Ed Oliver had massive shoes to fill this season.
The rookie defensive tackle was stepping in for Kyle Williams, one of the most beloved players in Buffalo Bills’ history. After 13 seasons of Bills Mafia watching Williams pour his heart and soul into every snap, expectations were high for Oliver — who many thought was a steal as the ninth overall selection. Oliver, an undersized yet explosive interior penetrator, could not escape comparisons to the likes of Aaron Donald and John Randle.
Oliver became a Day 1 starter for a Bills defense that was among the best in 2018, and he played well early in the 2019 season. But his production was not turning heads as many hoped. Across his first eight games, Oliver racked up a modest 20 tackles and one sack.
Production is a poor way to measure the play of DTs, but the anticipation for Oliver to become an immediate star left room for disappointment. Truth is, rookies at this position do not typically light up the box score in their first eight professional games. Here are some notable NFL star defensive tackles and their production across their first eight games in the league:
- Aaron Donald: 20 tackles, one sack
- Fletcher Cox: 16 tackles, one sack
- Geno Atkins: Five tackles, 1/2 sack
- Gerald McCoy 14 tackles, zero sacks
The NFL is different from the college game, especially for a player like Oliver who is a product of the AAC and not a Power Five Conference. The techniques and what is required for beating blocks against offensive linemen from say Memphis and East Carolina are quite different from the linemen in professional football.
Early this season, Oliver showed the same explosiveness that made him a game-wrecker in college was also effective in the NFL, but his ability to clear contact quick enough to finish was a challenge. He has since improved and is starting to stuff the stat sheet. Over his last three games, Oliver tallied eight tackles, four sacks and a forced fumble. His current three-game sack streak is the first of its kind for a Buffalo rookie since Darryl Talley in 1983.
Oliver’s coming out party came on the biggest of stages against the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving. In the Bills’ 26-15 victory over the Cowboys, Oliver registered his first career multi-sack game and was disruptive against the run. The dynamic force many expected him to be right away was on full display against the No. 1 offense in football.
Oliver made his presence known on the first drive of the game, showing off his lateral quickness and range. He was lined up as a 3-technique, the backside DT, and tasked with a reach block attempt by right tackle La’el Collins. Oliver perfectly worked down the line of scrimmage while fending Collins and finished to limit Dallas to a modest two-yard gain. Oliver also did well to not allow Collins to drive him beyond the ball carrier and create a cutback opportunity for the back. Oliver’s awareness, quickness, lateral range, play strength and ability to finish were on full display here.
While Oliver’s ability to work laterally is impressive, that does not mean he can’t hold his own against drive blocks. He was again lined up as a 3-technique over the outside shoulder of All-Pro right guard Zack Martin and faced a combo block from Collins. Oliver, completely unfazed by the double-team attempt, maintained his leverage and reset the line of scrimmage to blow up the first-down run.
Low man wins, a fundamental from Pop Warner football, still applies to the NFL and it enabled Oliver to beat one of the NFL’s elite blockers in Martin. Oliver also did a great job of beating Martin’s punch, working into his frame and controlling the rep.
Oliver’s first sack against Dallas was of the strip-sack variety — not a bad way to start. He fired off the ball with low pads and quickly ate up ground to work to the edge of the left guard. As he collapses the pocket, Oliver executes a rip move while cornering the edge of the block and finishing. His quickness, hand usage, play strength and flexibility will lead to plenty of sacks in the future.
Oliver’s second sack against the Cowboys was an exciting blend of multiple traits that destine him to be a disruptive playmaker for years to come. The Bills’ defense dialed up a zone blitz, which required Oliver to slant to the opposite A-gap to open up a lane for the linebacker to blitz through.
Give Oliver credit for having a plan. Blitzes are not designed to get free rushers. They are intended to create favorable one-on-one matchups. Too often, the slanting defensive tackle in this situation just goes through the motions but not Oliver. He again played with exceptional leverage and got under the pads of four-time Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick. Oliver showcased his ability to convert speed to power and destroy the depth of the pocket. He drove Frederick into the face of quarterback Dak Prescott, disengages and finishes — Oliver’s usage of a one-arm stab is not to be overlooked on this rep. Oliver lacks length, but he understands that one arm extended is longer than two which kept his pads free of Fredericks punch.
There is no doubt about it, Oliver is heating up as the season hits the quarter pole and he is fulfilling the promise expected of a top-10 defensive tackle. Buffalo currently boasts a top-three defense and Oliver is a big reason why and will continue to be.