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Chuck Pollock: A look at the Buffalo Bills defense, strengths and areas for improvement

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A column by CHUCK POLLOCK

A cynical friend of mine — and most of them are — took a look at the Bills’ 90-player training camp roster and noted that 18 of them were either defensive ends or tackles. “What’s McDermott going to do,”  he wondered,” use a secret alignment composed entirely of defensive linemen?”

Buffalo coach Sean McDermott, in his wisdom, has assessed that he, more than anyone else, should be calling the defense. Thus, after nudging veteran Leslie Frazier out of the coordinator’s role, it took less than a week for him to make that announcement.

But, in so doing, he put a target squarely on his own back.

Now there’s no one else to blame in a season where McDermott, who has struggled to establish his head-coaching chops, is also totally responsible for a defense that has logged impressive regular-season numbers but has come up well-short in the playoffs.

THOSE 18 defensive linemen?

They’re equally-divided between ends and tackles, but it’s likely that the most important of the former, veteran Von Miller, will begin the season on the physically-unable-to-perform (PUP) list. He’s already on the training camp version but the important time will be in the cutdown to the regular-season limit of 53 as, if Miller is placed on PUP, he’ll miss the first six games minimum. The question would be whether he was able to return even then.

Buffalo already has a very recent basis for comparison.

A year earlier, on the very same holiday — Thanksgiving — cornerback Tre’ Devious White suffered the same knee injury. He started the season on PUP but didn’t return until Game 10 in November and his recovery was being made by a then-27-year-old. Miller, the Bills’ premier pass rusher, is trying to rehab at 34. In short, there’s no guarantee he’ll return for Game 7, Oct. 22, at New England. It’s likely Leonard Floyd, an inspired acquisition via the Rams, will start in Miller’s place with ‘21 first-rounder, Greg Rousseau, who has improved incrementally, on the other side. Steady DaQuan Jones and ‘19 first-rounder, Ed Oliver, are booked at the tackles. The latter just signed a big extension that didn’t seem merited based on his modest statistics.

Also in the end competition are three former draftees: Shaq Lawson (first round, ‘16), A.J. Epenesa (second round, ‘20) and Boogie Basham (second round, ‘21), who has shown absolutely nothing in his first two seasons.

Poona Ford, Tim Settle, Jordan Phillips and Eli Ankou are in the tackle mix, a position that rotates constantly.

Middle linebacker, though, is the Bills’ glaring defensive trouble spot.

With Tremaine Edmunds now in Chicago via free agency, there’s no obvious replacement. Indeed, McDermott’s biggest decision, by far, is who mans that spot. Current No. 1 on the depth chart is last year’s third-rounder Terrel Barnard, followed by veterans Tyrel Dodson and A.J. Klein as well as longshot special teamer Baylon Spector taken in ‘22’s seventh round. None are an obvious choice. It’s also been suggested that this year’s third-rounder, Dorian Willams, will get a shot, though he’s currently booked as the backup to Pro Bowler Matt Milano on the outside.

White starts at one cornerback spot with the hope that ‘22’s first-round pick, Kaiir Elam, takes a grip on the other side, though he’ll get plenty of competition from Christian Benford and Dane Jackson. Taron Johnson is one of the NFL’s top nickel corners.

The safety tandem of Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde is among the league’s best and former Ram Taylor Rapp and Damar Hamlin, who will play this season after suffering a near-fatal heart episode last January at Cincinnati, are excellent reserves.

Special teams?

The Bills didn’t even bother to  invite anybody to challenge placekicker Tyler Bass, punter Sam Martin and long-snapper Reid Ferguson.

(Chuck Pollock, a Wellsville Sun senior sports columnist, can be reached at cpollock@wnynet.net.)

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