Micah Hyde spoke during the week leading up the Bills' primetime matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers about the minutia of jelling on defense during a season like no other.
Yes, the Bills returned several star players to a unit that had perennially become one of the NFL's best. But there were also new players in key roles and new challenges to prepare for without the benefit of a preseason. Even the usual bonding time spent away from the field was limited by pandemic restrictions.
Creating that chemistry takes time. It was plenty apparent following Levi Wallace's leaping fourth-quarter interception of Ben Roethlisberger during the Bills' 26-15 victory on Sunday night.
The defense erupted on the sideline as Soulja Boy blared throughout the empty Bills Stadium. Hours after Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster danced on their logo pregame Bills players were making their own declaration:
"Club 716 is open!"
"It's a lot of fun, man," Jerry Hughes said. "I mean, just the amount of work that we've put into this dating all the way back to April, doing a bunch of Zoom meetings, getting guys together and, you know, believing in Coach.
"Coach always says, 'The best time to play your best football is in December.' So, those guys went out there and had a tremendous game."
Here are the top quotes following a statement performance by the Buffalo defense.
"We were gonna keep rushing"
The Steelers defense is among the NFL's best, having entered the week leading the league in in sacks (44), interceptions (16), takeaways (23), and QB hits (114). The unit pressured Josh Allen early and often Sunday and for a time looked as if it might be the game's deciding factor.
Ultimately, it was the Bills defense that stole the show. They matched the Steelers stop for stop, relenting only after a fumble by Dawson Knox gave Pittsburgh possession at their own 30-yard line. (Wallace, who was beat by James Washington on the Steelers' lone touchdown, would soon have his redemption.)
The Bills increasingly applied pressure to Roethlisberger, who has gotten rid of the ball quicker than any other quarterback in the league this season. In Buffalo's first victory in five games against the two-time Super Bowl champion, Roethlisberger threw for just 187 yards and two interceptions.
"Oh, up front we were gonna keep rushing," Hughes said. "I mean, we watched the tape on Ben, we know he's going to get the ball out quick. So, Coach (Eric) Washington said, 'Just keep swinging.' No matter what's going on in the game, no matter where we're at on the field, we're gonna … swing big. We did that as a front. We got a couple."
"He's one of the best nickel corners in the league"
While the Bills have made a habit of forcing turnovers of late – they have takeaways in eight straight games – they had yet to turn one into points entering Sunday. The defense has been striving for a touchdown, with defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier pressing the issue.
"That's one thing that Coach Frazier challenged us this week," Hughes said. "We were getting turnovers. He wanted to see someone get in the end zone."
The score finally came in the form of a game-altering pick six by Taron Johnson that put the Bills ahead, 9-7, with less than two minutes to play in the first half. Johnson jumped an attempted pass to Smith-Schuster and returned it 51 yards to the end zone, capping a half of football that saw the nickelback amass a team-high six tackles. (He would later leave the game with a concussion.)
"It wasn't a surprise it was Taron," Wallace said. "He makes those plays all the time in practice. He's one of the best nickel corners in the league. You're not really surprised by it. You want him to hold the ball a little bit better, but he made a great play. He saw what he saw and really happy for a guy like that. Hopefully, he can come back pretty soon because we're counting on him."
Hughes was asked if he could think of a bigger momentum swing by the defense.
"Nah," he said. "For this season? That was huge. I mean, just because of everything that we talked about throughout this week. Getting our hands on the ball. We know Ben's going to get the ball out quick. Who's going to be the first person to get a turnover?
"… For those guys to do that, the way they played tonight, it was amazing. But they prepare that way, so I expect them to do it every night."
Wallace's interception came on a deep pass to Washington down the right sideline with the Steelers attempting to erase an 11-point deficit late midway through the fourth quarter.
"For me, it's another interception," he said. "I was just trying to make a play on the ball to be honest. Just trying to make a play for the guys for real. Jordan Poyer's always talking about big-time player making big-time plays in big-time moments.
Added Poyer: "And he did that today. He made a hell of play."
"Our main goal is to win the ship"
Tremaine Edmunds, the Bills' 22-year-old leader on defense, spoke during the week about the role having fun has played in their defensive revitalization of late. As such, he appreciated the revels on the sideline following Wallace's interception.
He also tried to keep things in perspective when addressing the team in the locker room afterward.
"I mean, it's just, we got to keep going," he said. "It's still a lot of ball left to be played. That's our main goal, man, is to win the 'ship, the championship. So, I mean, we got to still enjoy these wins but at the same time understand what the bigger goal is."