Last season, the Buffalo Bills went 13-3 in the regular season and made it all the way to the AFC Championship game for the first time since 1993. They did so on the arm of Josh Allen and a more than credible defense, but they did not do so on any sort of consistent pass rush. Including the postseason, per Pro Football Focus (who count half-sacks as whole sacks, as everyone should), defensive end Jerry Hughes led the team with eight quarterback takedowns. End Mario Addison finished second with seven, and while Hughes pretty good overall with 66 total pressures, Addison had just 45, and nobody else on Buffalo’s defense had more than tackle Ed Oliver’s 37, going with Oliver’s two sacks. One hopes for improvement from Oliver and end A.J. Epenesa in 2021, but it was clear to head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane that more was needed.
“You’d love to have one, you really would,” Beane said of an elite pass-rusher at his end-of-season press conference in January. “There’s not even 32 of them, though, one for each team. So, I promise you we’re looking for those guys and would love pressuring the quarterback. If the quarterback’s on his backside, he can’t do too much damage to us so we want to be strong up front, we want to stop the run, things like that. But at the end of the day, there’s only so many Von Millers and that type of player.”
Not that first-round edge-rusher Gregory Rousseau from Miami, or second-round edge-rusher Carlos “Boogie” Basham from Wake Forest project to be Von Miller in his prime anytime soon, but they both bring interesting athletic potential to the Bills’ defense, accentuated as it now needs to be with technical refinement.
Rousseau, selected with the 30th overall pick, opted out of the 2020 season, but his 2019 campaign, in which he played 405 snaps at end, 28 over the tackles, 18 in the B-gap and 74 in the A-gap, totaling 15.5 sacks, 19.5 tackles for loss, six quarterback hits, and 24 quarterback hurries, spoke rather loudly on his behalf. As productive as Rousseau was in 2019, though, there’s work to be done, and Beane is well aware of that.
“The thing about Greg is a lot of his sack production came from the inside,” Beane said after the pick. “I mean, they played him all over. They played him in the zero [head up on the center]. They played him on the edge. They played him in the three-technique (outside shade of the guard), so we see him starting on the edge, but in pass rush situations you’ll see him reduced down and rush from the inside.
“We think Greg is on the come. A rising player that will continue to grow into his body, continue to add strength. I told you he added 20 pounds (during his opt out). He didn’t just sit at home, he was training and getting ready for this next step.
“He’s a great a young man, very mature for his age. He has the intangibles that we look for a guy that’s going to work, very competitive, wasn’t looking for a year off. He’ll come in here and work. He’s not going to think he’s done anything. He knows he’s still a young player, and still has some rawness to his game, but we like who he is and we think he’s a guy that in time will reach his potential.”
Gregory Rousseau: An unfinished athletic marvel
(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
At this point in his development, Rousseau wins as a pass-rusher when he's able to use his raw athletic traits -- speed, agility, and upper-body strength. He's at a gap advantage when he's asked to either line up or stunt inside and exploit his athleticism against interior blockers who just can't keep up. This sack against Central Michigan is one such example -- there's just no way for that line to match Rousseau's speed to and through the gap.
And on this sack against Virginia Tech, this is just pure power on a bull rush, and the ability to turn on the jets to the quarterback.
The Bills' coaching staff will have to work with Rousseau on his technique around the edge, though. Rousseau frequently comes off the snap too high, losing leverage, and he doesn't have a consistent technical plan to get past your better left tackles. This affected Rousseau in college, so you can bet it'll affect him in the NFL at first.
Carlos "Boogie" Basham: A nasty finisher all over the field
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As for Basham, who did play in 2020 and was selected with the 61st overall pick, the potential is a bit easier to discern based on his tape. In seven games and 208 pass-rushing snaps in 2020 for the Demon Deacons, Basham put up five sacks, four quarterback hits, and 16 quarterback hurries. Like Rousseau, Basham played all over the place -- 350 total snaps at the edge, 15 over the tackles, 35 in the B-gap, one each in the A-gap and as an off-ball linebacker.
“I like his versatility and he’s definitely ready,” Beane said of Basham. “We looked at this guy and thought he could even have come out a year ago. Really good player, good instincts. Sometimes when guys go from the edge to the inside, we call it sticking your face in the fan. There’s a lot of noise in there, a lot of banging around. It’s not for everybody. You have some pure edge rushers who just don’t like to get in there and mix it up. He is a dense guy. He can rock guys back. He can win with speed or power. Power is probably his number one tool.” That certainly showed up in this sack against Notre Dame. Left tackle Liam Eichenberg, just selected by the Dolphins in the second round, gets himself waylaid by Basham's power as Basham (No. 18) strides to the pocket.
Basham (No. 9 here and in the third play below) also has the ability to win with technique and effort, as he did on this sack against North Carolina State. Watch the arm-over move to get free, and the determination to get to the quarterback.
And if you want a guy who's going to fire out sideline to sideline to attack a more mobile quarterback, there's this sack of former Utah State quarterback and apparent near-future Packers starter Jordan Love.
It's possible that Basham has the more immediate impact as a more finished pass-rusher, while Rousseau wins in sub-package situations. In any event, the Bills now have two more quarterback disruptors with all the athletic potential in the world. If their coaches are able to bring it all out, Buffalo's defense, already formidable in every other aspect, will be even tougher to deal with.