Bills thoughts: The DaQuan Jones plan, Patriots prediction, Matt Milano comeback denied


Staff member

As unlikely as it seemed three weeks ago, the Buffalo Bills have a chance to clinch their playoff ticket in 2023 with one game left to play. The first step is defeating the New England Patriots on Sunday.

After that, the clearest path is two of the Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers or Jacksonville Jaguars to lose their Week 17 matchup, which secures at least a wild-card position for Buffalo in the playoffs. And should the Miami Dolphins lose to the Baltimore Ravens, it would mean the Dolphins and Bills meet in Week 18 for the AFC East title and No. 2 seed in the playoffs.

But all the playoff hypotheticals begin with the Patriots. What did Week 17 bring to Bills practice? Here are several things to watch.

The DaQuan Jones plan?​

As slim as it seemed at the time of injury, the Bills hoped for starting defensive tackle DaQuan Jones to find his way back to the playing field this season, and for the team to have games that mattered down the stretch for him to return to. The Bills saw both of those hopes come true this week, as coach Sean McDermott announced Jones would not only be added to the 53-man roster this week, but is expected to play Sunday against the Patriots.

It’s a humongous addition to a defensive tackle group that has just been getting by without Jones. Ed Oliver has been outstanding all season, but the pieces around him have all left a bit to be desired. Jordan Phillips was an imperfect fit at one-technique, the 35-year-old Linval Joseph is at the stage of his career where he’s best utilized as a rotational player, and the duo of Tim Settle and Poona Ford, despite both having solid games against the Los Angeles Chargers, have underperformed this year relative to expectation. As the team’s best run-stuffer up the middle and adding the type of pass-rushing acumen he did over the first four weeks, Jones is as close to a game-changing acquisition as the Bills could have at this point of the season. In our weekly All-22 film study, he amassed a 3.41 GPA in his 113 defensive snaps. There are only two qualifying players on the team with a higher GPA at this point: linebacker Matt Milano and Oliver.

However, it’s been a lengthy layoff for Jones, who hasn’t played in a game since Oct. 8. That’s why getting him active this week, one full game ahead of a potential showdown in Miami, was so important. For players with that long of a layoff from an injury, the Bills’ preference has been to slowly ramp them up for at least their first game back. For context, Jones’ usual workload when healthy through the first four games put him at 51.2 percent of defensive snaps. It’s not a massive workload compared to others, but it’s understandable when you consider Jones’ size and responsibilities every down. So, in his first game back, I expect between 30 to 45 percent of snaps, right in the range of the usual workload of the Bills’ rotational defensive tackles. Last week against the Chargers, all three of Settle (43 percent), Ford (39) and Joseph (34) were in that range of snaps, while Oliver was way out front with 76 percent. Even if Jones’ snaps may be slightly muted compared to his usual workload, he should and likely will spend much of his time working next to Oliver — which could also include getting the “start” ahead of Settle, Joseph and Ford. Then, if all goes well, it’ll be a full go for Jones when the Dolphins game comes around.

More defensive boosts on the way?​

Not only are the Bills playing well, but they are getting healthier. Jones is back this weekend, as well as starting safety Micah Hyde, who missed the last two games due to a neck stinger and had been in a non-contact jersey at practice since that point. But on Friday, Hyde was out of the red jersey and practicing normally. And McDermott declared that Hyde, as long as all went well Friday, would indeed return to the lineup against the Patriots. The impact of Hyde in the lineup over what is behind him at safety is humongous for the Bills, even if Hyde’s season hasn’t gone as well as the rest of his Bills career. With Jordan Poyer, Taron Johnson, Rasul Douglas and Christian Benford in the secondary, Hyde’s return puts the Bills as close to complete on the defensive side as they’re likely going to get the rest of the year. Hyde likely senses that this could be his last big chance to play for a Super Bowl in his career as his future in Buffalo is unknown as a free agent after the year. Hyde turns 33 on Sunday.

The Bills also may get defensive end A.J. Epenesa back this week, who they deemed as questionable for the Patriots game. Epenesa also missed the last two games with an injury to his ribs but shed the non-contact jersey earlier in the week than Hyde did. By Friday, Epenesa was a full participant at practice, which serves as a promising sign for his availability Sunday. Due to how painful his injury was, the Bills may approach Epenesa’s reintegration in a similar way to Jones. They’ll likely have four other defensive ends active, so it may be in their best interest just to work Epenesa back in on fewer snaps than his usual average of 41.4 percent before returning him to his full role against the Dolphins. Either way, his presence as their third-best rusher is vital, as he’s an upgrade to both Shaq Lawson and Von Miller at this point in the year.

Milano playoff door slammed shut​

Although the Bills got a lot of good injury news this week, the return of Jones, Hyde and Epenesa is where it ends. Earlier in the week, McDermott was asked about the availability of star linebacker Matt Milano for the playoffs, and his answer left it open for interpretation. But asked to clarify Friday and if he had received any further indication from the team’s doctors, McDermott termed Milano’s potential playoff availability “a no-go.” Milano has been around the facilities as he continues to rehab from a still undefined right leg injury. The Bills have been asked about the specifics of Milano’s injury multiple times. However, McDermott has remained steadfast in deferring to the team’s doctors because he didn’t want to get the specificity of the injury incorrect. The Bills have made the best of life without Milano, formulating a role that works for his replacement, Tyrel Dodson, in limiting his passing down snaps. Dodson, as long as he remains healthy, will likely be the starter next to middle linebacker Terrel Bernard for the duration of the Bills’ potential playoff run.

Fournette or no Fournette this week?​

Veteran running back Leonard Fournette made his official in-game debut for the Bills last week as he filled in for the injured Ty Johnson. Fournette ended the game with 10 total offensive snaps and a handful of rushing opportunities, but that may be where it ends for now. Johnson was a full participant Friday and no longer wore the red non-contact jersey he had throughout all of practice last week and Thursday this week. Johnson also did not have an official injury designation, meaning he is healthy enough to play against the Patriots. It likely means bad news for Fournette. He has a long history in the league, but the Bills really like the energy Johnson brings to the offense in a backup role. Johnson’s speed, pass-catching ability and underrated blocking skills on pony personnel plays give the Bills an element to their offense they don’t get with Fournette.

Fournette also was missing from the team’s practice Friday and no official reason has been given. Though with practice squad players, the league does not mandate they are on a team’s official injury report. Either way, things are trending toward Johnson being active ahead of Fournette against the Patriots on Sunday.

Projected inactives: IOL Alec Anderson, DE Kingsley Jonathan, DT Poona Ford, CB Kaiir Elam, S Damar Hamlin

Prediction: Bills 30, Patriots 12​

The Bills survived a scare on the road last week against the Chargers, though the Bills certainly don’t lack motivation against the Patriots this week. They’re at home, where they’ve played very well over the last two seasons. They’re up against a team that served them an embarrassing last-second loss in Week 7. And on top of it all, the Bills can clinch a playoff spot, starting with a win. As for the matchup, the Bills have mentioned how Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe has taken better care of the football, though McDermott’s notable record against inexperienced quarterbacks enters the equation. Especially with a defense close to full health, McDermott likely aims to confuse Zappe on passing downs as much as possible. That, combined with the Patriots being without their top offensive skill player in Rhamondre Stevenson, makes this a much different matchup than last time. Additionally, quarterback Josh Allen likely will have been frustrated with some of his preventable footwork issues when throwing inaccurate passes last week and aim to make that a priority to fix in this matchup. Ultimately, I expect the Bills to have a strong offensive showing despite potential rain in the forecast and put the game out of reach before they’re halfway through the fourth quarter.