Bills have been borne by defense without stars, but now face their biggest challenge with the short hand

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BUFFALO, NY – With 1:15 left in the third quarter, down 38-3 to the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets quarterback Mike White threw a deep pass to the sideline intended for wide receiver Keelan Cole.

But safety Jordan Poyer chose it and set off a celebration among Bill’s defensive backs, who counted to five on their fingers and then let the “money” rain. Five marked the number of turnovers that the defense forced that day – four interceptions and one fumble – one of each of the starting defensive backs.

According to Bills, it marked the first time that five defenders for a team each had received a takeaway since at least 1967.

And Poyer was very aware of the story he was writing.

“Damn, that boy knew that,” security buddy Micah Hyde replied to his teammate. Hyde also wanted his defensive coordinator to know.

“I was joking [defensive coordinator Leslie] Frazier, “Hyde said.” I said, ‘Not ’85 Bears’ [who accomplished that feat]. I thought it was fun. “

Frazier, a cornerback at the 1985 Super Bowl Champions Chicago Bears, has been Bill’s defensive coordinator since 2017. This season, his defense is ranked No. 1 in allowed yards (275.2 per game), number two in scoring defense (16). , 5 points per game). ) and number two in takeaways (25). But the attack is getting the most attention, led by stars like quarterback Josh Allen and receiver Stefon Diggs.

Bills’ defense was not built around flashy acquisitions – though it did flirt with free agent JJ ​​Watt before landing with the Arizona Cardinals. Instead, the team’s focus has been on adding productive players who did not fit anywhere else, developing their own draft picks and resigning them to long-term deals.

One of the biggest tests for the Bills (7-4) comes against another top-ranked defense – and longtime division bully – the New England Patriots (8-4) Monday night (20:15 ET, ESPN). And Buffalo will have to do it without one of its top players in All-Pro corner Tre’Davious White, who was lost for the season after tearing the ACL in his left knee in the win over the Saints.

But it is the lesser known players in this defense that are making it work and it will have to take up the fight this week.

The challenge ahead

The Bills have a chance to beat the Patriots for the third time in a row. New England has lost three times in a row to a single opponent (including the playoffs) only five times under Bill Belichick, and not since the 2007-12 Giants.

Buffalo will have to do without White, who only allowed a 50.8 percent completion rate and a 58.9 passing pass to opposing quarterbacks, both fourth-best defensive backs with 50-plus goals this season, according to the NFL Next Gen Stats . He was the only player who had not given up a pass this season among the closest defensive players with at least 50 goals.

“We want to play for T. White. T. White was one of the best players on our team,” Diggs said. “He’s one of the hardest workers on our team, and not having one of your pieces or one of your guys out there, it’s definitely a little different … Because we knew at one point in this season that we would need guys to take the step up. “

Second-year corner Dane Jackson is expected to fill in for White. Good news: The Bills are getting some help with defensive tackles with Star Lotulelei, who is expected to return after missing three games on the reserve / COVID-19 list.

The game will be a benchmark in several ways. Buffalo will try to defeat the team that dominated the AFC East for so many years and has beaten the Bills in 35 out of 42 games under Bill Belichick, with two of the Bills’ victories coming last year. The Patriots won 17 AFC East titles under Belichick and spent 233 weeks in first place since 2000, nearly 200 more than anyone else.

With November’s AFC rookie of the month in quarterback Mac Jones playing well and the $ 163 million they invested in free agency, the Patriots are playing at the top level again.

“[Jones has] grown over the course of the year, “said Poyer. I think he has found a rhythm and he has good players around him. They run well, he throws the ball well, and his receivers catch the football well. That’s a good formula for a victory right there. “

It will be another tough challenge for a defense that has been dominant while the attack continues to find its identity. And it is the two players at the back end of the group who have played key roles in doing just that.

A top security duo

Just before the start of the season, Hyde and his wife, Amanda, had their second child, a baby girl. Security joked that his newfound early morning energy from the baby could irritate his teammates.

“I’m up in the morning and getting the milk hot. I’m feeding her and I’m getting into the building already in a couple of hours, so the young guys will probably get tired of me soon, because I’m motivated. I’m ready to go. “I’m on a mission. I want to do everything I can to help this team win a championship.”

The two captains – Hyde and Poyer – are both in their ninth season. They are the epitome of the model coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane have used to find defensive success, both of which came over in free agency in 2017 after having less success with previous teams.

“They’re interchangeable. They can both play in the box and they can both play at the back end,” said Greg Cosell of NFL Films, an analyst at ESPN’s NFL Matchup. “… I think both of those guys have a good sense of what they’re seeing.”

Since joining the Bills in 2017, Poyer, a seventh-round pick in the 2013 by the Eagles, is in fourth place in the league in interceptions (18) and is in third place in the NFL this season (five). Although Hyde does not get flashy takeaway numbers (three INTS in 2021), he has been a dominant member of the secondary, third in wickets (12) and pass breakups (34) since joining the team.

Defensive backs have a group chat just for them and go out to dinner every week, another example of the extensive time together. Taron Johnson is one of the least involved in responding to text messages, while backup security Jaquan Johnson is one of the players who responds often, while Poyer and Hyde “just really tell us what to do most of the time. of time, “said Taron Johnson.

The most valuable nickel

While Taron Johnson may be listening to advice from the two older security guards, his own work and contribution to the defense has been crucial. Bills has a nickel corner – almost always Johnson – on the field for 94% of snaps. It is the highest amount of any team in a single season since personal tracking began in 2007, and nickel defense was not used as commonly in the past.

By comparison, the Colts use it the second most this season with 79%. What is the reason? Bills’ confidence in Johnson, who signed a $ 24 million three-year extension in October.

When Johnson is the closest defender in slot machine coverage, he allows a completion rate of 46% (ranks first in the league), an expected number of points allowed of minus-14.4 (first), a passing rating of 57.7 (second) and yards per . trials of 4.6 (third). He plays at an incredibly high level, while at times being asked to play linebacker for the Bills.

“I remember I came here in my rookie year and wanted to be on the field 100% of the time because I was just playing nickel, and at the time, my rookie year, it was about 65% nickel,” Johnson said. . ESPN. “For them to have that kind of trust in me … hopefully I keep doing them right.”

It helps that Johnson has excelled by playing wherever the Bills need him, often as the third linebacker on the field.

“Taron Johnson is critical,” Cosell said. “I do not think they have played with three linebackers since week 6. So they play nickel on every snap. You can not do that unless your slot corner can do everything. And when I say everything, then he should be able to play the run, and we’ll really find out this week because the Patriots are a run-first team. “

As Johnson steps up to help as the virtual third linebacker on the field, he is working with a pair of strong linebackers in the 2018 first-round pick Tremaine Edmunds and recently re-signed Matt Milano. Despite uncertainty about what position Milan would play when he came to the NFL due to his size (6 feet, 223 pounds), he has proven to be one of the defense’s key pieces.

‘A complete multidimensional linebacker’

Offensive tackle Dion Dawkins remembers meeting linebacker Milan for the first time. The two were part of McDermott’s first draft class and were roommates for OTAs.

Milan is Dawkins’ “guy” because of his ability to keep up with the offensive linemen at the dinner table.

“He’s getting the exact same order as me,” Dawkins said. “If I get 20 wings, he gets 20 wings. If I get waffle fries, he gets waffle fries. And he’s legit when it comes to food. I could not ask for better from a thin guy who likes to eat.”

The linebacker does not completely agree with Dawkins’ assessment.

“I do not know about the full capacity, but [Dawkins] like Bar-Bill and I enjoy Bar-Bill occasionally. … Not as much as him. “

Milan had interest elsewhere as a free agent this offseason, but he re-signed with Buffalo and has been a major contributor. He leads the Bills in tackles for losses (10), which is twice as many as the second-ranked player on the team and is in ninth place in the league.

“He can play the run. He’s very aggressive, he has a good feel for what he sees,” Cosell said. “He can match man-to-man to close ends, which they do a lot with him. He’s a sideline-to-sideline player. Obviously, he can play in zone coverage.

“I just think he’s a complete, multidimensional linebacker who really fits in extremely well with today’s NFL games.”

With the key pieces playing together for four or five years, this defense has the potential to finish as the best this season, despite the growth still lacking from a young passing rush. The experience at the back end plays a central role in that.

“When we kind of click on the defense, you can feel it as a team when everyone is playing together, everyone is doing their job, everyone is playing,” said Milan. “So when we play free pair or something, you can feel it. So I just think guys know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and how they should be, and … everyone is on the same page in terms of communication.”

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