Just four days after facing the league’s best defense, the Cowboys now have to face the league’s third-best defense in the Buffalo Bills. At least this one will be at home and in good weather. But that doesn’t mean the challenge will be any less difficult.
Buffalo boasts a really tough defense, led by head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. The two have had an immediate impact on the defense from the moment they arrived, installing a 4-3 defensive scheme that’s similar in a lot of ways to what Dallas runs, at least in the front seven, and the Bills defense ranks third in total yards, passing yards, and points allowed while ranking ninth in DVOA.
Like the Cowboys, the Bills employ an aggressive one-gap technique for their defensive line that prioritizes getting upfield and into the quarterback’s face to create pressure. This has resulted in 33 sacks for the defense so far, good for seventh most in the NFL, and with 24 of those coming from the defensive line. Their sack leader is Jordan Phillips, a 340+ pound defensive tackle that’s overpowered offensive linemen with ease this year for a breakout campaign with seven sacks. Behind him is Shaq Lawson, the Bills’ premier edge rusher, whose five sacks this year are already a career best.
Buffalo also generates pressure from their linebackers and defensive backs, though this is not due to a heavy blitz scheme. In fact, McDermott’s defense rarely blitzes at all; instead, they’re just skilled at disguising their blitzes and timing them well to catch defenses off guard. Much like the Vikings, the Bills show a lot of double A-gap blitzes before the snap and then bail out into coverage, which often confuses offensive linemen.
When the Bills do send a blitz, which they’re only doing about a quarter of the time in 2019, there are four usual suspects: their three linebackers (Matt Milano, Tremaine Edmunds, and Lorenzo Alexander) and safety Jordan Poyer. Together, these four make up for over 75% of the team’s blitzes, and they’ve combined for 27 pressures, eight hurries, and six sacks.
On the back end, the Bills are a little more complicated. Both McDermott and Frazier are former defensive backs themselves, so coverage is their forte. Buffalo tends to play a heavy amount of zone defense and McDermott’s unit employs every type of zone coverage with regularity.
More than that, Buffalo does a great job of disguising their coverages. For example, they’ll show a two-high safety look with Poyer and Micah Hyde before dropping Poyer down into shallow zone or robber coverage duties, making it a single-high safety look and having his outside corners bail into deep thirds coverage. Sometimes these rotations occur prior to the snap and other times they occur right at the snap, but the frequency of changes from their initial look makes it harder for quarterbacks to diagnose the coverage, and with their aforementioned pass rush bearing down on the quarterback it further complicates things.
But if this defense has an Achilles heel, it’s the run defense. Buffalo ranks 14th in rushing yards allowed, 20th in rushing yards per attempt, 24th in rushing touchdowns allowed, and 26th in run defense DVOA. Like the Cowboys, opposing offenses have exploited their aggressive defensive line to create easy holes in the ground game. The difference for Buffalo has been that their secondary is good enough to hold up in pass coverage, whereas the Cowboys have fallen apart at inopportune times.
Still, this weakness has cost the Bills two games where their opponents ran free and were able to put up points. Their only other loss was to the Patriots in a game where quarterback Josh Allen was knocked out with a concussion. But it’s become clear that the blueprint to beating this team is running the ball effectively and getting touchdowns instead of field goals, as the Bills offense isn’t good enough yet to win a shootout.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because it is: the Cowboys faced a similar defense just a few days ago in New England. The issue was that they failed to get touchdowns instead of field goals, settling for three points far too often. If Dallas can avoid that against Buffalo while also getting their potent ground game going, then there’s plenty of success to be had.