When it comes to the 2018 Buffalo Bills draft class, the consensus is fairly clear that Josh Allen is the highest profile member. His is the most important position in football and fans are hoping that he’s the franchise quarterback this team’s been missing since Jim Kelly.
But football is a team sport. And more often than not, a quarterback is only as good as the complementary offensive pieces he has around him, be it skill position players as well as offensive linemen. Not only that but he also needs a bevy of playmakers on the defensive side of the football to shorten the field via turnovers and short possessions from the opposing offense.
It’s why the Bills took Tremaine Edmunds nine picks after Allen had his name called. After that, it became readily apparent that shoring up the defense was a top priority for general manager Brandon Beane. The next three picks after Edmunds were also defensively oriented. It included their lone pick of the fourth round when Buffalo brought in Taron Johnson.
Part of a Defense That Will Have to Push Above Its Weight in 2018
The 2018 Bills look like the kind of team you simply don’t know what to expect from on any given Sunday. In the first six quarters of the season, the Baltimore Ravens and Los Angeles Chargers outscored them 75-9. That fueled speculation they could be staring at an 0-16 season. But they alleviated the bleeding in the second half of the Chargers game. Then, a week later, they circled the wagons and proceeded to destroy most of America’s eliminator pools in a dominating win over the Minnesota Vikings.
The last two weeks have seen similarly bipolar performances. Against the Green Bay Packers, the offense sputtered en route to the team’s first shutout loss since December 28, 2008. It wasn’t much better in Week Five when they welcomed the Tennessee Titans to New Era Field. But buoyed by a gritty effort on defense that included Edmunds and Johnson coming up huge, the team squeaked out a 13-12 victory when Stephen Hauschka nailed a 46-yard field goal as time expired.
All of it underscores that the Bills defense must play shutdown ball to keep the team in games. Such a notion gets further reinforced by the fact that the offense is averaging a league-worst 12.6 points per game. What could further complicate things is the recent trade rumors surrounding LeSean McCoy possibly returning to the Philadelphia Eagles in the wake of Jay Ajayi‘s season-ending knee injury. Through it all, Edmunds and Johnson must continue to turn in standout rookie campaigns.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of their exploits from last week’s win.
Tremaine Edmunds: A Rangy, Heat-Seeking Missle
The process leading up to the NFL Draft always gives us those players whose traits and overall skill set stand out above most prospects. Edmunds certainly fit into that profile. NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein stamped a Pro Bowl-caliber player grade on him. A big part of what made the Virginia Tech product such a promising prospect was his unique combination of size, speed, and natural athleticism. The scary thing about it all is that he came into his rookie season fully capable of adding even more functional muscle mass.
Among the qualities necessary for above-average play at 4-3 MIKE linebacker in the NFL is the ability to cover ground laterally. That sideline-to-sideline industriousness was a hallmark of 2018 Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher‘s game during his career. If you watch the current greats at the position, such as Luke Kuechly or Bobby Wagner, you can’t help but notice that they’re all over the field making plays on the ball. Through five games, Edmunds is exhibiting that same kind of ranginess.
There were plenty of examples in last Sunday’s win over the Titans. Look no further than Tennessee’s first possession of the game. Four plays in, on first and 10, Marcus Mariota looked to get the ball out quickly to Taywan Taylor on a quick out route towards the sidelines. Almost immediately after he caught the ball, Edmunds smothered him and jarred it loose. It set up a short field for the offense after Matt Milano recovered his third fumble of the season which is tops in the NFL.
The rookie with the forced fumble!
— Buffalo Bills (@buffalobills) October 7, 2018
Buffalo capitalized on the ensuing 11-play drive when Allen scored via another eye-popping quarterback keeper on his part. Moving forward, Edmunds and the Bills defense must continue putting their rookie signal caller in favorable positions.
Taron Johnson: The Latest Young Playmaker in the Secondary
A few weeks ago, I penned a column describing Milano as a draft-day steal for the Bills. It’s hard to disagree considering the fifth-round pick from last year’s draft is putting together one of the best seasons for a weakside linebacker in the league. Johnson himself is slotting into the Bills defense rather comfortably. Though not as much of a steal as Milano given the Bills took him a round earlier, the rookie out of Weber State is slowly cementing himself as a vital component of a brash, young secondary that includes second-year corner Tre’Davious White.
The unit as a whole is a big reason why Buffalo has proven many naysayers wrong so far. Through five games, the Bills rank seventh among NFL teams in Football Outsiders’ pass defense DVOA metric. It indicates that the defense is coming up big during important game states. And Johnson is playing his part. He currently ranks first among NFL corners with a minimum of 100 coverage snaps and 15 targets in a variety of important categories.
The Bills may have something in Taron Johnson. Through five weeks, the rookie out of Weber State ranks 1st out of 78 eligible CBs (min. 100 cover snaps and 15 targets) in comp% allowed (26.67%), YPA against (1.53), and QBR against (11.8).
(Data courtesy of @SportsInfo_SIS)
— Bryce Rossler (@btrossler) October 11, 2018
Against Tennessee, Johnson registered the first interception of his pro career. How the play developed and led to the pick is a testament to the dynamic and nuanced looks that defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier is giving the opposition. Erik Turner of The Athletic Buffalo does a phenomenal job breaking down Bills’ Xs and Os with his weekly film room articles. It includes showing the Bills’ defensive setup on this particular play.
Taron Johnson picks off Marcus Mariota!
— NFL (@NFL) October 7, 2018
The Bills line up in what’s called trap coverage. Basically, it’s a hybrid look with the team showing Tampa-2 on one side of the field and quarters on the other side. The Tampa-2 look becomes evident post-snap as Edmunds drops into coverage. With Johnson isolated in the slot, Mariota was hoping for a big gain on an underneath throw to Jonnu Smith who ran a quick slant to the inside. But Johnson read his eyes, jumped the route, and came up with the first of what will be many interceptions during his career.
These Two Rookies Are Ready to Roll
Edmunds and Johnson comprise a Bills defensive unit that’s bringing a lunch pail mentality and focused intensity to the field in 2018. They’ve each played their own part in the team allowing just nine points per game in Buffalo’s two wins. With an offense ironing out its fair share of issues, more of the same is required beginning with Sunday’s road test against the Houston Texans. That much is certain given the pass-rushing pressure Allen will ostensibly experience from players such as J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. But in summary, all indications are that this defense is set up for long-term success. And these two gems of the 2018 draft class are expected to be its mainstays.
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