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Friday, September 22, 2023

Bills’ dominant defensive showing started up front

It’s halfway through Von Miller’s four-game absence, and the Buffalo Bills’ defensive line is holding up just fine.

In fact, after Sunday’s 38-10 trouncing of the Las Vegas Raiders, it can be said that the line is doing much better than that.

The Bills possessed the ball for a whopping 40 minutes, 4 seconds, compared to just 19:56 for the Raiders.

The Bills dominated the Raiders at the line of scrimmage, shutting down Las Vegas’ rushing attack and putting significant pressure on quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, even if he went without being sacked. The Bills registered five quarterback pressures, according to analytics website Pro Football Focus. While that number might not jump off the page, Garoppolo never quite got comfortable in the pocket.

“It started up front with the run game. Let’s just start there. They controlled the line of scrimmage, played well at the point of attack, which was a point of emphasis during the week,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said Monday. Defensive line coach Eric Washington “has done a really good job of making sure we establish gap integrity early in the year. That’s something we’ve got to continue to do every week.

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“No sacks on the stat sheet, but to me it’s really about effecting the quarterback. When you get your hands up, you can tip passes, the ball was already coming out fast. Garoppolo likes to get the ball out fast, and then also use his check downs instead of taking some of those sacks. I thought the guys really did a good job for the most part.”

Miller, who is recovering from knee surgery to repair a torn ACL, is out for at least the next two games. Performances like Sunday’s by the entire group up front will make that absence less noticeable.

“Well, I think they heard a lot about how they didn’t do X, Y and Z from you guys at the end of last season, so you guys can keep talking about that and maybe that’ll motivate them even more,” McDermott said when asked if the defensive line has been motivated to show that it can get the job done in Miller’s absence.

Analytics website Pro Football Focus gave three defensive linemen – DaQuan Jones, Ed Oliver and Greg Rousseau – grades of at least 70 for their performance against the Raiders, showing that it was a collective effort.

“I think we played solid,” said defensive end A.J. Epenesa, who knocked down one of Garoppolo’s passes at the line of scrimmage. “There are always some things we can clean up and be better at. Me personally, I know there’s some things I did today that I can clean up. But I mean, as a whole, I think they got it out quick as an offense for their pass game. On the run game, we knew they’re going to run the ball.”

Indeed, that wasn’t a secret coming into the game. In Josh Jacobs, the Raiders employ the NFL’s reigning rushing champion. Against a Bills run defense that got gashed in Week 1 by the Jets’ Breece Hall, it stood to reason establishing the run would be a big part of the Las Vegas game plan. By and large, they were never able to do that. Jacobs was held to minus-6 rushing yards in the first half on seven attempts, and finished the game with minus-2 yards – a career low – on nine carries.

Three questions on our mind after Sunday’s win vs. the Las Vegas Raiders.

“I think people think that that’s where our area of struggle is: our run defense,” Epenesa said. “I’m just proud of our guys for showing up today, and really, really showing people that we can play the run and proving that today against a high-talent team. To hold someone of that caliber to such a low number of yards, that’s just kudos to the whole defense, to playing and doing the job and just playing fast. Because that was the game plan this week: We shut him down.”

Aside from successful jet sweep that got to the edge for a 34-yard gain by the Raiders, running room was otherwise nonexistent for Las Vegas ballcarriers.

“I thought it was extremely impactful,” Washington said of the defensive line’s performance. “When you can hold a rusher as explosive as Jacobs to what we were able to do, that always gives you a chance to have the kind of outcome that we had. The guys got their hands up and I thought did a really, really good job of creating takeaways.”

The Raiders marched 75 yards in just five plays to a touchdown on their opening drive, but from that point the Bills’ defense allowed just a field goal the rest of the way. That success started up front.

“We were solid,” Rousseau said. “I feel like we’ve got to come to play week in and week out, and we play like that, we really help our offense. So, that’s just something we’ve got to keep on doing.”

The Bills dominated time of possession Sunday in their victory over the Las Vegas Raiders at Highmark Stadium.

The Bills possessed the ball for a whopping 40 minutes, 4 seconds, compared to just 19:56 for the Raiders.

As a result, the Bills’ defenders were on the field way less than usual. The Raiders ran just 40 offensive plays. Second-year cornerback Christian Benford was the only Bills defensive player on the field for every snap, as the lopsided score allowed the Bills to remove several starters late in the win.

Here are four more observations from the snap counts in Sunday’s win:

1. Shaq Lawson was busy. Lawson played 24 defensive snaps, 60% of the team total, which tied with Greg Rousseau for the most among defensive ends. Given that the Raiders’ Josh Jacobs is the NFL’s reigning rushing champion, it makes sense the Bills used Lawson a lot, because he is a strong run defender.

2. Two tight ends here to stay. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, but the Bills sure look committed to using two tight ends as their base offense. On Sunday, Dawson Knox played 55 offensive snaps (71%), while rookie Dalton Kincaid played 47 snaps (60%). Those totals will fluctuate some, but expect Knox and Kincaid to continue to be on the field together a lot.

3. Stefon Diggs got a big workload. Diggs led receivers by playing 68 offensive snaps, which was 87% of the team total. It’s the most Diggs has played in a game in both snaps and percentage of snaps since Week 9 of last season against Minnesota, when he was on the field for 69 snaps, 92% of the team total.

4. Reggie Gilliam and Quintin Morris have a role. Gilliam, the team’s fullback, played nine offensive snaps (12%), while Morris played 15 (19%) as the No. 3 tight end. Each played 20 snaps on special teams (91%), which shared the team lead. That shows how their value to the roster goes beyond just offense.

Game ball: Josh Allen

While there were plenty of deserving candidates, the Bills’ quarterback earns the nod after going 31 of 37 for 274 yards and three touchdowns. Most important, Allen didn’t turn the ball over. If he plays like that, the Bills are going to be incredibly difficult to beat.

Quote of the game

“It shows the resiliency of this team. No one liked the taste in the mouth we had this week. I think we brought a certain edge to this week’s practice and preparation. It was nothing crazy or confrontational, but just an intentional (focus). … With that, we understood that we had to come out here and play with a certain edge and tone.” – Center Mitch Morse

Stat of the Game: 9:01

That’s how long the Bills held the ball on their opening drive of the second half, a 15-play, 75-yard beauty that ended with Allen’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Gabe Davis on fourth-and-goal. It was the Bills’ longest drive since Nov. 7, 2016, when they had a 10-minute drive at Seattle.

Coming attractions

The Bills head to our nation’s capital to take on the Washington Commanders at 1 p.m. Sunday. Washington improved to 2-0 on the season Sunday with a 35-33 victory over Denver. Here are three things to know about the Commanders …

1. Sam Howell has the offense rolling. Washington’s young quarterback, who made just his third NFL start Sunday and first one on the road, threw for 299 yards and two touchdowns. Washington hadn’t scored 35 points in a game before Sunday since Dec. 22, 2019. New offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy deserves some credit, too.

2. Chase Young is back. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 draft, Young suffered a torn ACL in 2021, and the injury kept him out of all but three games last season. He missed this year’s season opener with a stinger, but had 1.5 sacks against the Broncos – his first sack since Week 6 of the 2021 season. Young is a force when healthy, and the entire Commanders’ defensive line will be a challenge for the Bills.

3. The Commanders overcame an 18-point deficit Sunday. With 7:57 left in the second quarter, ESPN gave the Broncos a 96.3% chance of winning the game. The score at that time was 21-3 in favor of Denver, and the Broncos had the ball inside Washington territory. Washington’s Jamin Davis sacked and forced a fumble by Denver quarterback Russell Wilson that was recovered by Commanders linebacker Cody Barton. That ignited a road rally that became Washington’s largest since they overcame a 21-point deficit at Detroit on Nov. 4, 1990.

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