Bills’ Defense Ready for Super Bowl Run, But Can Offense Keep Pace?

When Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott left Highmark Stadium after their disappointing 27-10 divisional playoff loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, I know from experience they were thinking, “We’ve got to get better if we want to be a Super Bowl team.”

Defensive Improvements

The Bills spent the offseason upgrading their talent, especially on defense. There’s no doubt they want to improve against the run. More importantly, is improving their pass rush to beat the two elite quarterbacks who knocked them out of the playoffs the past three years — Joe Burrow and Patrick Mahomes. They also must contend with Aaron Rodgers on the New York Jets at least twice this season.

The Bills’ defense was fine last year in the regular season, ranking No. 6 in the league and coming up with 27 takeaways (fourth). Then, Burrow and the Bengals ran up 412 yards of total offense (172 yards on the ground and 240 yards through the air), along with 34 minutes in time of possession in that divisional playoff game. The Bills’ defense had no takeaways in the loss.

After that poor performance, Beane and McDermott prioritized defense in free agency. They re-signed Pro Bowl safety Jordan Poyer, signed DT Poona Ford, and added edge rusher Leonard Floyd, who had 29 sacks in the past three seasons with the Los Angeles Rams.

The Bills extended two top defenders — DT Ed Oliver and All-Pro LB Matt Milano. The Bills hope star pass rusher Von Miller returns to form after his ACL injury and Pro Bowl CB Tre’Davious White plays a full season after only playing six games last year due to an ACL injury. 

Factor all this in and the defense looks primed to help Buffalo win an improved AFC East for the fourth straight year and make a Super Bowl run.

How Much Better is Offense?

What about the offense? It has put up big stats except in the critical area of limiting turnovers. That was an issue for QB Josh Allen last season, both in the regular season and postseason.

The Bills had 27 giveaways in the regular season (third worst in the league), and the problem continued with four more in their two playoff games. Allen was the main culprit with 17 interceptions, including six in the red zone and six fumbles lost. He coughed up the ball 16 times.

Allen was expected to take the next step forward in the 2022 postseason after his outstanding performance in the thrilling 42-36 overtime loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in 2021. Allen threw for 329 yards, four TDs and rushed for 68 yards. But he and the Bills’ offense were shut down by the Bengals this past year. Allen passed for only 264 yards and no touchdowns with one interception.

One issue is the Bills’ lack of a solid No. 2 receiver behind three-time Pro Bowler Stefon Diggs, who had 108 catches for 1,429 yards and 11 TDs last season. Gabe Davis has had some good moments, such as his four-TD reception game in the 2021 divisional playoff loss to the Chiefs. But he had only 48 catches last season and was held to two receptions for 34 yards in the Bills’ playoff loss.

Buffalo did not draft a wide receiver in the first round, which was the expectation of many draft analysts. Dalton Kincaid was picked at No. 25 overall and is an excellent receiving tight end. He should pair with Dawson Knox (48 receptions for 517 yards and six TDs last season) to provide an excellent duo.

With the questions at wide receiver, Buffalo is among the teams rumored to be in the hunt for free-agent receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Perhaps he could be the final piece further to elevate the offense to a Super Bowl level.

Beane signed Floyd to a one-year, $7 million deal with three voidable years to lower his 2023 cap number to $2.6 million.

Beane is probably trying to work similar cap magic to bring Hopkins aboard. It will be difficult and could require restructuring a few players because the Bills have only $5.5 million of cap room under Top 51 rules.

They’ll need more cap space when all players count in September. However, the payoff could be huge if they land the three-time first-team All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowler.  

If Hopkins can’t be signed, they’ll need more production from a mix of Davis, free agent signees Deonte Harty and Trent Sherfield, 2022 fifth-rounder Khalil Shakir and Justin Shorter (this year’s fifth-round pick).

The Bills’ offensive line also was up and down in 2022. They allowed 33 sacks of Allen, including one against the Jets in Week 9, resulting in an elbow injury that affected him for several weeks. Allen has run a lot (762 rushing yards with eight TDs last season), some by design and some due to pressure up front. It will be helpful for his long-term health if his running is lessened.

Buffalo signed Connor McGovern (from the Dallas Cowboys) to start at a guard spot and used its second-round pick on a promising guard in O’Cyrus Torrence. The Bills also signed running back Damien Harris to replace Devin Singletary and rotate with last year’s Round 2 pick James Cook (5.7-yard average in spot duty last season), in an effort to boost the run game.

How Will Moves Shake Out?

We’ll see how all these moves on offense and defense translate for a team that has finished 47-18 in the past three regular seasons. The playoffs have been a different story, with four victories against three defeats in the last three years.

The Bengals’ loss marked the second straight year the Bills had not reached the AFC title game after making it in 2020 when they fell to the Chiefs. It was most painful last postseason after Buffalo entered the regular season as a popular Super Bowl pick only to see its season end in a convincing home defeat.

With their offseason moves, the Bills should repeat as champs in the AFC East after winning the division by 4.5 games last season. However, it will be a bigger challenge.

The Jets acquired Rodgers and already had a talented team. The Miami Dolphins traded for Jalen Ramsey, upgrading their secondary for a playoff team that needs a healthy Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback. Plus, Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots always are a handful, especially if QB Mac Jones plays better under new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien.

Ultimately, the Bills still have to surmount Mahomes and Burrow in a loaded AFC. We’ll know more when the Bills play big road games against Cincinnati on Nov. 5 and Kansas City on Dec. 10. They also have a tantalizing Monday night opener at the Jets on Sept. 11.

The ultimate proof of whether the Bills upgraded their defense, whether Allen can avoid turnovers and whether they can have enough receiver help will come this season. Then, we’ll know if the Bills can become a Super Bowl team or are still in disappointment mode.

Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis. Follow him on Twitter at @jeffdiamondnfl.

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