What the Buffalo Bills’ young pass-rushers learned from Von Miller, NFL’s best
LAS VEGAS — Von Miller leaned to the side, looking poised to rush a quarterback. Next to him stood defensive end Greg Rousseau, the Buffalo Bills‘ 2021 first-round pick, watching the future Hall of Fame linebacker’s movements, where Miller placed his feet and hands and listening to his new teammate explain his moves off the line.
Miller was demonstrating his skills on a high school turf field under the Las Vegas morning sun during his sixth pass-rush summit last week. The event featured the NFL’s top four active sack leaders — Miller (115.5 sacks), Chandler Jones (107.5), Cameron Jordan (107) and Justin Houston (102) — who shared tips with other defenders on how they’ve been successful.
Rousseau was one of three Bills pass-rushers there among 21 players, alongside teammates Boogie Basham (Round 2, 2021) and AJ Epenesa (Round 2, 2020). They took up Miller’s invitation to learn from the best ahead of a season of high expectations for them and the team.
“I’m an open book and I’m going to force some of my chapters on them,” Miller said of the Bills’ young pass-rushers. “I’m going to force some of the stuff I know on them. It’s just little things.”
Miller & Co. spent the day coaching their peers on how to handle various situations and offering details on how to approach the line of scrimmage before the snap. Several veterans went into detail on cut-ups of their own film as Rousseau, Basham and Epenesa sat at a table together taking notes.
“To have an opportunity to physically come out here and physically see it, get hands-on attention, I find to me, that was a big jump,” Basham told ESPN. “Definitely for me to take my game to the next level, but also learn from other guys around the league, too.”
The Bills want to improve at getting after opposing quarterbacks following consecutive playoff losses to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, so they invested big in Miller this offseason with a six-year, $120 million deal. But Miller won’t be able to do it all on his own and his impact on his teammates off the field could potentially be almost as important as his presence on it.
“Getting to know these guys, these guys getting to know me, on and off the football field, Vegas is the perfect place for that, we can hang out, chill,” Miller said. “… Being in the OTAs with all these guys, man, it’s building up that respect, earning their respect from them.
“I come out here, I work out, break my neck for these guys and you building their brotherhood now. So, when the season starts and it’s fourth-and-long and we need a play, everybody trusts each other.”
The Bills need more from Rousseau, Basham and Epenesa after spending high picks on them. The Bills finished the 2021 regular season with 42 sacks, tied for 11th and sixth in pass rush win rate (45.6%), but the team lacked a consistent dominant pass-rusher whom opponents needed to be aware of at all times. The young trio combined for eight of those sacks, with Rousseau leading the group with four.
“This is going to be a big offseason for those guys,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “They’re in a position where they have to, we need them to really, really grow and develop and make a mark on our defense — and not just in a supporting role, but in a primary role.”
Buffalo added to its defensive line in other ways this offseason, bringing back Shaq Lawson and defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, in addition to signing tackles DaQuan Jones and Tim Settle. They opted not to re-sign veterans Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison, who played the first- and third-most defensive snaps among Bills defensive ends last season.
The Bills also picked up the fifth-year option on defensive tackle Ed Oliver (four sacks in 2021) in May, linking the 2019 first-round pick to the team for at least the next two seasons.
What are the Bills looking for from their young pass-rushers?
“Probably the consistency piece, where you kind of know what you’re going to get every day, that’s important,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. “They’re past that point when they were rookies, and it was kind of up and down, lulls here, break out here.”
While the summit was valuable for learning from a variety of players and coaches, Miller has been helping his teammates during offseason practices as well. Going into his third year, Epenesa noted how he told Miller during the team’s OTAs that he was working on his rush angle. During practice, Miller made a point of noting reps where Epenesa had a good angle.
When Epenesa was interviewing with the Bills prior to the draft in 2020, he told the Bills he modeled his game after Miller.
“People are gonna see him, and they’re gonna wanna protect against him because of his reputation, and that kind of opens the door for other people,” Epenesa said. “If they’re gonna focus on him, we have to be able to execute ourselves and make plays whenever it’s needed as well.”
During the 40-plus minutes Miller spent breaking down his film at the summit, he lauded the efforts of former teammate Aaron Donald and his other Rams teammates, noting how they brought out the best in him, as Miller had four sacks and 18 pressures during the Rams’ playoff run to winning Super Bowl LVI. The Bills are hoping he can do the same with his new teammates.
“[Miller] has really taken the young guys under his wing. He said he would do that. Actions speak louder than words,” general manager Brandon Beane said. “I was really appreciative that he wanted to invite these young guys out to his camp. What a cool experience. I talked to a couple of them yesterday after practice and they just talked about how many notes they took out there and how awesome it was. They’re excited to come back to practice and use what they learned.”