Were the Buffalo Bills really NFL's No. 1 defense? Here's how they graded.

Sal Maiorana
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

There is no doubt that the Buffalo Bills defense failed in the most miserable of ways in the final few minutes of the overtime loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

We can regurgitate the horror of the final 13 seconds in regulation, and the complete no-show during the Chiefs’ winning four-minute drive in overtime, but let’s not. Suffice it to say, it was a colossal failure which dampened what was otherwise a fine season for Leslie Frazier’s guys. 

How fine was it, though? The base numbers indicate the Bills’ defense was the best in the league as it was No. 1 in fewest points, total yards, passing yards, first downs, and third-down conversion rate. But it cannot be ignored how many lousy offensive teams and inadequate quarterbacks the Bills faced in 2021 which clearly helped lead to those lofty rankings.

In their 12 victories including the playoffs, the Bills allowed just 12.6 points per game. However, only the Chiefs (4th) and Patriots (7th) ranked in the top 18 in scoring, while seven teams ranked 19th or worst including the Falcons (26th), Jets (28th), Panthers (29th) and Texans (30th).

In their seven losses, it was a different story. Five teams (Buccaneers, Chiefs, Patriots, Colts and Titans) finished 14th or better in scoring and in the losses, the average point yield was 28.0 points per game.

The Bills owned the likes of Zach Wilson, Mac Jones, Taylor Heinicke, Davis Mills, Tua Tagovailoa, Jacoby Brissett, Mike White, Trevor Siemian and Cam Newton. Not so much against Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes, and even to a degree Ryan Tannehill and Ben Roethlisberger.

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“I don’t control perception and neither do (the players),” coach Sean McDermott said when he was asked about whether the defense was really as good as the rankings indicated. “I think the important piece is to see the season that they had and the contributions that they made to helping us get to where we got to. 

“They were very consistent, if you track it all season long from the start of the season through up until the end, until that last game. We didn’t play well enough defensively in the last game. So all of that falls on me, and that’s an area we have to assess with a very critical eye in our offseason as we move forward trying to improve as a team.”

Here are my grades for the defense:

Defensive line: B

Ed Oliver, here sacking Jets QB Zach Wilson, had a breakout season in 2021.

The most noteworthy players up front were DTs Ed Oliver and Harrison Phillips who each enjoyed career years. Oliver finally lived up to his No. 9 overall draft status from 2019 as he led all linemen in snaps played, tackles for loss (10) and QB hits (14) which included four sacks. He was the penetrating nuisance the Bills have been waiting on. 

Phillips emerged when Stat Lotulelei began missing time because of injuries and COVID-19 and throughout the second half, he was a rock on the inside and led all linemen with 51 tackles. Otherwise, on the inside, Lotulelei and Vernon Butler were largely invisible (though Lotulelei did get three sacks).

On the edge, Mario Addison led the team with seven sacks, and Jerry Hughes led in pressures with 45, but once again, neither was a player that opposing defenses had to scheme against, and it’s likely that both have played their last downs for Buffalo.

The two rookies, Greg Rousseau and Boogie Basham, were nothing special, especially Basham who struggled for half the season to even get active on game day. Rousseau had his moments, but he did not provide the type of edge rush the Bills were hoping for with four sacks and 30 pressures.

Most disappointing was probably 2020 second-round pick A.J. Epenesa who had nine pressures in the first game against Miami, and then 13 the rest of the season. Next year might be a make or break one for Epenesa who needs to become more a force.

There’s a lot of draft capital and salary cap tied into this group, and though pass rush was better late in the year, there wasn’t nearly enough bang for the buck. And with six pending free agents, this unit might look vastly different in 2022, and maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Linebackers: B+

Bills linebacker Matt Milano celebrates after a defensive stop.

We’re really only talking about two players here, Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds who played 85% and 79% of the snaps, respectively, numbers that would have been higher if they hadn’t missed three games combined due to injury.

Edmunds led the team with 108 tackles but as usual, not many were overly impactful as only seven resulted in lost yardage. Milano was third with 86 tackles, 15 for lost yardage including three sacks, though he did lead the team with 12 missed tackles (Edmunds had nine).

In pass coverage, they continue to be players who can cover plenty of ground and shrink passing lanes, but Milano is the better of the two. Although the lasting thought we’ll have of Milano is getting beat by Travis Kelce for the game-winning TD in Kansas City, he allowed a catch percentage of just 61.0 which was the best among all LBs in the league. By comparison, Edmunds ranked 31st at 81.3%.

A.J. Klein saw action on 25.7% of snaps, most of it coming when either Milano or Edmunds was out, and he played in the few instances when the Bills had three LBs on the field. Tyrel Dodson and Tyler Matakevich barely saw the field on defense, logging their time on special teams.

Secondary: A

Bills safety Micah Hyde intercepts a pass against Washington.

Again, the abundance of bad quarterbacks and offenses played a role, but nonetheless the Bills were a tough team to pass against and here’s some evidence to that point. Every Buffalo victory was by 12 points or more, meaning there was a lot of garbage time being played in fourth quarters where teams just threw the ball, and still, the Bills gave up just 163 yards per game.

Tre’Davious White was having another excellent season before blowing out his knee on Thanksgiving, but Dane Jackson stepped in and, for the most part, minimized the loss of White. Same goes for Levi Wallace who stepped up and had the best season of his career, even though he led the defense with seven penalties. Jackson’s catch percentage was an impressive 55.9%, Wallace’s was 58.0%.

In the slot, Taron Johnson continued to ascend as one of the best in the league at that position. His rate of 13.6 snaps per reception allowed was third-best among nickel corners, his catch percentage was an outstanding 54.4%, and he once again was a menace in run support, one of the surest tacklers on the team.

At safety, both Jordan Poyer (first team) and Micah Hyde (second) earned All-Pro recognition which is much more meaningful than the Pro Bowl which snubbed each. They tied for the team lead with five interceptions, Poyer was second on the team with 91 tackles and Hyde was fifth with 74. Their play will remain critical to the total operation on defense.

Once again, with the exception of losing White, the Bills had great luck with injuries and weren’t forced to dip into their questionable depth in the secondary as Jaquan Johnson, Siran Neal, Damar Hamlin and Cam Lewis barely combined for 300 defensive snaps.

Punting/kick coverage: B-

Matt Haack had a rough first season as the Bills punter.

It’s possible that Matt Haack might be a one-and-done for the Bills. Yes, he proved to be an excellent holder on placekicks, but that can’t offset the wildly inconsistent season he had punting the ball. 

His net average of 38.4 yards ranked 27th in the league, his average hang time of 4.06 seconds was 29th, and he was 23rd in punts inside the 20 (18 out of his 52). The only thing he did pretty well is prevent returns (only 17, and the coverage unit was excellent as it limited those 17 to 5.6 yards, second-best in the league.

The kickoff coverage unit was also outstanding as it allowed just 18.0 yards per return, third-best in the league with a long of just 33 yards led by the core group of Matakevich (13 special teams tackles), Neal (12) and Andre Smith (10), plus key contributions from Reggie Gilliam, Taiwan Jones, Jake Kumerow, Hamlin and Johnson.

Sal Maiorana can be reached at maiorana@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.