Sullivan: Star secondary ignites Bills' return to normalcy

Jerry Sullivan

Mike White was the talk of the town in New York last week, which tells you how desperate football fans are for happy news in the Big Apple. It was right there in the Daily News headline on Sunday morning: “It’s a fun Jets story, so enjoy it while it lasts!”

It lasted until White ran into the best pass defense in the NFL. That’s when the football fairy tale ended. White, who had ripped up a bad Bengals defense for 405 yards in an upset win two weeks earlier, was in way over his head in a 45-17 Buffalo rout.

You want to talk about fun? How about this little defensive jamboree? The Bills intercepted White four times. Both outside cornerbacks, Tre’Davious White and Levi Wallace, had a pick. So did strong safety Jordan Poyer and nickel corner Taron Johnson.

(Yes, White intercepted White, one week after Josh Allen intercepted Josh Allen in Jacksonville).

What's more, free safety Micah Hyde, who will be in the Pro Bowl if there are any lucid people voting, recovered a fumble after ripping the ball away from wideout Corey Davis late in the first half. The Jets, who were driving and down only 17-3 at the time, were basically toast.

So if you’re keeping track, the Bills’ top five defensive backs all had a takeaway in the same game. I’d like to know how many times that has happened in NFL history. Is there a name for such a collective feat? A Secondary Slam? Football’s ultimate Take Five?

Yeah, it was fun times all around, and largely at poor Mike White’s expense. The Buffalo defense, which leads the league in points and yards allowed, turned White back into a pumpkin. They made him look like the marginal, journeyman quarterback that he is.

This was just what the Bills needed after that discouraging and ugly loss at Jacksonville the week before: An emphatic victory that silenced some of the lingering doubts and reminded the sports world that they’re a legitimate contender for a Super Bowl championship.

Yeah, it was a lot of fun. How about this offensive Grand Slam? Four different Bills had a rushing touchdown — and none was named Josh Allen. Devin Singletary, Zack Moss, Isaiah McKenzie and Matt Breida had one each. Breida, who hadn’t even played since Week Two, also scored the game’s opening touchdown on a 15-yard strike from Josh Allen 2:45 into the festivities.

That came after a four-game stretch in which the Bills’ running backs had been arguably the least productive group in the NFL, producing only five total first downs and zero rushing touchdowns over an abysmal run.

All the TD celebrations were sure to lift the spirits of a team after an embarrassing loss. Spread the joy around. Allen, who said he played like crap against the Jags, went 21-for-28 passing for 366 yards and two touchdowns, completing passes to eight different teammates. And his performance was a bit of a footnote.

Wideout Stefon Diggs had eight catches for 162 yards, his best yardage day as a Bill. He had a couple of remarkable athletic grabs. Good things tend to happen when you throw Stef the ball a lot. Duh. Gabriel Davis had a quiet 105 receiving yards, the second-most productive day of his two-year NFL career.

“I thought (offensive coordinator) Brian Daboll called a great game, he really did,” said head coach Sean McDermott. “He changed the look enough, changed the profile of the offense, and I thought that was well-executed. It was good to get Stef going there. He gives us a ton of energy.”

Daboll seems more effective when he’s using the whole bag of tricks. The offense has a more dynamic profile when he integrates McKenzie into the attack, especially on the jet sweeps that give defenses another threat to worry about. Daboll gets criticized for pushing the running game when it’s sputtering, but the offense is at its best when it’s drawing energy from the running plays.

“It’s good for all of us, for the entire team,” McDermott said. “It was fun to watch: The running backs making plays, the offensive line helping us make plays in the running game, and then getting the ball up in the air to some really good receivers.”

McDermott talked about “fun” several times in his post-game comments. It had to be enjoyable to see his team respond to a dreadful loss that led to a lot of soul-searching. He gave the players the credit. He said it wasn’t anything he or the coaches said that got the Bills re-focused to play their best, it was the team’s internal leadership.

A lot of that veteran leadership comes from the secondary, particularly Hyde and Poyer. They’ve been an elite safety tandem since coming to town for McDemott's inaugural campaign in 2017. Their physical skills and football intelligence are palpable on game days, when opposition quarterbacks struggle mightily to make plays down the field.

Teams rarely make big pass plays against the Buffalo secondary, especially early in games. The Bills have now gone 16 straight games, including playoffs, without allowing a touchdown in the first quarter. They’ve given up just six points in the first quarter all season.

“Give the defensive staff credit,” McDermott said. “(Defensive coordinator) Leslie Frazier has them ready to go. They come up with a good plan and the players seem to understand the plan, which is critical to play well early in the football game.”

White never had a chance. He had a perplexed look from the start, as if he didn’t understand what the Bills were showing him. Disguise is a big part of Frazier’s defense. They’ve dominated some bad quarterbacks. But they've also had their way with Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert in the past two seasons.

As I said last week, they don’t have to apologize for beating bad teams, though they need to answer if they lose to them. The Bills’ defense doesn’t let bad quarterbacks beat them — the 9-6 loss in Jacksonville certainly wasn’t the fault of the pass defense.

When you’re a contender, you beat the teams in front of you. The Bills played three bad teams in a row — Dolphins, Jaguars, Jets — and beat two of them handily, though the offense struggled for half the Miami game and all of the loss to the Jags.

On Sunday, the defense dominated without two of its top players, middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and nose tackle Star Lotulelei, who was ruled out just before the game due to COVID-19 protocols. They were also without defensive tackle Justin Zimmer. It didn’t matter. The defense was in charge from the outset.

The team that showed up in New Jersey looked like the one I expected to reach the Super Bowl. There are still questions about their ability to run the ball consistently, and for Allen to make the most critical throws against the very best teams. The defense is elite, but they haven’t played many of the top quarterbacks lately.

But that’s the NFL. That Jets team beat the Titans and Bengals. The Super Bowl champion Bucs lost on Sunday to a Washington team that the Bills smashed, 43-21. The Ravens lost to the Dolphins last week. The Cowboys got smoked by Denver. The Chiefs haven’t looked the same this year and barely got by the Giants.

It’s a crazy, unpredictable league. The Bills can beat anybody if they play the way they did Sunday. The fact is, they’re in every game they play with this defense. They’re 6-3, still half a game ahead of the surging Patriots in the AFC East.

The soft middle of the schedule is behind them. Next, they host the Colts, who have won four of five. Then it’s at the Saints on Thanksgiving night, home for the Patriots on Monday night, and at Tampa Bay the week after. Then home against a dangerous, perplexing Panthers team and back at the Pats a week later.

We’ll know a lot more about the Bills a month from now. You hate to think they needed a fiasco like the Jags loss to wake them up. But they seem to have regained their sense of urgency. It’s just in time, because the fun is only beginning.

Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at scoreboard@gnnewspaper.com.

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