Through five weeks of the season, the Buffalo Bills have gotten off to a 3-2 start to the season, which has shown they’re at least ahead of the generally accepted schedule both fans and media had of the team heading into the 2017 season.
As is the case for NFL teams through a bye week, it’s a time for reflection about what has happened, and what’s to come. With that said, what are the biggest questions for the Bills as the season continues? We’ll be counting down the top seven throughout the week.
No. 5: Can the Bills stop teams up the middle of the field on passes?
I don’t want to undersell the job that head coach Sean McDermott and his staff has done so far: the turnaround of the defense into being one of the league’s best through five weeks has been remarkable. They are stuffing teams on the ground, getting heat on the quarterback, forcing turnovers, and getting exceptional play from a secondary that has exactly zero pieces from the 2016 Bills lineup.
However, among their success, one area has been lacking: pass coverage over the middle of the field.
And this was really to be expected. The Bills had three starting linebackers going into the season that were not handpicked by either head coach Sean McDermott, or the combination of him and general manager Brandon Beane.
This is also a system that craves athleticism and often leaves their linebackers on an island to make a big play for their team in coverage — having to utilize the athleticism that they so covet. Instead, the Bills have a slimmed down Preston Brown as their middle linebacker, Lorenzo Alexander at strongside linebacker, and before the injury, Ramon Humber at weakside linebacker.
All three have been really sound supporters in run defense, which has made teams look elsewhere to attack. The skill-sets of the group as a whole, though, could yield continued success over the middle of the field for teams.
For Brown, body positioning has been his biggest downfall in zone coverage, and without the quickness to flip his hips and run smoothly with the cutting receiver, tight end, or running back, that’s all the separation they need for both a reception and yardage on top of it.
With Alexander, he’s such a strong edge defender, fills the run gaps well, and can rush the passer. However, when he drops back and has to change direction quickly, it’s bad news for the Bills. A quick opponent can make slip right by him and up the field for additional yardage, and we’ve seen that quite a bit this season.
Humber is their best fit for the defense, but he now has the rookie Matt Milano getting some playing time due to injury — and the latter took advantage of it in his first start. A noted special teams asset, Humber could resume a large role in that realm upon his return from injury should Milano continue to show impressive ability in both coverage and against the run, as he did Sunday against Cincinnati.
And remember, Milano was selected by this regime in the fifth-round. If he shows well enough, that could signal to them that they've got a long-term starter on their hands -- and one they wouldn't want to stray away from. Only one start in, it remains a big 'if.'
Without the ability to draft their types of players to play middle linebacker or strongside linebacker, the Bills will have to stand pat for now and hope that the play of their safeties can help eliminate some of those weaknesses for the team. Milano’s early results are certainly encouraging, but he’ll need to show consistency over however long the usual starter is away with injury, in order to take Humber’s job for good this season.
Just imagine how good this defense could be if they had an athletic middle linebacker that can cover like nobody’s business — it would make the remarkable defense in 2017 into an unstoppable force in 2018.
And that, friends, is a scary proposition for opponents moving forward should they be able to find that player.