Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Von Miller to Bills: Can perennial All-Pro pass rusher be missing piece for Buffalo to win a Super Bowl?

Buffalo has become such a destination for free agents, the Bills were able to sway Von Miller into joining their team amid courting from the team that originally drafted him, the Denver Broncos, and the club he just won a Super Bowl with, the Los Angeles Rams.

Imagine that. 

I admittedly had a litany of sack and pressure statistics ready to go for this article. It was going to be a number crunch. But I decided against including most of them because the impact of Miller’s signing for the Bills can be described much more succinctly in a straightforward fashion:

In Miller, the Bills got the defensive closer that’s been missing from their Super Bowl-caliber club over the past two seasons.

During the Sean McDermott era, Buffalo has featured a perennially stout defense, with an amazingly deep front that has rotated more than any other in football. In both 2020 and 2021, the Bills had eight defensive linemen play at least 25% of the snaps — the most defenders who surpassed that mark in the NFL — without one playing 60% of the snaps. Incredible, right?

And, by and large, that philosophy worked. Buffalo’s been in the upper third of pressure-creation rate in back-to-back seasons. And, yes, disruption is production for pass rushers. But moving a quarterback off his spot isn’t the ultimate goal. Taking him to the ground with the ball in his hands is. 

Altogether, counting the playoffs, Buffalo’s defense was a middle-of-the-pack unit when it came to sacking the opposing passer. In two postseason affairs against Patrick Mahomes, it felt like the Bills generated ample pressure to render the superstar quarterback to a level that would’ve allowed the Bills to outscore his offense. But the sacks were almost non-existent. 

In the Bengals‘ AFC title game upset in Arrowhead Stadium in January, Cincinnati got to Mahomes four times. 

Then, in the Super Bowl, the Aaron Donald and Miller-led Rams defense sacked Joe Burrow on seven occasions. Miller had two of them and chipped in with a pair of tackles for loss. 

For as theoretically sound as it is to keep defensive linemen fresh for the course of a grueling season that, for the Super Bowl teams, lasts five months, if it mostly just generates pressure, then it leaves a championship-caliber club vulnerable against the best quarterbacks. And many of the offenses run by those quarterbacks were able to exploit the limited sack ability of Buffalo’s defenses over the past two seasons. 

On the surface, it’s fair to question if Miller can still bring it when he’s a few weeks shy of his 33rd birthday. Absolutely he can, and I’ll lean on numbers here. En route to his second Super Bowl title, he had 9.5 sacks in 15 games between the Broncos and Rams during the regular season and tacked on four more in the playoffs. The last time Buffalo had a double-digit sack guy was 2016, when Lorenzo Alexander had 12.5. 

And even if pressures are your thing — because they’re a better predictor of future sacks than sacks themselves — Miller checks out there, too. He’s registered an average of 74.3 total pressures and 13 sacks per season (counting four playoff games) over his last three years.

The Bills have appeared in five postseason contests the past three years, and Jerry Hughes led the team in pressures in each season but never reached the 70-pressure mark. 

Miller choosing Buffalo over the Broncos, Cowboys, and Rams not only emphatically signaled Buffalo is now a preferred landing spot for big-ticket players. It informed the rest of the league that one of the best rosters in football added the piece glaringly missing from its recent two near misses at advancing to a Super Bowl. 

And Miller gives the Bills what they need to not only get to a Super Bowl, but win it. 

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