The chief architect of one of the more dominant defenses in the NFL has his priorities straight.
Leslie Frazier wants to do his part to help the Buffalo Bills win their next game, which isn’t until Oct. 20, when they face the Miami Dolphins. He also wants to do his part to help the Bills win a championship.
What the 60-year-old Frazier isn’t doing is spending a whole lot of time wondering whether the success of the Bills’ defense – especially in the past two seasons – is improving his resume and, therefore, his chances of getting a second chance at a head-coaching job in the NFL.
“My mind is more about what can we do here defensively to continuously help us to win,” Frazier said. “And if you win, it kind of takes care of everything.”
As defensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears, Vic Fangio built one of the league’s best defenses that helped the team make major strides. Last year, the unit led the NFL with 36 forced turnovers and 27 interceptions, and ranked third in total yards allowed and second in yards per play. This year, Fangio is the 61-year-old rookie head coach of the Denver Broncos.
Second chances sometimes happen with head coaches in the league. In 2018, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired Bruce Arians, who previously guided the Arizona Cardinals and served as interim head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, while the New York Giants hired Pat Shurmur, who formerly was at the helm of the Cleveland Browns, and the New York Jets hired Adam Gase after he was let go in Miami.
“Which is great,” said Frazier, who was the Minnesota Vikings’ head coach from 2011-13. “And I hope it continues that way. I hope guys get an opportunity, because you do learn from your previous experience some things that you would have done a little bit differently. And you grow as a coach.
“I’m sure Pat, who’s a friend of mine from our days in Philadelphia (with the Eagles), would say that as well. You grow from your first experience. But the people that are making that decision are the ones that would have to determine that.”
The Bills’ defensive prowess has been the driving force behind the team’s first 4-1 start since 2011. The Bills rank third in total defense, third in fewest points allowed, second in yards per play, third against the pass and eighth against the run. They’re also in the top 10 in every other major defensive category.
Talent has played a significant part in what the Bills have achieved on defense, but there’s no minimizing Frazier’s contribution since arriving in 2017, when Sean McDermott became head coach.
“There’s definitely been some growth from the time I got here to where we are now,” Frazier said. “And you would hope that would be the case. You’re always trying, each offseason, to pick guys’ brains – other coordinators, other coaches – and just see what some of the nuances are. And also looking back at what we’ve done, what we can improve on.
“Probably the greatest growth is just being able to look at the way the league has evolved when it comes to passing the football; it looks like things are coming back to the run game a little bit. But just making sure that whatever you do, you put together a plan that is all-encompassing, but yet simple enough that you can execute, which is hard to do – to be simple enough to be good. And that’s something that has resonated with me.”
When Frazier was defensive backs coach for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999 to 2002, he recalls “a big menu” in the defensive playbook because of the ability of standout defensive backs, such as Hall of Famer Brian Dawkins and Troy Vincent, to handle it. McDermott also was a member of the Eagles’ coaching staff during that time, and he and Frazier recognized that there was something to be said for a more simplified approach.
The Bills’ defensive game plans reflect that thinking.
“Some of that has come from just talking with Sean and talking with (former Eagles assistant and current Carolina Panthers coach) Ron Rivera, from their days when we were all together in Philly and how they pared some things down when they were in Carolina that we kind of use here as well,” Frazier said. “And just making it simple enough of the players, yet complicated enough where offenses can’t get a bead on you, but still get what you want.”
In Frazier’s view, the impressive statistics are the product of what he has seen in each of the past five weeks.
“How fast our guys are playing, how aggressive they’re playing, how in sync they seem,” Frazier said. “They seem to be working as one. That sticks out. And their resiliency. When people have moved the ball or got into position to maybe make a play, our guys have stood up. An example: Micah (Hyde) making the interception in the end zone against New England. We had our backs against the wall in the Jets’ game. Those guys are resilient and finding ways to make plays.”
Continuity is another huge factor in making the Bills’ defense elite. The unit has core players who have been with the team since 2017: Hyde, fellow safeties Jordan Poyer and Dean Marlowe (a practice squad member in ’17), cornerback Tre’Davious White, linebackers Lorenzo Alexander and Matt Milano and defensive ends Jerry Hughes and Shaq Lawson.
Ten starters returned from 2018. The exception was retired defensive tackle Kyle Williams.
As vital as the Bills believed it was to replace Williams’ spot in the lineup – which they did by making Ed Oliver their ninth overall draft pick – Frazier believed it was very bit as critical to maintain as much experience as they could on defense.
That was why he was part of the effort to push for the re-signing of Alexander, who was due to become a free agent.
“Losing Kyle left a big void in the room, left a big void on the field for our defense,” Frazier said. “And Lorenzo was that one guy that we could all look to as a defensive staff and as defensive players to not necessarily fill those shoes, but not let it be such a crater in our room. When free agency was going on, myself and the other defensive coaches kept talking to (General Manager) Brandon (Beane) and Sean about the importance of Lorenzo, getting him signed because it went beyond what he does on the field. It’s the intangibles, what he brings to our defense. So once he got signed, then you felt a little bit more at ease, knowing that we still had to fill the three-technique position with the right guy.
“But we weren’t going to lose as much of the intangibles that come along with being a good defense as we would have if we didn’t sign Lorenzo. Then, once we were able to get Ed, you feel like you have a combination of the two – the leadership and you’ve got a player who’s going to be a really good player in our league playing a very important position in our defense.”
Frazier saw the initial signs of keeping together so many of the same players on defense since 2017 during offseason workouts. He would do his best to stump players in meetings in areas such as recognizing various formations and looks. And multiple times, Hyde would say, “Hey, Coach, you’ve got to challenge us, man.”
“But it just shows you how far we’ve come,” Frazier said. “They know this stuff as well as I do now. That has a lot to do with our success.”
It also has a lot to do with Frazier’s ability to be more creative and versatile in calling signals.
“It just increases my confidence,” he said. “When I send something in, we have so many reps at most of the things we’ve done. It’s not like, ‘Oh, man, where did that call come from? How do we adjust it to this formation or that formation?’ We’ve done it, over and over and over, so that allows them to play fast. There’s no hesitation in my mind about whether we can execute this or not, because I’ve seen them do it, I know where they are and the history that we have together.
“That continuity increases my confidence in some of the things that we can do and allows us to match up when people try to give us a different wrinkle than what we’ve seen on tape. Because we have a library of things we can do with our guys, we can reach back into that library. We may not have repped it as many times, but they have a history where they wouldn’t have if this was our first year together.”