Sullivan: The Bills are playing to a higher standard now, and the defense is answering the call

Sports

Buffalo Bills teammates celebrate outside linebacker Matt Milano (58) after Milano recovered a fumble during the first half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Hans Deryk)

You know we’re in happier times when the Bills can smash the Dolphins, 35-0, and leave a lot of fans shrugging their shoulders and wondering why the team didn’t win even bigger. 

That’s a good sign. It shows that discerning fans realize the standard has been raised this season. When you’ve been picked by many experts to reach the Super Bowl and your franchise quarterback just got a fat, $258 million contract extension, greatness becomes an expectation, not a hope. 

It’s true that Allen hasn’t played up to an MVP standard through the first two weeks. He completed only 17 of 33 passes for 179 yards on Sunday, his worst passing day in a six-game winning streak over Miami. He needs to be better if the Bills plan to hoist the Lombardi Trophy on Feb. 13 in LA. 

But the Bills are still a very good football team, the class of the AFC East and a legitimate title contender. Allen’s play is certainly cause for concern, but you can go a long way in the NFL with a great defense and an above-average QB. Granted, it’s only two games, but they appear to have one of best defenses in the league.

A year ago at this time, we were talking about Allen’s big start and projecting ahead to a potential franchise-record passing year. He wound up breaking most of Jim Kelly’s passing records. Now it’s time to contemplate the lofty possibilities of the defense. 

The Bills have allowed just one offensive touchdown in two games (the other came on a blocked punt). They’re allowing only 234 yards of offense a game, which ranks second in the NFL behind Carolina. They’re also tied for second in scoring defense with 23 points allowed. It’ll be hard to come close to those marks over a full season, but it’s an encouraging beginning.

They’re allowing a stunning 3.8 yards per pass play, best in the league. The NFL average per team was 6.4 last season. 

They’ve held opponents scoreless in the first half in both games, the first time they’ve pitched a first-half shutout in consecutive games since 1999. When you’re drawing comparisons to the ’99 defense, it’s a good thing. That unit led the NFL in total defense and was statistically Buffalo’s best defense of the Super Bowl era. 

Two years ago, the Bills finished third in the league in defense with 4,772 yards. They were second in points allowed to the Patriots with 259, the fewest since the ’99 team. But last year, they fell back to 14th in total yards with 5,640 and 16th in points given up with 375.

Miami Dolphins wide receiver Jakeem Grant (19) fumbles the ball as he is tackled by Buffalo Bills cornerback Taron Johnson (24), bottom, and Buffalo Bills outside linebacker Matt Milano (58) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

A chunk of that came late in the season, when the Bills were rolling up big leads and teams were piling up garbage yards. But after the loss to the Chiefs in the title game, when they failed to create much pressure on Patrick Mahomes, management realized they needed to improve the pass rush. 

The early signs are promising, a validation of Brandon Beane’s decision to go with an edge rusher with his first pick. Rookie Greg Rousseau had a terrific training camp and had a breakout game in Miami (where he played his college ball) with two sacks. Rousseau also led all Bills defensive ends in snaps against the Dolphins.

The Bills had six sacks on Sunday and spent most of the day terrorizing backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett. According to Pro Football Focus, they got pressure on 45 percent of Miami’s dropbacks. Linebacker Matt Milano, who signed a four-year, $44 million contract extension rather than hit the open market, had seven pressures alone in a dominant performance.

Leslie Frazier doesn’t get as many plaudits as his offensive counterpart Brian Daboll — largely because he works for a defensive head coach in Sean McDermott. It’s generally “McDermott and Frazier’s defense.” But Frazier calls the defenses and runs the show, and he had a brilliant, aggressive game plan that tore the Miami offense to shreds on Sunday.

“I thought Leslie called an aggressive game and did a nice job of letting those guys go, with a four-man rush once in a while,” McDermott said after the win. “I always say the coverage and rush need to work together. I thought the back end was doing their job, also.”

It looks like the defense is back to its form of two years ago and might be even better. Defensive tackle Ed Oliver is coming on. Second-year end A.J. Epenesa had some eye-opening moments in Miami. Veteran nose tackle Star Lotulelei, back after taking a year off due to Covid, again looks like a force in the middle.

The Bills’ secondary might be the best in the NFL. They have an elite veteran safety tandem in Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer and a Pro Bowl cornerback in Tre’Davious White. They rarely get beat down the field and are especially tough early in games. The hot first halves continued a trend from the 2020 regular season, when they allowed eight total TDs in the first halves of their last 10 games. 

It has become rare for a quarterback to perform up to his usual standard against the Buffalo defense. They harried Russell Wilson into a career-high four turnovers last season, gave Justin Herbert one of the toughest outings of a record-setting rookie season. They exposed Lamar Jackson as a passer in the AFC divisional round. 

Considering how tough the pass defense has been against some of the league’s best quarterbacks, it’s hard to imagine them letting down against backups. Taylor Heinicke comes to town with Washington next Sunday, then it’s Houston and either Tyrod Taylor or Davis Mills in Orchard Park the following Sunday.

There’s a very good chance the Bills will be 3-1 and the defense at or near the top in the NFL stats two weeks from now. Then it gets a lot more challenging when they travel to Kansas City for a Sunday nighter against the Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes, who came back from a concussion and carved them up in last year’s AFC title game. 

That’s when we truly discover how much better the Buffalo defense is this year. Judging by some of the defensive players’ comments in the summer, they still have a bad taste in their mouth about that loss, and came back determined to show they were one of the top defenses in the league. 

They’re playing to a higher standard now, just like their quarterback. If some fans were indifferent about Sunday’s result, it’s because they’ve come to judge them accordingly. The defensive numbers look great. Now go and do it against a great team.

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.

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