Assembling incredible talent and players who fit their scheme over the past five seasons is only part of the formula the Buffalo Bills used to turn out the NFL's finest defense by just about every statistical measure in 2021.
They also have had the right coaching fits, starting with head coach Sean McDermott and his defensive background and his hiring of Leslie Frazier as defensive coordinator in 2017.
Frazier last week was named the NFL's top defensive play caller by Pro Football Focus, which ranks players, coaches and teams based on an analytical formula that sometimes produces controversial, or at the very least, confounding results.
But in Frazier's case, he is deserving of the top ranking no matter how you determine it.
The Bills allowed the fewest yards and points per game in 2021. The 4.6 yards per play they surrendered were a league low and their 30 takeaways ranked third.
Regardless of the faulty play calls and/or communication in the final 13 seconds of regulation during last January's overtime playoff loss at Kansas City, Frazier deserves credit for helping them get to that point.
PFF's author, Eric Eager, points out that the Bills accomplished this "for a large part of the season without their best cornerback or without a highly paid player along their front four. At some point, Frazier is going to get another look as a head coach."
It should be noted that cornerback Tre'Davious White missed only three regular-season games plus the playoffs last season, and that Frazier's age (63), race and defensive background all work against him ever becoming a head coach again.
But he's established quite a niche in Buffalo, where it seems he will be able to keep the coaching the defense for as long as he wants.
Like all coaches, Frazier is a product of his environment. He was a sensational cornerback under head coach Mike Ditka and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan in the 1980s, until a devastating knee injury suffered in the Super Bowl ended his playing career at age 26.
As a coach, his first NFL assignment was working on what turned out to be a legendary staff put together by the Eagles' Andy Reid. It was with the Eagles more than two decades ago when he and McDermott first worked together.
However, Frazier's play calling most closely resembles that of two other head coaches he went on to assist: Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith, proponents of the Tampa 2, a zone coverage scheme in which the middle linebacker is sometimes called on to take deep drops to turn a Cover 2 turn into a Cover 3.
Even though the Bills typically work with an extra defensive back in slot corner Taron Johnson, they employ similar concepts and rarely allow the ball to go over their heads.
They simply make opponents work harder and longer to score, and it shows in the results. The Bills allowed a league-low 12 passing touchdowns in the regular season last year (before being burned for three in their playoff loss).
Now they're back for more after having beefed up their pass rush with free agent Von Miller and drafting cornerback Kaiir Elam in the first round.
"You have no idea from season to season what it's is going to be like," Frazier said this month, "but the enthusiasm and the excitement that those guys have gives you hope. But everybody's moving forward, looking forward, and that's where you want to be in our league."
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