With Josh Allen struggling, Bills’ defense feeling dangerous entering January push


Staff member

That was not an MVP performance from Josh Allen.

What we did see Sunday, however, was a Buffalo Bills defense that might inflict some serious damage in January and maybe February, too.

“We can be as dangerous as we want to be,” Bills safety Jordan Poyer said.

The crescendo has built toward the regular-season finale against the Miami Dolphins in Hard Rock Stadium, a showdown for the AFC East crown and home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

The Dolphins had a chance to render next weekend’s game moot but wilted against the Baltimore Ravens. The Dolphins also would have clinched had the New England Patriots upset the heavily favored Bills in Highmark Stadium, and that was fathomable with so many passes falling incomplete.

Twenty minutes into the game, Buffalo had minus-10 yards passing. Allen completed two of his 11 passes for 5 yards. Two were dropped. He’d been strip-sacked.

No matter. By then, Buffalo’s defense had caught more passes than its offense. The onslaught propelled the Bills to a 27-21 victory, keeping them within striking distance of a fourth-straight division championship.

Bills coach Sean McDermott has overseen a defense in flux all season, using an 11th different starting lineup, but it could be surging at the right time. McDermott deactivated star edge rusher Von Miller over lack of performance, a move that seemed long overdue. They welcomed back defensive tackle DaQuan Jones, whose return from a torn pectoral muscle in London seemed unlikely back then.

Granted, the Bills were up against quarterback Bailey Zappe and one of the worst rosters Bill Belichick ever has coached, but the Patriots also had won two of their previous three games over the Denver Broncos and Pittsburgh Steelers.

And the Bills’ defense put together a highlight reel.
“We been playing like we’re really the best, and I think we all believe we’re the best,” Bills cornerback Rasul Douglas said. “Every series, every snap, we communicate and we’re talking. We’re telling each other, ‘You the best, bro,’ It’s just that feedback that we get from each other, like, ‘Come on. Let’s go.’ I think that’s what we all need, that little boost, that spark.”

Douglas was that flame Sunday. The midseason trade acquisition was a game-changer when Buffalo needed one most, right after the coin toss.

Patriots reserve Jalen Reagor’s fifth kickoff return this year — just the 10th time he’d touched the ball — went 98 yards for a touchdown. Then, the Bills’ offense went three-and-out.

From there until the 12:36 mark of the second quarter, the following occurred:
  • Douglas deflected a Zappe pass that defensive tackle Ed Oliver scooped for an interception at New England’s 21-yard line. Tyler Bass kicked a field goal.
  • Douglas intercepted Zappe at New England’s 24-yard line. Allen scored on a 1-yard run four plays later.
  • Buffalo cornerback Christian Benford stripped tailback Ezekiel Elliott and recovered at New England’s 30-yard line. Bass kicked a field goal.
  • Douglas returned a Zappe interception 40 yards for a touchdown to give Buffalo a 20-7 lead.
After the spree, injured Patriots safety Jabrill Peppers tweeted at Douglas: “chill out man damn.”

Douglas credited defensive backs coach John Butler for cluing him into Patriots formations and plays to exploit and said their preparation should have allowed him to intercept the ball that Oliver snagged too. Douglas also briefly thought he had a fumble recovery one possession after the pick-six, but tailback Kevin Harris was ruled down before the ball dislodged.

The Bills on Halloween sent a third-round draft choice to the Green Bay Packers for Douglas and a fifth-round pick. In eight games since, he has recorded 29 tackles, four interceptions, eight pass breakups, two fumble recoveries and a sack. He won a Super Bowl as a rookie, part-time starter for the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles.

“Just his intensity, his effort and his understanding of the defense and ball in general,” Bills linebacker Terrell Bernard said, “I think that sets him apart and allows him to make a ton of plays on the ball.”

Bernard made a colossal defensive impact himself. He and Poyer each collected a game-high 10 tackles, but Bernard was best on the Patriots’ first possession after halftime. He notched a pair of sacks, the latter pushing them out of field-goal range and eventually forcing a punt. A question mark when the season began because he was replacing two-time Pro Bowl linebacker and 16th overall pick Tremaine Edmunds, Bernard has 6.5 sacks, the same Edmunds has over his six-year career.

In addition to his interception, Oliver added a third-down sack in the first quarter and another quarterback hit. Jones, unofficially playing 30 defensive snaps, made only two tackles but was lauded for freeing up those around him to make splashes.

“Guys took advantage of the opportunities they were given today, jumping routes, punching the ball out,” Bills edge rusher A.J. Epenesa said. “You take advantage of those tiny opportunities with timing that just,” he snapped his fingers, “happens that fast. It’s a matter of just that.”

Another sweet defender for Buffalo was punter Sam Martin. Remember when the Bills used to go weeks without Martin mattering? He sure did Sunday. Martin netted 47.8 yards on six attempts, dropping all inside the 20-yard line and three inside the 10.

Such an effort was required to overcome a sputtering offense.

While the Bills’ defense kept popping Zappe in the yapper, their offense endured the yips.

“I was just off, just trying to find a rhythm early, just couldn’t seem to find one,” Allen said. “Felt like we got into a little bit of a groove in the third and fourth quarter. I’ve got to start better than that. It’s never fun throwing incomplete pass after incomplete pass.”

Allen began the game with six straight incompletions, including drops from tailback James Cook and receiver Trent Sherfield. With 10 minutes left in the second quarter, Allen had completed just two of his 11 attempts for 5 yards. He had taken a sack (and fumbled, but guard Connor McGovern recovered) on the opening drive. So the Bills had negative-10 yards passing.

He threw a bad interception to rookie cornerback Alex Austin, a Bills seventh-round draft choice playing for his third team, with 5:43 to go until halftime.

“I thought we had some fundamental issues throughout the first two quarters, I would say for sure, with just throwing and catching,” McDermott said. “We had some penalties that were hurting us as well across the team. … That’s where we’ve got to focus heavily this week on improving those areas.”

Allen fumbled again in the fourth quarter (guard O’Cyrus Torrence recovered that one), but by then had started connecting on some throws. He completed eight of his 10 throws after halftime for 123 yards. He also added his another 1-yard touchdown plunge. His 15 rushing touchdowns are one behind O.J. Simpson’s 48-year-old club record.

Despite Allen’s gaudy ground stats, his performance juxtaposed with what Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson did to the Dolphins should end any debate about this year’s MVP. Jackson was the betting favorite entering Sunday and went 18-of-21 for 321 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions or fumbles while rushing six times for 35 yards.

Star receiver Stefon Diggs continued to be a negligible factor. He caught four of seven targets for 26 yards. Diggs has one touchdown over his past seven games and in that time is averaging 4.3 receptions for 37.4 yards. Gabriel Davis’ yo-yo campaign spun downward, two catches for 21 yards just one week after snagging four passes for 130 yards and a touchdown. Cook ran 16 times for 48 yards and caught one pass for minus-4.

The prevailing theory, when Buffalo lost Jones and All-Pro linebacker Matt Milano and top cornerback Tre’Davious White before the leaves started to change colors, was that former offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey’s offense would need to dial up ways to outscore opponents.

The script might have flipped entering the new year. Perhaps the defense can carry the load now.

“The sky’s the limit, really,” Poyer said. “We’re just in the moment. There was a lot of stuff that’s being said outside this locker room by a lot of different people.

“Do we care? Absolutely not.”