The Bills were able to steal a victory over the Lions on Thanksgiving 28-25, but it came at a cost as star defensive end Von Miller left the game in the second half with a knee injury. Despite the fear that Miller tore his ACL, early reports are that Miller avoided that fate and will be out for a couple of weeks while Buffalo performs more tests and evaluates the significance of his injury.
With the Bills sitting at 8-3 and in a good position to make another postseason run, the team announced on Thursday that they will place Miller on the IR to try to ensure that he can be as close to full strength as possible for the postseason.
“We don’t want to rush him back,” Bills GM Brandon Beane told reporters on Thursday. “This gives us a chance to go ahead and count tonight’s game and three more on injured reserve. And hopefully we can get him back for the stretch run.”
So, without Von Miller, who has played the vast majority of snaps at right defensive end, how will the Buffalo Bills adjust? Can they truly replace Miler? Is there a natural replacement or will it need to be a team effort?
What are the Bills losing without Von Miller?
Without question, Miller is Buffalo’s most well-rounded defensive end. According to Pro Football Focus, Miller has an 81.8 pass-rush grade and a 78.8 run-defense grade. On the season, he has 45 tackles, eight sacks, 33 hurries, a 23.6% pass rush win rate, and 21 defensive stops, which PFF describes as “tackles that constitute a “failure” for the offense.”
Miller has played 69.7% of his snaps in pass-rush situations. However, it’s important to note that much of that is skewed by the fact that teams have needed to pass to keep up with the Buffalo offense more often than not this season.
Buffalo frequently rotates their defensive linemen, so Miller is not a true “full-time” player, but he has absolutely been their closer. He plays the most snaps of any defensive end when Buffalo is in close games in the fourth quarter. In that role, he has made crucial plays late in games to seal victories or given his team a chance to do so, and Buffalo will absolutely be hurting to replace his value there.
But who will the options be?
Rousseau is the best bet to take over the key late-game snaps. The second-year pro is on track to return from a multi-week ankle injury, and it couldn’t come at a better time.
Rousseau has had a strong season so far and is the team’s second most well-rounded player with PFF grades of 83.7 for his pass rush rate and 69.9 in run defense. On the season, he has 23 tackles, six sacks, 14 hurries, 10 stops, and a team-leading 32.9% pass-rush win rate, which highlights just how dynamic he can be off the edge.
We won’t know if Rousseau is healthy enough to play a full complement of snaps on Thursday, but the Bills will need him to come up big in clear passing situations until he’s up to speed enough to play the most snaps of any defensive end on the team, which they will surely want from him.
Epenesa is another Buffalo defensive end who looks set to return from injury. The third-year pro has shown some clear improvements this season, but mainly with his pass rush. He has a 70.8 pass-rush grade from PFF but just a 48.8 run-defense grade, which is the second-worst of any of the rotational ends.
On the season, he has 16 tackles, four sacks, 10 hurries, six stops, and a 20% pass rush win rate. He has also played 67.6% of his snaps on passing downs, so he seems the most logical replacement for Miller opposite Miller on passing downs.
He’s certainly not the rusher that Miller is, but he’s been effective enough that his pairing with Rousseau and Ed Oliver should still give the Bills a good push.
Last year’s second-round pick, Boogie Basham hasn’t quite taken the steps forward that Rousseau has. However, according to Pro Football Focus, he has a 73.2 pass-rush grade and 56.2 run grade, so he has been more well-rounded than some of the other ends.
On the season, he has 13 tackles, two sacks, nine hurries, and six stops but just a 14.6% pass rush win rate.
Overall, PFF has him graded as the 10th-best defender on the Bills this season, but he has been exposed on too many plays. They will need more consistency from him going forward if he’s going to play more snaps to help fill in for Miller.
The last key rotational lineman will be Lawson, who returned to Buffalo this year. However, despite his reputation as a good run-stopper, Lawson has a 59.9 pass-rush grade and the worst run-defense grade of any of the linemen at 41.6. On the season, he has 12 tackles, two sacks, six hurries, eight stops, and a 17.2% pass rush win rate.
The eight stops show his ability to make plays at the line of scrimmage but it’s going to need to be far more consistent without Miller around.
The good news for Buffalo is that, with Rousseau and Epenesa close to returning, their defensive ends will be essentially the same as last season, when Miller was playing for the Rams. The bad news is that unit was not a real strength, hence the need to sign Miller. Yet, the team was still able to win games and put together a strong defensive unit. It just might mean there’s more pressure on the secondary and the need for the linebackers and safeties to come on blitzes.
Either way, Buffalo can likely make this work for a couple of weeks, but if the additional tests suggest that Miller could be out for the season, it might be an unsurmountable hill for the team to climb.