ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Jay-Z once said, “Men lie, women lie, numbers don’t.”
Numbers might not lie, but they can mislead.
In 2018, the Buffalo Bills‘ defense ranked 26th in the NFL with 36 sacks. After drafting defensive tackle Ed Oliver with the ninth overall pick in 2019, those numbers were expected to rise — and they have. The Bills are on pace for 40 sacks this season, which would have ranked 16th in the league last season.
But it’s time to stop viewing sacks as the primary indicator of a successful pass rush. For example, the Bills were statistically the league’s best pass defense even with bottom-tier sack numbers; the Kansas City Chiefs led the league in sacks last season but were the second-worst pass defense in terms of yards allowed per game.
“There’s different things we look for. Sometimes numbers and sacks don’t always tell an accurate story,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “Most of the time, there’s more to it than just sacks.”
The more prevalent stats for determining a successful pass rush? Win rate and average time to throw.
However, opposing passers have an average of only 2.61 seconds to throw against Buffalo’s pass rush, which is the NFL’s sixth-best mark. That figure is improved from 2.79 seconds in 2018.
Point being, it’s not just about bringing a quarterback down — it’s about forcing him to make a decision before he’s comfortable.
“There are a lot of times where you’re successful in pass defense without sacking the quarterback,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. “Part of it is getting him off his spot, making him move if he’s a guy who’s a pocket passer — which could help with his accuracy or inaccuracy — along with just harassing him enough to where he feels like he has to speed up because he sees pressure coming.
“That’s enough, for some quarterbacks, to create some indecision about where to go with the football.”
Buffalo set that tone often Sunday against the Giants.
Quarterback Eli Manning completed 5 of 12 passes for 42 yards when the Bills recorded at least one pass-rush win during a play; he was sacked only once in those situations but threw a game-sealing interception in the fourth quarter.
Of course, successful pass defense is not all on Buffalo’s front seven. Safety Jordan Poyer said the team stresses a “rush plus coverage” approach, in which pass-rushers and the secondary work in synergy to make quarterbacks uncomfortable.
“That’s something we talk about all the time — rush and coverage working together,” Frazier said. “You’re counting on the coverage buying the rush a little more time and the rush really working to [assist] the coverage … just a combination of the two to limit the explosive plays.”
Statistically, the Bills are only marginally more successful rushing the passer in 2019 than they were in 2018 — so why does it feel like they took a step forward?
In a nutshell, they’re healthy, they’re deeper and they’re actually competing in games.
“I think a lot of it has to do with just being in games,” linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. “The first two games last year were blowouts, so teams didn’t have to sit back there and figure out ways to push the ball down the field. So with that, we’re definitely off to a better start because we’re either up or we’re in the game.
“When you add in Trent [Murphy] being healthy, which is a huge difference because teams can’t just pick on Jerry [Hughes’] side, and Ed is obviously special when it comes to pass-rushing, as well — we just have great guys. From me to Harry [Phillips] to Jordan Phillips to Star [Lotulelei], just different guys that are able to rush inside and outside. Darryl Johnson and Shaq Lawson, as well. … Then, we’re in advantageous spots where we have the opportunities to rush the passer.”
Buffalo looks to create more of those advantageous pass-rush situations in Week 3 against the Cincinnati Bengals, as it aims for its first 3-0 start to a season since 2011.