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Anatomy of a shutout | Inside the Bills' dominant defensive outing vs. Miami

Taron Johnson (24). Buffalo Bills vs. Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium, September 19, 2021.  Photo by Jeff Romance
Taron Johnson (24). Buffalo Bills vs. Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium, September 19, 2021. Photo by Jeff Romance

Leslie Frazier had a sense his players were confident in their defensive game plan late last week, when he heard some of his own terminology being repeated to him during conversations with defensive signal callers Tremaine Edmunds, Micah Hyde, and Jordan Poyer.

"I really was excited about the direction we were going and how in tune the guys were with our vision as coaches of how we saw the game unfolding," the Bills defensive coordinator said Monday.

The feeling was mutual. Hyde said he could feel the makings of a strong defensive outing throughout the week, a vision that took all of one series to come to life. Nickel corner Taron Johnson blitzed off the edge and sacked Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa on the first play of the game. Two plays later, Hyde completed the three-and-out with his first sack as a member of the Bills.

The series set the tone for a dominant outing from the Bills defense. Six sacks, nine QB hits, one interception and one fumble recovery added up to zero points allowed in a 35-0 victory.

Here is a look inside the numbers behind the performance, which marked Buffalo's first shutout since 2016. Statistics come courtesy of True Media unless otherwise noted.

Applying pressure

The Bills blitzed the Dolphins on 26.4 percent of dropbacks, which ranked 14th in the NFL during Week 2. That number was right on par with their blitz rate from Week 1 against the Steelers (25.7 percent).

The difference was the pressure generated. Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger got rid of the ball quicker than any other quarterback in the NFL in 2020, a trend he continued against the Bills. His average time to throw of 2.3 seconds was lowest in the NFL in Week 1, according to Next Gen Stats.

Buffalo pressured Tagovailoa and backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett on 28.6 percent of blitzes Sunday, the second-best mark in the NFL during Week 2. The Patriots, by comparison, pressured Tagovailoa on 14.3 percent of blitzes during their Week 1 matchup.

"We went into it saying we want to be aggressive and really attack the line of scrimmage," Frazier said. "And our guys executed. That's the key to our success, the execution and the preparation during the week."

Standout performances

Second-year defensive end A.J. Epenesa was not among the five Bills who recorded a sack, but his impact on the game was unmistakable. Epenesa sped past Dolphins right tackle Jesse Davis to deliver a punishing hit that knocked Tagovailoa out of the game on Miami's second offensive series.

The hit was one of nine pressures generated by Epenesa on Sunday, which tied Raiders defensive end Maxx Crosby for the most in the NFL this season. Only two players have had more pressures in a game since the start of the 2020 season: All-Pros Aaron Donald and T.J. Watt.

It was the sort of performance the Bills had in mind when they drafted Epenesa during the second round in 2020. The Bills asked him to cut weight entering his rookie year, which – combined with a lack of preseason games – made for an adjustment that required patience.

"Dropping that weight and seeing what he did yesterday and what he's done through training camp and now through the preseason and then the regular season is exactly what we're hoping for," Frazier said. "And there's a lot more good to come."

Epenesa sat atop the NFL leaderboard for defensive pressures this week, but he was far from alone. Here were the Bills pressure leaders against the Dolphins and their Week 2 rankings:

  1. A.J. Epenesa – 9 (1st)
  2. Gregory Rousseau – 7 (T-3rd)
  3. Matt Milano – 6 (T-6th)
  4. Mario Addison – 4 (T-15th)

Rousseau parlayed the pressures into the first two sacks of his career on the same field where he played his college ball with the University of Miami. The rookie was rewarded by playing 66 percent of defensive snaps, the highest share among Bills defensive linemen.

"It was just a blessing to be back, to be able to come back and play in my hometown and have a solid game," he said.

Forcing takeaways

Frazier asked Poyer during a team meeting last Monday why he felt the Bills had lost against the Steelers. He gave the same answer he had given the media one day prior: The defense had been unable to force a turnover.

It was a harshly critical self-assessment from one of the Bills' defensive captains, but they took it to heart.

"It was definitely an emphasis throughout the week that we wanted to take the football away," Frazier said. "[We] put that kind of preparation into the game and really helped our team have success. It's a big deal."

Levi Wallace created the first turnover, a leaping interception of Brissett that occurred just two plays after the corner had been flagged for taunting in the wake of a well-timed pass breakup.

It was Johnson who once again ignited a critical play early in the second quarter. Miami, trailing 14-0, was facing third-and-6 at the Buffalo 11-yard line. Brissett completed a pass to Jakeem Grant over the middle about a yard short of the first-down marker.

Johnson hit Grant and popped the ball loose for Milano to recover. Frazier offered insight into the pre-snap action from the corner that made the play possible.

"We're playing a zone coverage where we want to kind of disguise it and make it look like man as much as we can," Frazier said. "And he's doing a good job of that in trying to trick the quarterback, which is something he wouldn't have done, say, two years ago."

Add in Buffalo's four stops on fourth down, and the defense had gotten the ball directly into its offense's hands six times by Sunday's end.

"That's what we preach and that's what we weren't able to do last week in the second half," Hyde said. "We were just men on a mission this week. Wanted to come down here and get a win."

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