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Last year in the AFC title game, the Buffalo Bills could not get pressure on Patrick Mahomes at all. On 39 dropbacks, Buffalo got pressure only 11 times, and Mahomes was sacked just once. As a result, he carved up the Bills defense for 325 yards and three touchdowns. He sat in the pocket pretty much all day and just waited for Tyreek Hill or Travis Kelce to spring open, and then found them. It almost looked easy at times.
In the Super Bowl, things were quite a bit different for Kansas City. The Chiefs‘ offensive line was in even worse shape due to injuries, and Mahomes was under pressure on more than half of his dropbacks. He went 26 of 49 for 270 scoreless yards against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, took three sacks, and barely escaped several others. It was ugly, and it clearly scarred the Chiefs.
They made sweeping changes this offseason to ensure that nothing like what happened in the Super Bowl would happen again. The Chiefs signed Joe Thuney away from the Patriots, giving him a deal that made him the NFL‘s highest-paid guard (five years, $80 million, nearly $47 million guaranteed). They traded for Orlando Brown from the Ravens, and the expectation is they’ll sign him to a long-term extension as well. They signed Austin Blythe and Kyle Long, got Laurent Duvernay-Tardif back from his opt-out year, and (most importantly) drafted Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith, each of whom became an immediate starter.
They’ve got five new starters along the offensive line (with Lucas Niang — who opted out of last season — being the fifth), and it’s working quite well. Mahomes has been pressured at a rate right around league average so far this season, and sacked just five times on 158 dropbacks.
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The Bills, meanwhile, used their first two draft picks on edge rushers: Gregory Rousseau out of Miami and Carlos Basham Jr. out of Wake Forest. They signed yet another former Carolina Panther in Efe Obada, and they got defensive tackle Star Lotulelei back after he opted out of the 2020 season. Their makeover is also working. Despite blitzing far less often this season (20.1% of opponent dropbacks) than they did a year ago (33.5%), the Bills are doing a much better job of getting pressure. Their 38.9% pressure rate ranks fourth in the NFL through the first four weeks of the season, and their 9% sack rate ranks fifth.
And it’s not just been one guy dominating. They have seven players with five-plus pressures and four of them with at least eight. A.J. Epenesa has taken a big step forward in Year 2, Mario Addison and Jerry Hughes continue to contribute at a high level, and Matt Milano has been excellent when asked to go after the quarterback.
This is where we feel obliged to mention an enormous caveat. The list of quarterbacks against whom the Bills have played so far this year is… not inspiring. It consists entirely of Ben Roethlisberger and three backups (Jacoby Brissett, Taylor Heinicke, and Davis Mills). So, there is a good case to be made that we should perhaps take Buffalo’s league-best defensive DVOA (Football Outsiders currently has Buffalo’s defense being about as good as the next three best defenses combined, in terms of their value over average) with several hundred grains of salt.
When considering Sunday’s matchup, it’s also important to note that at the moment, no quarterback in the NFL is doing a better job of neutralizing the pass rush by getting rid of the ball quickly than Mahomes. He’s released the ball within 2.5 seconds of the snap on 53.5% of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus, the eighth-highest rate in the league. His numbers on those throws are, in a word, otherworldly. I swear to you, these are not fake: 75 of 83 (90.4%) for 675 yards (8.1 per attempt), 10 touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 140.1 passer rating.
He has been far and away the league’s best passer on close-to-the-line-of-scrimmage throws, with nobody coming particularly close to him in passer rating and only Dak Prescott residing in his neighborhood in EPA per play on passes of 10 or fewer air yards.
Just as important as getting quick pressure in Mahomes’ face is making sure that said pressure results in him being dropped to the ground. That means it can’t just be one guy getting into the backfield and in his grill. It has to be everyone. He’s too good at the scramble drill stuff for one rusher to take him down. If there’s pressure up the middle and he tries to escape right or left, a defender has to be there waiting for him. If there’s pressure off the edge and he steps up into the pocket, he needs to do so into the waiting arms of a defensive tackle or a stunting lineman.
Otherwise, this is what’s going to happen — over and over and over.
The Bills are one of the very few NFL teams that actually has an offense capable of matching the Chiefs shot for shot. Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs and company can create big plays with the best of them, and the Bills can thus score from anywhere on the field at any time.
Of course, the best way to hang with the Chiefs in that regard, is to not have to. Beating up on their offensive line is the one way we have seen teams limit their explosive plays. The Bills couldn’t get the job done last season in the most important game of the year, and they clearly prioritized being able to do so in any potential rematch. On Sunday night, they’ll get their shot to prove they’re better this time around.
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