The Buffalo Bills are spending a lot of money on their defensive line this year hoping that this group was going to lead the team into the playoffs. Thus far this season the defensive line’s play can best be graded as an incomplete as a mix of poor individual play, and opponents scheming, has limited the impact Mario Williams, Marcel Dareus, Kyle Williams, and Jerry Hughes can bring.
Right now these four men make up the bulk of the second highest positional grouping in the NFL. They only trail the St Louis Rams defensive line in cap percentage (30.88%), and total dollars spent $42,183,530.
Based off the dollars spent you would think the second most costly group of players in the NFL would have a lot more to show than a 21st ranked seven sacks, 37 hurries and a 30th DVOA ranked run defense per Football Outsiders through a quarter of the season.
This wasn’t suppose to be the script for the Bills as Ryan was suppose to bring his pressure based defense that would maximize the defensive line’s prowess for getting into the backfield and creating havoc.
It’s also not as if the Bills haven’t had opportunities to get to the quarterback. The Bills have faced the most pass attempts by any defense (192) vs the fifth fewest rushing attempts (80).
What’s happened is that opposing quarterbacks have been trying to get the ball out of their hands quickly, namely two second or less. Right now quarterbacks are only averaging 6.3 yards per pass attempt against the Bills (the fifth shortest in the NFL).
Beyond just the offense’s game plan to neutralize the “Cold Front” there has also missed opportunities when there have been longer drop backs.
Outside of the Miami game where Buffalo pressured Ryan Tannehill into a sack, 10 hits and another 18 hurries and the Indianapolis Colts (both wins), the line has looked just above average.
Currently Jerry Hughes & Mario Williams have accounted for two sacks, four hits and per Pro Football Focus their pressure rating is hovering just above a lowly five percent.
As for the push up the middle with Kyle Williams and Marcel Dareus, it seems that they have just been wearing down throughout the course of a game.
Kyle Williams in particular has seen the most passing snaps of any defensive tackle, with Dareus only sitting at sixth thanks to his one game suspension.
Due to the volume of pass attempts the pass rush productivity just hasn’t been there. The tackle duo are tied at the position for eighth in total hurries, but when you face that many quick throws it starts to effect a player both mentally and physically.
Mentally the line hasn’t been thinking much about opponent’s rushing attacks, and the Giants last week exposed that the Bills can be gashed in the fourth quarter.
Of the 28 ranked defensive ends Mario Williams sits 15th with a 5.6% run stop percentage, while Jerry Hughes sits near the bottom at 25th with a 2.9% stop percentage. For the tackles Kyle Williams has faced the 29th fewest run plays of all ranked defensive tackles with 58, but has the lowest stop percentage of those 36 at 1.7%.
The defensive line has been trained to pin their ears back, and because of that they are not playing with enough discipline and gap control at times. This has allowed running backs to hammer past the initial wave of defenders, and give quarterbacks clear passing lanes to receivers.
One way the Bills can start to make quarterbacks take longer drop backs, and simultaneously help in the run game, is for them to start in closer splits instead of the wider sets they have been using. This would allow better gap control as it plugs more of the middle of the field with bodies. The drawback is that it puts each player in a tighter area so there are less one on one opportunities in space.
Another adjustment that can be made is for the lineman to get their hands up in passing lanes. All it takes is a couple of tipped passes for incompletions, or even interceptions, before the quarterbacks take more traditional three and four step drop backs.
The Bills have seen the same game plan from offenses for three straight weeks and face a Tennessee team that heavily features a shorter controlled passing attack.
Signs of a possible breakthrough are there. Hughes & Mario are in the top ten at their position with a combined 19 hurries per Pro Football Focus, the weather will get worse and force teams into more run first offenses, but Rex Ryan and company will have to make a slight change in defensive play in order to adjust to opposing offenses, and maximize the effectiveness of this defensive line.