Bills have been carried by defense without stars, but now face their biggest challenge short

With the Cleveland Browns 0-13, the Buffalo Bills find themselves in a position to win their first game since September of last year. However, it won’t be easy for them against an undefeated Los Angeles Rams team that has put up 35 points per game this season.

Bills have been carried by defense without stars, but now face their biggest challenge short

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    ESPN’s Alaina Getzenberg

NEW YORK — BUFFALO, N.Y. — With 1:15 remaining in the third quarter and the Jets behind the Buffalo Bills 38-3, quarterback Mike White fired a long throw to wide receiver Keelan Cole down the sideline.

But it was intercepted by safety Jordan Poyer, setting off a celebration among the Bills defensive backs, who counted to five on their fingers and then let the “money” rain. The defense caused five turnovers that day, including four interceptions and one fumble, one by each of the starting defensive backs.

According to the Bills, it was the first time in at least 1967 when five defensive backs from the same club each earned a takeaway.

And Poyer was well aware of the precedent he had established.

Micah Hyde, a fellow safety, responded for his friend, “Hell yes, that dude knew.” Hyde also wanted his defensive coordinator to be aware of the situation.

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“With [defensive coordinator Leslie] Frazier, I was fooling around,” Hyde added. “‘Not the ’85 Bears,’ I remarked, referring to the team that achieved that feat in 1985. He thought that was amusing.”

Since 2017, Frazier, a cornerback with the 1985 Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears, has served as the Bills defensive coordinator. His defense leads the league in yards allowed (275.2 per game), scoring defense (16.5 points per game), and takeaways (tied for second) (25). However, the offense, headed by quarterback Josh Allen and receiver Stefon Diggs, receives the most of the focus.

Although the Bills flirted with free agency J.J. Watt before he signed with the Arizona Cardinals, the defense was not constructed around showy signings. Instead, the organization has focused on bringing in effective players that didn’t fit anywhere else, as well as developing and re-signing its own draft selections.

On Monday night, the Bills (7-4) will face another top-ranked defense — and long-time division bully — the New England Patriots (8-4) in one of their most important games (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN). And Buffalo will have to do it without one of its best players, All-Pro cornerback Tre’Davious White, who tore his ACL in his left knee against the Saints and will be sidelined for the season.

But it’s the defense’s lesser-known players who make it work, and they’ll have to step up this week.

The task that is ahead


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“I’m up early in the morning heating up the milk. I’m feeding her and I’ve been up for a few of hours, so the young boys are definitely going to become weary of me soon since I’m so driven. I’m all set to leave. I’ve set out on a quest. I want to assist this team win a championship in whatever way I can.”

Hyde and Poyer, the two captains, are in their eighth seasons. They exemplify the philosophy that defensive coordinator Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane have employed to achieve defensive success since joining the organization in free agency in 2017.

“They may be used interchangeably. They both have the ability to play in the box and on the back end “NFL Films’ Greg Cosell, an analyst on ESPN’s NFL Matchup, said. “I believe both of those individuals have a terrific sense of what they’re seeing.”

Since joining the Bills in 2017, Poyer, a seventh-round selection of the Eagles in 2013, is tied for fourth in the league in interceptions (18) and is tied for third in the NFL in interceptions this season (five). Hyde has been a powerful component of the secondary since joining the club, ranking third in interceptions (12) and pass breakups (34) while not having dazzling takeaway stats (three INTS in 2021).

Another example of the substantial time spent together is the defensive backs, who have their own group chat and go out to dinner once a week. Taron Johnson is one of the players who reacts the least to text messages, although backup safety Jaquan Johnson is one of the players who responds often, and Poyer and Hyde are “really basically instructing us what to do most of the time,” according to Taron Johnson.

Nickel is the most expensive metal.

Taron Johnson may take counsel from the two veteran safety, but his own effort and contributions to the defense have been crucial. For 94 percent of plays, the Bills have a nickel corner on the field, which is virtually usually Johnson. That’s the most any club has accumulated in a single season since personnel monitoring started in 2007, and nickel defense wasn’t deployed as much before.

The Colts, on the other hand, have used it the second most this season, at 79 percent. What is the rationale for this? Johnson, who signed a three-year, $24 million agreement with the Bills in October, has earned the team’s confidence.

Johnson allows a 46 percent completion rate (first in the league), minus-14.4 anticipated points allowed (first), 57.7 passer rating (second), and 4.6 yards per attempt when he is the closest defender in slot coverage (third). He’s performing at a high level while also being asked to play linebacker for the Bills on occasion.

“I remember coming here my rookie year and wanting to be on the field 100 percent of the time because I was only playing nickel and it was probably 65 percent nickel at that time,” Johnson told ESPN. “For them to have so much faith in me… perhaps I can continue to make them right.”

Johnson has performed well wherever the Bills have needed him, often as the third linebacker on the field.

“Taron Johnson is crucial,” added Cosell. “Since Week 6, I don’t believe they’ve played with three linebackers. As a result, they play nickel every snap. You won’t be able to achieve that unless your slot corner is capable of doing everything. And, as I’ve said before, he needs to be able to play the run, which we’ll see this week because the Patriots are a run-first team.”

Johnson works alongside a pair of stout linebackers in 2018 first-round choice Tremaine Edmunds and newly re-signed Matt Milano when he steps in to serve as the virtual third linebacker on the field. Despite confusion about the position Milano will play in the NFL because to his stature (6-foot-223 pounds), he has established himself as a major member of the defense.

‘A multifaceted linebacker in every sense of the word.’

Matt Milano, an outside linebacker, leads the Bills in tackles for loss (10). USA TODAY Sports/Rich Barnes

Dion Dawkins, an offensive lineman, recalls meeting LB Milano for the first time. They were roommates during OTAs and were members of McDermott’s first draft class.

Milano is Dawkins’ “boy” at the dinner table due of his ability to keep up with the offensive lineman.

Dawkins said, “He receives the exact same order as me.” “He’ll get 20 wings if I get 20 wings. If I order waffle fries, he’ll get waffle fries as well. And when it comes to cuisine, he’s the real deal. I couldn’t ask for a more slim man who enjoys eating.”

Dawkins’ evaluation does not sit well with the linebacker.

“I’m not sure about to the full extent, but [Dawkins] enjoys Bar-Bill, and I sometimes like Bar-Bill. Not nearly as much as he does.”

Milano was a free agency this summer and received attention from other teams, but he re-signed with Buffalo and has been a vital player. He has ten tackles for loss, which is twice as much as the team’s second-best player and places him seventh in the league.

“He’s a good runner. He’s active and has a solid sense of what he’s seeing,” Cosell said. “He can match up man-to-man with tight ends, which is something they do a lot with him.” He’s a player who moves from sideline to sideline. He clearly has the ability to play zone coverage.

“I simply believe he’s a full, multifaceted linebacker that fits in very well with today’s NFL game.”

Despite the need for progress from a youthful pass rush, this defense has the potential to finish as the best this season, with the main components having played together for four or five years. The backend experience is crucial in this regard.

“You can feel it as a team when everybody’s playing together, everybody’s doing their thing, everybody’s creating plays,” Milano remarked. “Then you can tell when we have a couple of off-kilter plays or anything. So I believe it’s just a matter of men understanding each other’s skills and limitations, as well as where they’re going to be, and… everyone’s on the same communication page.”

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