Why the Bills think Greg Rousseau is primed for breakout in Von Miller’s absence

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — When the Buffalo Bills returned to the field for spring practices, Spencer Brown turned to Dion Dawkins with an immediate observation about third-year pass rusher Greg Rousseau.

“S—,” he said. “Greg got way stronger.”

Rousseau, Buffalo’s 2021 first-round pick, was already strong. He’s six-foot-six and 267 pounds with an 83-inch wingspan. He had eight sacks last season despite missing four games with an injury. But still, Brown, who entered the NFL the same weekend as Rousseau and has seen him in every step of his pro career, could tell the difference.

“The closing speed that he has, it used to be like three steps and you could read,” Brown said. “Now it’s two steps and he’s in your s— already. He took the offseason well.”

Standing outside the Bills’ locker room days before the team’s season opener against the Jets, Rousseau is ready. The high-ankle sprain that hampered him throughout last season is a thing of the past. He spent his offseason training with some of the best pass rushers in the NFL at Von Miller’s summit in Vegas. He then trained with Christian Wilkins, Arik Armstead, Dexter Lawrence and others at Clemson. With Miller out for at least the first four games while recovering from a torn ACL, Rousseau is going to have the attention of opposing offenses. He welcomes it, because he hasn’t lost the feeling he had prior to injuring his ankle last season. Rousseau had four sacks in Buffalo’s first four games and five in the first seven games. Nine of his 14 quarterback hits came in the seven games prior to the ankle injury against the Jets in Week 8.

“It gave me the fuel and gave me the belief,” Rousseau said. “In life, you’ve got to believe you’re good at your job. You have to believe you can do this s—.”

Rousseau fully believes. His teammates describe him as reserved, expect when he’s dominating the Madden video game in team meetings on Friday. But he’s also introspective. It’s easy to see his ridiculous length and explosive strength. Dion Dawkins describes him as a “freak of nature.” Von Miller calls him “the tarantula.” But what his teammates also see is the way his brain works. He’s the one in meeting rooms who can answer every question about the defense that pops up. He’s confident in himself but not to the point where he’s not aware of his flaws and areas in which he needs to improve.

“He has definitely evolved,” Miller said. “He’s so smart. You can look at him and see how physically talented he is. I’m in the room each and every day. He’s so smart. Self-awareness is the key to evolution. If you’re not really self-aware and you feel like you’re in a good spot, there’s no way you can get better. His self-awareness is at a whole ‘nother level.”

Buffalo Bills defensive end Greg Rousseau (50) has experience chasing quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12), who will be in a different shade of green for the New York Jets when the teams meet on Monday. (Mark Konezny / USA Today)

Rousseau lights up when he talks about the mental part of the game. He’ll watch film of practice and see something a teammate did with one of his hands and try it out in his own game at practice. In Rousseau’s mind, “you can never stop learning. Once you stop learning, you’re done for.”

Going against him every day in practice, Brown knew Rousseau was going to be taking advantage of every weakness. He’s amazed by the way Rousseau reads body position and always finds a way to get leverage. And Rousseau is always the one calling out pass fronts for the rest of the defensive line.

You can never stop learning. Once you stop learning, you’re done for. The game changes every year. There’s different rushes that come and go, but you can take a little something from everybody.

“He’s just not running at the quarterback now,” Dawkins said. “He’s planning to win. Whether it takes him four different rushes to set it up or three, but he’s doing that. He’s doing this, this and this and then the fourth one he hits with you something where he was like, ‘Yup, I was working that.’ He uses his length and size to his advantage. As someone that I’ve seen grow, it’s beautiful to finally see. Because we need him. We need him now. Greg is here and the world knows it now. Greg is here. He will easily be the next $120 million man. I respect it.”

Having a plan as a pass rusher is the biggest thing Rousseau has learned from Miller. As a younger player, Rousseau realized how easy it was to get fatigued during a game and lose focus on how each rush sets up the next. Now he recognizes the value in being locked in to every rush and every situation.

Rousseau had a 15.2 percent pressure rate last season, according to Pro Football Focus. That was 14th best in the NFL among players with at least 200 snaps as a pass rusher, according to Tru Media. To put it into perspective, Rousseau’s pressure rate was just under Von Miller’s 15.7 percent rate and the two both finished the season with eight sacks.

When Miller was on the field last season, Rousseau’s pressure rate was 17.1 percent. Without Miller on the field, that dropped to 13.9 percent, a noticeable but not significant difference. Still, Rousseau is well aware that his play takes on added importance without Miller in the lineup. The addition of Leonard Floyd at edge rusher helps, but it’s Rousseau who has the ability to jump into the top tier of pass rushers in the NFL.

“You have to be on your s— or he’s going to expose you,” Jordan Phillips said. “That’s a dangerous player to have.”

Fellow defensive end Shaq Lawson said, “I see a 10-sack season from him.” Phillips didn’t want to put a number on it but said “if he has the year he can have he will be the highest paid defensive end in the league very soon.”

The Bills don’t have to worry about that next contract just yet. General manager Brandon Beane has invested significant resources in the defensive line in recent years. From 2019 to 2021, the Bills drafted three defensive ends (Rousseau, Boogie Basham and A.J. Epenesa) and a defensive tackle (Ed Oliver) in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft. Beane has taken swings in free agency, too, dating back to signing Trent Murphy in 2018 and Mario Addison in 2020 and more recently with Miller in 2022 and Floyd this spring. Now Beane has assembled what might be, on paper, the deepest group of defensive line talent the Bills have had since he took over. But Miller needs to get back healthy, and Rousseau needs to take the step so many in the building are expecting.

“It’s all on us to go out there and actually do it, not just talk about it,” Rousseau said. “We have to be coordinated and ready to mess s— up the whole entire game.”

(Top photo of Greg Rousseau: Bryan M. Bennett / Getty Images)

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