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Cowboys scouting report: Breaking down the Bills defense

The Bills defense has taken quite a step back this season.

Buffalo Bills v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Back when the Bills hired Sean McDermott to be their head coach, it was largely because of the dominant defenses he had built in Carolina. After serving six seasons as Ron Rivera’s defensive coordinator, McDermott had helped the Panthers become one of the most dominant defensive teams in football.

One of McDermott’s first hires in Buffalo was veteran coach Leslie Frazier, charged with running his defense. While the two had never formally worked together, McDermott and Frazier came from the same schematic background. Frazier quickly recreated what McDermott had done in Carolina, with the Bills putting up some elite defensive numbers while trying to figure out the offense.

However, after last season concluded, Frazier surprised everyone with his decision to step away from coaching for the year. Rather than promote a position coach, McDermott opted to assume the responsibilities of calling defensive plays. On top of that, he added the assistant head coach title to defensive line coach Eric Washington and brought in Al Holcomb as a senior defensive assistant.

Those two hires offer a hint as to what to expect from McDermott. For starters, both of them worked with McDermott in Carolina. Washington coached the Panthers defensive line from 2011 to 2017, and became the coordinator after McDermott’s successor, Steve Wilks, left for the Cardinals head coaching job. Holcomb had been the linebackers coach in Carolina until leaving to be Wilks’ defensive coordinator in Arizona. Seeing a trend here?

McDermott actually cut his teeth in Philadelphia, holding a variety of different coaching roles for the Eagles from 2001 to 2010; aside from the last two seasons, when McDermott was the defensive coordinator, he worked under legendary coach Jim Johnson.

Johnson heavily influenced McDermott, as did Rivera. The result has been an aggressive 4-3 defense that utilizes a very, very broad range of zone coverages. That’s reflected in the tenures of Washington and Holcomb, as well as Wilks. These are all coaches who have coordinated defenses at various points in time and placed an emphasis on aggression and zone coverage.

That’s what this defense has been and, with McDermott taking over play-calling from Frazier, it’s become a bit more pronounced. Frazier wasn’t as blitz-happy as McDermott and mixed in man coverage a bit more. While McDermott hasn’t cranked those two nobs up to 11, he has started to employ a higher rate of zone while seeing a general uptick in blitzes.

Still, this isn’t a team that blitzes at a high rate. Instead, McDermott makes extensive use of the double mug front that’s taken the league by storm and features two linebackers standing up in the A gaps at the snap, forcing the quarterback to first adjust to whatever those two do after the snap. The whole idea is to prevent a quarterback from reading the defense prior to the snap and, for the most part, it’s worked.

That will make for an interesting chess match this week against Dak Prescott and the Cowboys. Prescott has long been known as one of the league’s best at reading defenses prior to the snap, and the West Coast elements that Mike McCarthy has introduced to the offense this year have Prescott with more pre-snap command than ever. It’s certainly no coincidence that this offense is booming and Prescott is currently the MVP frontrunner.

Another thing working in the Cowboys’ favor is how the Bills defense has declined this season. They've been hit hard by injuries on that side of the ball, losing two All-Pro’s for the year in cornerback Tre’Davious White and linebacker Matt Milano. Other sporadic injuries have left Buffalo with little depth, and it’s played a part in their ranking 14th in EPA/play allowed and 15th in defensive DVOA.

For as much attention as has been paid to Buffalo’s offense, the defense is much more responsible for the team’s struggles this year. To this date, they’re the only defense to give up more than 21 points to the Patriots and would’ve blown last week’s game against the Chiefs were it not for Kadarius Toney forgetting how to line up.

That said, this defense is not terrible, and they have the talent to make life hard for an offense. Another factor to consider is the weather: even though it’s not expected to snow, it will be a chilly day for a team that plays their home games indoors in north Texas. Prescott also does not have the best numbers in cold weather games, though he has a very small sample size in such environments.

This figures to be an entertaining chess match between McDermott and McCarthy. On paper, the advantage would seem to go the Cowboys’ way, as Prescott has generally thrived against zone coverage and eats blitzes for breakfast. But the external factors of this game cannot be ignored, which is why this battle will be crucial in determining the outcome of the game.

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