Jordan Poyer has been here for all of it. Poyer came to the Bills as a free agent in 2017, at the start of the Sean McDermott era. The all-Pro strong safety understands as well as anyone that the standard for pass defense in Buffalo is very high indeed.
The Bills have allowed by far the fewest touchdown passes of any team in the NFL over those six seasons. They’ve been first in the league against the pass twice, in 2019 and again last year, when they allowed 163 passing yards a game and 12 TD passes — the fewest any NFL team allowed in a decade.
So, the numbers over the past few games have been a trifle concerning. Over the last three games, the Bills have allowed opponents to complete 65.5 percent of their passes for 835 yards (or 278 yards a game) and five touchdowns with just two interceptions.
That would be a routine three-week stretch for some NFL teams, including Thursday’s opponent, the Detroit Lions. But for Leslie Frazier’s proud unit, it doesn’t measure up to the usual standard.
“Of course,” said Poyer, who played in Sunday’s 31-23 win over the Browns after missing the previous two games with an elbow injury. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’re never satisfied. We do have high standards in our group. We just want to continue to work and get better.”
Poyer wasn’t pleased with the way the defense finished the win over Cleveland. The Bills had an 18-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. But they allowed Jacoby Brissett to drive the Browns to consecutive 75-yard TD drives – both finished with touchdown passes – to cut the lead to eight.
You could dismiss it as garbage-time yardage, but the Browns made it a one-score game and came close to recovering an onside kick that would have put them in position to tie, and maybe hand the Bills a second straight soul-crushing loss.
“It’s figuring out a way to close the game, figuring out a way to get the ball off somebody, pick the ball off,” Poyer said. “You understand they have to throw the football. So, those should be situations we feel like we can thrive in, and we want to thrive in.
“When those situations come up again, we’ll be better for it.”
They’re better, of course, with Poyer on the field. The Bills are 6-0 when Poyer plays, 1-3 when he doesn’t. Their three losses (to the Dolphins, Jets and Vikings) are by a combined eight points. Put their all-Pro safety out there to help protect second-half leads in those games, there’s a chance they’re 10-0 today.
“I wish I had been playing every game,” Poyer said. “I wish I could have been healthy enough to play every single game. But it is what it is. Injuries happen and I’m here now, healthy as I can be and ready to roll on Thursday.”
True, injuries are a way of life in the NFL. It’s amazing how well the Bills did early in the season, at times with all four of their presumed starters on the shelf. Micah Hyde, the other star safety, is gone for the year. Tre’Davious White, their all-Pro cornerback, still hasn’t returned from a knee injury suffered against the Saints a year ago on Thanksgiving.
White has been practicing for three weeks, but it’s still uncertain when he’ll be back. The Bills can afford to be patient, and they might be waiting until next Thursday night’s divisional game at New England to put their star cornerback in the lineup.
“We just take it one day at a time,” McDermott said Tuesday. “We’re all encouraging Tre’. He’s climbed a big mountain to this point, and we just keep taking it one day at a time here.”
Patience might run thin if the defense struggles on Thanksgiving against a dangerous, well-balanced Lions offense that is ninth overall in the NFL in offense and sixth in the league in yards per play — sixth in yards per pass play and ninth on the ground.
Detroit has a strong running back in Jamaal Williams, who has 668 yards rushing and leads the NFL in touchdowns with 12. They have an elite wideout in Amon-Ra St. Brown, who earlier this season became the first NFL player ever to have eight receptions and a touchdown catch in six consecutive games.
Quarterback Jared Goff is no superstar, but he can hurt a defense when he has time to throw. Goff has completed 64 percent of his throws for 2,442 yards and 15 TDs. He’s certainly more capable than the Jets’ Zach Wilson, who had the best game of his career against the Bills, then got humiliated on Sunday by the Patriots.
Granted, the Bills were determined to stop Cleveland’s star tailback Nick Chubb on Sunday and held him to his worst game in a year. But that doesn’t excuse the soft defense against Brissett in the final minutes, or allowing a couple of third-and-long completions earlier.
“We’re just trying to win games,” said edge rusher Von Miller. “Wins come in all shapes and sizes and complexions. Sometimes they look good. Sometimes you blow guys out, sometimes you win by one.
“Of course, we don’t want to give up plus-300 yards,” Miller said. “Of course, I want to keep them down to 100 yards. That would be great. I think the league average is around 300 yards.”
Actually, the NFL average is 221 passing yards per game. The Bills are giving up an average of 221 passing yards. You don’t need to be a math major to conclude they’ve been average.
The Bills have allowed a 100-yard receiver in consecutive games — Justin Jefferson had 193 yards for the Vikings, Amari Cooper 113 for the Browns last Sunday. Only one receiver, Tampa Bay’s Chris Godwin, had 100 yards against them in the regular season a year ago, and he got there in overtime.
Maybe we’ve been spoiled, but we’ve grown accustomed to a much higher standard of pass defense from this Bills team.
“Of course,” said defensive tackle Daquan Jones. “Every day, every week, we want to get better and better. We won this last game, but the mindset and attitude was, we felt like we lost because of what we allowed them to do in some areas of the game.
“We want to come back and fix that,” Jones said. “In a couple of weeks here, it’s crunch time. We got to fix all the stuff we can fix now and get ready to make that run.”
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.