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Opponent Scout: Von Miller has elevated the ceiling of the Bills’ defense

Buffalo already had a solid, deep defensive line. Now it has a difference-making edge rusher.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Buffalo Bills Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

In our weekly Opponent Scout series, I break down the Kansas City Chiefs’ upcoming opponent by examining their strengths, weaknesses and tendencies — and how those things affect the matchup.

In Week 6, the Chiefs are hosting the Buffalo Bills in a rematch of last year’s all-time classic: the 42-36 overtime shootout in the AFC Divisional round.

Here’s what to know about this year’s Bills.


Overview

This is the sixth season that the Bills have been led by head coach Sean McDermott — and the fourth season with quarterback Josh Allen as their full-time starter. The Bills are 4-1, leading the league in point differential (91) by nearly 60 points.

Only the Chiefs have scored more points than the Bills this season, but Buffalo does lead in yards per play. The team is first in net yards per attempt, while also being top 10 in rushing yards per attempt. It leads the NFL in third-down conversion rate (56%) but hasn’t been as efficient in the red zone. Buffalo ranks 7th in Offensive DVOA.

The Bills have allowed the league’s fewest points and the second-fewest yards per play. They have forced a league-high 11 turnovers and have also allowed the third-lowest rate of yards per rush attempt. They are the second-best unit in Defensive DVOA.

Offense

In his own article, Arrowhead Pride film analyst Nate Christiansen took a deeper dive into the Bills’ offense — and how the Chiefs’ defense needs to react.

Defense

Whether it’s through statistics or the eye test, the Buffalo defense has long been one of the NFL’s best. Up front, it relies on a quality rotation of defensive linemen who generally rush four at a time; it rarely blitzes from the second level — especially against the Chiefs. But that solid group of down linemen now has a top-tier edge rusher, too.

Future Hall of Fame inductee Von Miller joined the Bills in the offseason. So far, he’s collected four sacks while raising the ceiling of Buffalo’s effectiveness on passing downs. It has also helped raise the performance of the edge rusher that starts opposite him: second-year player Gregory Rousseau, who has already matched his 2021 sack total (4).

Behind them, they’ll have quality ends like A.J. Epenesa and Boogie Basham; those two have combined for 3.5 sacks and four other quarterback hits.

Behind them, linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano will play every snap; the Bills tend to live in their Nickel personnel, in which those two are tasked with patrolling the middle of the field.

In last year’s AFC Divisional round, Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce was able to get open at the second level — whether it was against zone or man coverage. He totaled 96 yards on eight catches. His feel for open space (and Mahomes’ ability to not give away throws with his eyes) can make it very hard for these linebackers to keep track of Kelce in zone.

Historically, Buffalo has primarily played zone. This season, the defense has been in zone for 85% of its snaps — the league’s third-highest rate. Toward the end of the last matchup with Kansas City, however, it appeared to be trusting man coverage more often.

Seeing how well the Chiefs’ offense performed down the stretch of this contest, the Bills may now look at that as a mistake. Still, it is worth noting — especially since this year, every other team has trusted man coverage against Kansas City much more often.

But there is a reason the Bills may hesitate to stray from their normal strategy: injuries. Starting safety Micah Hyde is on injured reserve, while their other stud safety Jordan Poyer has been limited in practice this week with a rib injury; he missed last week’s game.

Star cornerback Tre’Davious White still hasn’t played this year — and won’t on Sunday. One of their Week 1 starters was rookie Christian Benford, but he had hand surgery prior to missing last week’s game — and has been limited in practice. First-round selection Kaiir Elam has had to step up, but he is still a rookie himself. In short, the outside cornerbacks have dealt with a lot of cycling in and out.

That may force Buffalo to stick to what their players are most comfortable in: the two-high shells with zone coverage — whether it’s Cover 2 or quarters deep. But man coverage can also be pretty simple — and something that I believed Elam could do when he was a prospect coming out of the University of Florida last spring. If Buffalo wants its players to play aggressively and fast, this could be the changeup Kansas City will have to face.

The bottom line

The Bills’ defense has been as statistically dominant as ever, suffocating opposing offenses with its disciplined pass coverage and playmakers at every level. In the past, the front may have not had that difference-making player — but in 2022, Von Miller is certainly filling that role.

His impact on the game makes everything easier for the players behind him, who were already good. Neutralizing Miller’s impact will be the key for the Chiefs’ offense to be as successful as they need to be.

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