While so much of the spotlight shone brightly on rookie quarterback Josh Allen following last week’s stunning rout of the Vikings, it was actually the Bills’ defense – written off as horrendous after two weeks – that deserved the bulk of the praise.
After allowing 78 points in its two season-opening losses, 75 coming in the first six quarters before things began to settle into place in the second half against the Chargers, the Bills were dynamic against Kirk Cousins and the Vikings.
“It was great to see our defense step up and play as well as they did,” said defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, who had been stripped by head coach Sean McDermott of his play-calling duties in the second half against Los Angeles, but then was given those duties back in Minnesota. “We came really close to pitching a shutout, so it was a great effort by a lot of guys throughout the day.”
This is the kind of defense the Bills have to play given the state of their offense, if they hope to win more than they lose in 2018. While Allen provided a spark in his second career start, a closer examination reveals that the defense was responsible for a chunk of his success.
Allen led an impressive game-opening 75-yard drive as he rolled up five first downs and then capped it with a 10-yard touchdown run. He also had a nice 65-yard drive that included four first downs leading to his one-yard plunge that increased Buffalo’s lead to 24-0.
But the defense forced two turnovers in the first quarter that gave Allen drive starts at the Vikings 15 and 25, and those resulted in 10 Buffalo points. Also, the defense forced a punt from deep in Minnesota territory that gave Allen a drive start at the Vikings 48 and that turned into a field goal.
Outside of the two lengthy TD drives, the Bills had nine possessions of two first downs or less, and they punted six times. Much of that came in the second half when they were content to sit on a 27-0 halftime lead, but again, the reason they were able to play it conservative was because the defense continually stopped the Vikings.
“I think guys are starting to put the pieces of the puzzle together,” said defensive end Jerry Hughes, who was dominant on the edge with 10 quarterback pressures, one of which resulted in a strip-sack of Cousins.
One of those guys was linebacker Matt Milano, who filled the stat sheet all the way across with eight tackles, a sack, an interception, and a fumble recovery, all of which earned him AFC defensive player of the week honors.
“In this game, you either make big plays or you don’t, and certainly we had our fair share of them,” said Hughes.
Pass rush was a major problem for the Bills last season as they ranked 31st in sacks per pass attempt. There wasn’t much happening in the first two games, either, but in Minnesota it all came together as the Bills had four sacks and, according to Pro Football Focus, 40 individual pressures.
“A lot of times, the difference between having monster games and guys just having solid games is this,” tackle Kyle Williams said, mimicking a quarterback tapping the ball. “It’s a quarter second, third of a second, but it makes all the difference. No pressure to a pressure to a hit to a sack, that’s how it works.”
As impressive as they were in Minnesota, it will likely be tougher in Green Bay because this time they’ll be going against Aaron Rodgers. If the Bills don’t generate the same type of pressure, Rodgers, even on his gimpy knee, will give the Bills’ defense fits.
“I’ll take Aaron Rodgers hobbling over most of the quarterbacks in the league,” said safety Micah Hyde, who was Rodgers’ Green Bay teammate for four years before joining the Bills last season. “He still has the intelligence, the arm, he’s going to get it done regardless. We know he’s going to play his A-game, we know what type of quarterback he is, so we have to play accordingly.”
This is the 13th regular-season meeting, and the Bills lead 8-4. The Bills haven’t played in Green Bay since 2010 when they suffered a 34-7 wipeout. All-time in Green Bay/Milwaukee, the Bills are 2-4, but they have never lost to the Packers at home (6-0). In the last meeting, they stunned Green Bay 21-13 in a game where they held Aaron Rodgers to a 34.3 passer rating, the lowest of his career, and a 40.4 completion percentage which was the second-worst of his career.
BY THE NUMBERS
4 – Times since 1986, the year Jim Kelly came to Buffalo, that the Bills have been double-digit underdogs in back-to-back weeks. Last week and this week, and it also occurred in 2007, 2010 and 2012.
-- RB LeSean McCoy, who missed last week’s game with a rib injury, started the work week wearing the red no-contact jersey, but Sean McDermott said he’s making progress.
-- RB Marcus Murphy was also nursing a rib injury in a red jersey and participated in a limited manner Wednesday.
-- P Corey Bojorquez had a great game in Minnesota. He averaged 43.2 net yards on six punts, with five of those downed inside the 20, three of those inside the 10. It’s only three weeks, but he has been a clear upgrade over Colton Schmidt who was the Bills’ punter the previous four years.
-- TE Charles Clay made only two receptions for 18 yards and also dropped what would have been a TD pass in the second quarter. He practiced on a limited basis with an undisclosed ailment.
-- C Russell Bodine got his first regular-season playing time of the year. He did not play a single snap in the first two games, but he started against the Vikings. He suffered from cramps and missed nine snaps but was able to finish the game.
-- WR Ray Ray McCloud made his NFL debut after missing the first two games with a knee injury. He caught a six-yard swing pass on the first play of the game, but it was his only catch. He was deep in punts, and he made a mistake letting a punt hit the ground which cost the Bills about 25 yards of field position.
-- CB Tre’Davious White had another excellent game. He followed Vikings WR Stefon Diggs most of the day and Diggs had only four catches for 17 yards. White now seems capable of traveling with the top receivers, should the Bills feel the need.
-- LB Tremaine Edmunds did a better job in coverage and with his pursuit angles than the previous week and he led the Bills 10 tackles.
-- LB Lorenzo Alexander had a big game as Pro Football Focus credited him with eight hurries and he had one pass breakup and recovered a fumble on his 39 snaps.
DE Jerry Hughes. He was a man possessed in the victory over the Vikings. The Bills knew they would have some matchup advantages up front, especially if Buffalo could get a lead and make the Vikings one-dimensional. That’s exactly what happened. Hughes abused Minnesota LT Riley Reiff. Hughes was credited by Pro Football Focus with nine hurries, two QB hits, and one sack which also resulted in a forced fumble. He also played well in the loss to the Chargers, and if he can maintain that pace, a Buffalo pass rush that struggled so much in 2017 could become a problem for opposing offenses.
Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll concocted a superb game plan last week for rookie Josh Allen that featured quick throws which enabled him to get into a rhythm. Allen played within the plan, but he also used his athleticism to make several big plays with his legs including a 10-yard scramble for a touchdown. The Packers do not have the same talent Minnesota does on defense, and now they’ll be without stud DT Muhammad Wilkerson for the rest of the season. The Bills may get LeSean McCoy back, so they’ll try to run the ball, but again, the best mode of attack may be to utilize more quick passes to get the ball out of Allen’s hands.
The Buffalo defense is coming off a superb effort, but things ratchet up against Aaron Rodgers throwing to a corps of targets that includes WRs Davante Adams, Randall Cobb and Geronimo Allison, and TE Jimmy Graham. Graham could be a particular problem because the Bills have often struggled to stop pass-catching tight ends, though they are better-equipped these days with rookie MLB Tremaine Edmunds. Green Bay has not run the ball well, so the Bills should be able to commit more men in coverage rather than stack the box. One key will be how much Rodgers can exploit the other CBs besides Tre’Davious White. Kirk Cousins had no luck last week, but Rodgers is a different story facing the likes of Phillip Gaines, Ryan Lewis and Taron Johnson.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Hughes vs. Packers LT David Bakhtiari. Hughes has started the season like he’s hellbent on earning a Pro Bowl berth. Hughes absolutely abused Minnesota LT Riley Reiff. The Bills’ film evaluation determined that Hughes had 10 quarterback hurries to go with his sack/forced fumble. He created so much heat that Kirk Cousins never looked comfortable. Aaron Rodgers is playing on a gimpy knee, and if Bakhtiari can’t handle Hughes, the Packers will have to shift their blocking scheme.
Bills RBs vs. Packers LBs. The Bills had great success in Minnesota with Josh Allen throwing short passes to the backs and tight ends. His two biggest plays came when Chris Ivory scooted 55 yards with a short pass, and then TE Jason Croom took advantage of a busted coverage to catch a 26-yard TD. Clay Matthews is one of the best pass-rushing LBs in the game, but he, Nick Perry and Blake Martinez will have to mind their coverage responsibilities. If they take those throws away, the Packers should be able to get pressure on Allen, who has shown a tendency to hold the ball too long.