Bills nickel corner Taron Johnson might have looked around during Thursday’s practice and been struck by what he saw — or to be more precise, what he didn’t see.
None of the Bills’ top four other defensive backs were on the field. That’s counting Pro Bowl cornerback Tre’Davious White, who hasn’t played since tearing his ACL last Thanksgiving.
Dane Jackson was looking on from the sidelines, days after being released from the hospital for a scary neck injury against the Titans. Veteran safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer weren’t practicing, either. Hyde hurt his neck late in Sunday’s game and Poyer was nursing a sore foot.
On Friday, the Bills announced that Jackson and Hyde wouldn’t play on Sunday in Miami. Poyer did practice in the portion that was open to the media but was a limited participant overall. Hyde and Poyer have each started and played 88 of 90 games, counting playoffs, since coming to Buffalo in 2017.
“Yeah, we’re going to have enough guys to play,” Johnson said with a smile. “We’ve got some young guys that are going to be out there. I trust them.”
Rookie cornerback Kaiir Elam will make his first NFL start in Miami on Sunday, opposite fellow first-year man Christian Benford. Damar Hamlin is expected to start at free safety with Hyde sidelined. Jaquan Johnson is Poyer’s backup at strong safety. He and Hamlin have one career start between them.
It’s never ideal to lose defensive backs in the NFL. But this is an especially bad time for the Bills secondary to be compromised by injuries. They’ll be facing a Miami offense that came from 21 points down in the fourth quarter to beat the Ravens on Sunday, setting a franchise record for the biggest comeback ever in the fourth.
Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, a polarizing figure since the Dolphins took him fifth overall in the draft, had one of the biggest passing games in team history. He threw for 469 yards and six touchdowns, tying the team record for TD passes in a game.
The Dolphins are a much more daunting offense with Tyreek Hill in the fold. Hill and Jaylen Waddle each had more than 170 yards receiving against Baltimore. Miami became the first team in NFL history to have a QB throw for 400 yards, with two receivers going over 170 yards with two TDs.
Hill and Waddle are the swiftest wideout tandem in the league, a potential nightmare for opposing secondaries — even when they’re at full strength. Hill’s speed has tormented the Bills before, most notably in the Chiefs’ comeback win over the Bills in the playoffs.
“You can’t really prepare for it,” Taron Johnson said. “When you’re out there, you just got to be aware of it. We’re all aware, and we’re going to do everything we can to limit them. (Tagovailoa) is improved. He’s got some weapons, obviously. He’s using them. So, our main thing is just eliminating his success.”
Johnson has come a long way in his five NFL seasons, becoming a solid nickel corner in the league’s top pass defense. He said the defensive backs will relish the challenge.
“Oh, we’re really excited!” Johnson said. “We’ve got a couple of guys that are from Florida (Elam and Jaquan). They’re going to play with a chip in their shoulder, showing they can play in this league. So, I’m excited for them.”
Injuries are a way of life in the NFL, whether you’re a contender or not. Taron Johnson said adversity can be a positive thing for a team that’s expected to win the Super Bowl.
“For sure, for sure,” he said. “I feel every team goes through adversity. The Super Bowl champs last year went through that, and the year before that. It’s part of the game.”
Star edge rusher Von Miller echoed those sentiments at Media Day on Thursday in the fieldhouse.
“Every single Super Bowl team I’ve been on, we had to deal with some type of injury,” said Miller, who has won the big one with the Broncos and Rams. “If I go back to the Broncos, Peyton Manning didn’t play the last five or six games of the season. Last year we had injuries with the Rams, whether it was Matthew Stafford or our offensive line, defensive line or secondary.
“That’s just part of it,” he said. “You need depth. You need your core foundation of players to be able to play with them. This core foundation of players we got here is incredible, man.”
The secondary has been the defensive foundation for the Bills since Sean McDermott arrived as head coach and Leslie Frazier as defensive coordinator in 2017. Hyde and Poyer were both signed as free agents that year and have anchored the back of the secondary ever since.
It’s no coincidence that the Bills have been the stingiest pass defense in the NFL for five-plus seasons. They’ve been at or near the top in total defense and pass defense. Last season, the Bills were far and away the league leaders in total defense, pass defense and yards per play.
Here’s a staggering statistic: Since McDermott took over in 2017, the Bills have allowed only 87 touchdown passes in the regular season. No other team has allowed fewer than 110 TD passes in that time. Last season, they allowed only 12 touchdown passes in the regular year. Only one other team in the last 10 years gave up that few.
McDermott didn’t have any involved explanation for his team’s success.
“I think the players and the coaches do a good job,” McDermott said. “Players buy into the philosophy and the coaches teach it well. Really, that’s what I would say, nothing fancy. Really the coaches are doing a good job and the players execute.
“I think it’s just good quality, sound play,” he added. “We’ve had our moments where it hasn’t gone that way. We stress fundamentals. We want to be fundamentally strong. There’s an expectation, being the one-eleventh, doing your job, being there for your teammates. Think that’s probably more the core values, philosophically that we put an emphasis on.”
The numbers say that McDermott and Frazier have established a defensive culture that does the simple things and takes pride in not letting opponents beat them down the field
“I definitely trust the culture,” Taron Johnson said. “We’ve done if for some years now. Regardless of who’s out there, I feel like people play at a high level and are going to do the exact same thing.”
It has to scare opposing offenses to know that the Bills’ defense looks even better than the one that led the league a year ago. They fortified the pass rush by signing Miller and Jordan Phillips (though Phillips is out this week with an injury). In their opening two wins, they were much more effective in getting after the quarterback.
That’s what makes Sunday’s matchup so intriguing. The Bills knocked Tua out of the game in a 35-0 win in Miami a year ago. Taron Johnson sacked him on the Dolphins’ first play from scrimmage. Hyde sacked Tagovailoa a couple of plays later.
The Bills hit Tagovailoa again on Miami’s second possessions. He left the game with a rib injury before the game was five minutes old.
One reason the Bills got to him early was the coverage in the secondary. When his primary receiver was covered, Tua had to go to his second read, and the rush was on him. The coverage helps the rush and vice versa. The question is whether the revamped pass rush will make life easier for the ravaged secondary this year in Florida.
In Miami, people are saying a victory would be the Dolphins’ biggest in the regular season in 14 years. That says a lot about how much Miami has struggled in recent years, and how far this Bills team has come. They’re now the team everyone shoots for, like the Patriots used to be.
“I take it one week at a time and I take everything the same,” Johnson said, sounding like his head coach. “To me, this is another game in the season and I’m going to do everything I can to have success out there. We’re just going to see what happens.”
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.