re not wearing guys out, where they can’t help us throughout the ballgame.”
For the season, the defensive line finished with 30.5 sacks led by Addison (7), Greg Rousseau (4), Oliver (4) and Efe Obada (3.5). Oliver, in particular, has been excellent from the inside because not only did he get home four times, the pocket push he and Harrison Phillips have been getting late in the year has helped the edge rushers and blitzers like Matt Milano, Taron Johnson and Jordan Poyer to get sacks.
And now, because of their rotation, the Bills bring a relatively fresh line into Saturday’s game which is important because the Patriots have one of the best offensive lines in the league. Jones’ sack per pass attempt rate was just 4.97%, eighth-best in the NFL.
“They’re outstanding,” McDermott said of the Patriots group that starts, from left to right, Isaiah Wynn, Ted Karras, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, and Trent Brown. “They’re well coached, they play well together which is key for an offensive line. They’re tough in the running game, they protect the quarterback … so they do a really good job.”
One key thing to watch: Wynn got hurt in Miami and could not finish the game. His status this week is up in the air, but even without him, the Patriots could flip Brown to the left side and plug in Michael Onwenu at right tackle and not miss a beat.
One reason Jones has had a fine first season is that his line has protected him. He has been pressured on just 27.6% of his 566 dropbacks according to PFF. By comparison, Josh Allen was pressured 34.0% of his 724 dropbacks.
We’ll throw out the first game these teams played because Jones threw only three passes. But in Buffalo’s 33-21 victory on Dec. 26, the Bills pressured Jones on 30.6% of his dropbacks and he went 2 of 10 for 41 yards with a sack and an interception.
How the Bills fare up front could very well determine who wins the game.
“I think throughout the year we’ve been an aggressive defense,” Frazier said. “We hit a bump in the road along the way where we maybe didn’t have the production that we would have liked, but I think that’s always been there. It’s just coming to the forefront a little bit more as the season has gone on. Our guys have always wanted to be an in your face, let’s get this done style defense.”
Sal Maiorana can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.