The Bills didn’t sign Von Miller this season solely to take down quarterbacks. They also wanted him to lift up his younger teammates, to pass along his vast knowledge and help them persevere through the inevitable trials of a long NFL season.
Don’t blink, he told them. You hear the other players repeat it in press conferences. Miller told his guys how he had missed an entire season with an injury. He reminded them that the Rams lost three in a row after he joined the team last year, then caught fire late and won the Super Bowl.
Injuries and adversity are a given, Miller told them. It’s how you deal with it the defines you. And as the Bills dealt with a siege of injuries this season, the star pass rusher continued to praise his teammates for rising to a challenge and playing at a fairly high level.
Now, they have to do it without him. Miller will be out Thursday night at New England — and perhaps longer, depending on when he decides to undergo surgery on the right knee he injured on Thanksgiving. The wisdom he imparted to his teammates remains intact, along with the defensive interior.
“The inside four are all healthy,” Ed Oliver said, referring to defensive tackles Jordan Phillips, Daquan Jones, Tim Settle and himself. “So, that means our role will have to increase. I know we’re banged up on the edges, but all four of us are healthy, so between the four of us, we can get it done.”
The Bills had all four of their presumed starters in the secondary sidelined at one point early this season and played at a high level — though the pass defense has slipped of late. The loss of a single defensive end — albeit a future Hall of Famer — needn’t lower the standard on the D line.
“That’s right,” Oliver said. “One man goes down, two men go down, three men go down. Hey, all of us are healthy. We’re ready to go. We can take it.”
Oliver became animated when someone took that to suggest that the defense wouldn’t be compromised by the loss of their star edge rusher.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, now! I said we could hold it together ’til he gets back,” Oliver said. “Von is Von, don’t get me wrong. But we have to hold it together. When I was down and Phil (Phillips) was down, Von did the same for us. He didn’t have the same guys inside and he made do.”
Players go down, others step into the breach. The one thing that does not change with the Buffalo defense is the standard.
“No, I don’t see the standard slipping,” said defensive end Greg Rousseau, who is expected to return on Thursday night after missing two games with an ankle injury.
“Obviously, Von is a great player,” Rousseau said. “But we’ve got dudes in the room who are hungry and ready to step up. No matter who’s out there, it takes your best, your one-eleventh, to win in this league. So, we’re ready to step up to the plate and ready for the challenge.”
Oliver seems especially up for the challenge. After missing three games early in the season with an ankle injury, Oliver has hit his stride over the past few weeks. He’s playing the best football of four-year career, capped by a dominant Thanksgiving performance in the Bills’ 28-25 victory over the Lions.
In that game, Oliver had a forced fumble that he recovered, a safety when he sacked Jared Goff in the end zone in the third quarter, two tackles for loss and two quarterback hits. He did everything but cook the turkey in a Thanksgiving performance that has become routine for the Houston native.
In three career games on Thanksgiving, all Bills wins, Oliver has 3.5 sacks, three tackles for loss, 14 tackles and two forced fumbles. He conceded that Thursday’s game in Detroit was likely his finest game as a Bill.
“I’d have to say so,” he said. “Yeah. I made a lot of big-time plays and put us in a position where we had a chance to win.”
Oliver, who turns 25 in a couple of weeks, has been dominant in stretches over his career. A year ago, he was third in the NFL among defensive tackles with 12 tackles for loss or no gain. Still, there were times when he struggled at the point of attack.
If the last three games are any indication, Oliver has taken his game to another level. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, he has generated 19 quarterback pressures over that span, which is seven more than any other player since Week 10. He has six tackles for loss (TFLs) in those three games, and seven quarterback hits.
“Oh, Ed Oliver!” said defensive end A.J. Epenesa. “He’s been due for a while in my mind. Splash plays, TFLs, he really showed the capability that he has. We’ve seen countless examples of him running to the numbers and knocking somebody’s head off.
“I think he’s found his groove now,” Epenesa said. “He’s so explosive. I think people look at him and say, ‘This guy’s kind of short,’ and all of a sudden, he’s right by you, because he’s so danged fast. He just plays hard. That’s probably the biggest factor. Not only is he good, but he plays hard.”
What has been the difference this season? Oliver was visibly at a loss to come up with an explanation.
“To be honest, I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t even know. There were some plays that happened on Thursday where I kind of surprised my own self. Like the one where I hit the dude and he fumbled. I was like, ‘Dang!’”
Maybe it’s a simple matter of time and experience. Defensive tackle Daquan Jones has been in the league for nine years. Jones said it’s a combination of Oliver being healthy and gaining a deeper understanding of defensive line play in the NFL.
“His mental game, recognizing formations and seeing what the offenses are giving him and understanding the blocking scheme has really come a long way and it’s paying off for him,” said Jones, a native of Johnson City, outside Binghamton.
“He’s able to use his speed to take advantage of that,” Jones said. “I would say it’s up there with the elite. If you have an elite get-off like that, you can create a lot of havoc in this league, in the backfield.”
Von Miller is as quick off the ball as anyone who ever played. But he’s out for the time being. It’ll be up to the rest of the defensive linemen to bond together and rise up against a Patriots team that’s desperate to stay in the AFC race and eager to atone for last year’s playoff embarrassment in Buffalo.
They can’t blink, as Miller likes to say. This is the NFL, where adversity is part of the deal. Next man up, right?
“What else are we gonna do?” Oliver said. “We’ve got all four guys inside. We got good guys outside. I think Greg (Rousseau) is coming back this week. That’s a big deal. I think A.J (Epenesa) is coming back this week. So, we should be all right.
“As long as Von’s still around and his personality’s still around, it’s almost as good as him being out there on the field, guys.”