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How Ed Oliver's career season has revived the Buffalo Bills defense


Ed Oliver listened when some expressed their doubt about his impact on the defensive line after the Bills defensive tackle signed a four-year contract extension over the offseason.

Since then, Oliver has turned in a 2023 season that has silenced those doubts. In particular, Oliver's play has risen to a new level during Buffalo's four-game win streak.

"Everybody, when I got paid, they had their certain opinion. I had my opinion about my own self," Oliver said from the visitor's locker room after the Bills' win over the Los Angeles Chargers.

"And I'm a type of guy who walks with a chip on my shoulder 24-7, so I just compartmentalized and went after a goal."

The goal Oliver went after that night was named Easton Stick. On L.A.'s final drive, Oliver burst through the line and knocked the Chargers quarterback down for a sack, forcing the clock to run down on the Chargers offense to give Buffalo a close win on the road.

"It was very fulfilling, like I said, that's what they pay me to do, make plays late in games just like in Kansas City, like here. It's becoming a trend, a good trend, so I would like to just keep it going," Oliver said after the Bills 24-22 win, which kept their playoff hopes alive.

Every team experiences injuries through the course of the regular season. The Bills defense has been no exception.

Between Week 4 and Week 5, 2022 First-Team All-Pro linebacker Matt Milano, two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Tre'Davious White and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones went down with significant injuries, which ended Milano and White's seasons and kept Jones out for 13 weeks.

In addition to the emergence of linebacker Terrel Bernard and the strong play from corners Christian Benford and Rasul Douglas — who was acquired at the trade deadline — Oliver has been integral in the late-season defensive performance the Bills have put together.

"He creates so much disruption, he just wreaks havoc and it makes all of our jobs easier," said defensive end Greg Rousseau. "He's just always causing chaos."

The Buffalo are one of just four teams with four defensive linemen with five or more sacks this season. Rousseau has five, A.J. Epenesa has 6.5 and Leonard Floyd has 10.5 in addition to Oliver's 9.5. Only the Ravens and Chiefs have more sacks than the Bills, who are four away from tying the single-season franchise record (57 in 2013).

Instead of experiencing the dreaded post-contract extension slump, Oliver has answered his extension with his best season as a pro. Entering Week 18, Oliver has 9.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss, both of which are the second most among defensive tackles this season and mark career-highs for the fifth-year pro.

"He's taken it, and these are my words, but he's taken it like, 'Hey, I'm going to show you how grateful I am for it and I'm going to play up to that level,'" said head coach Sean McDermott after the Chargers game. "That just really says a lot about who he is as a person and how much pride he takes in his work and the job he does."

The aggression Oliver displays on both the practice field and in games is one of many traits the 26-year-old possesses that signal to coaches that he is playing football for the right reasons.

"How competitive is that player, how much does he want to win one-on-one or two-on-one? How does he respond and react when he does and especially when he does not?" said assistant head coach and defensive line coach Eric Washington. "It's extremely important because to win as a rusher, you have to be able to win one-on-one. Ed definitely possesses that mindset. He's very hard on himself and extremely competitive."

In late season games that matter the most, it seems that the practice is paying off.

Following the bye week, Buffalo traveled to Kansas City for a game that had major implications for their playoff hopes, which were in serious jeopardy at the time. After battling to a 20-17 lead, Buffalo was getting uncomfortably close to their own end zone as Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs marched downfield for what could have been a game-winning drive.

Enter Ed Oliver.

On third-and-15 with just over a minute remaining, Oliver drove Chiefs guard Joe Thuney back towards Mahomes, reaching his arm in the air to break up the pass to force a fourth-and-long and help seal the win for the Bills.

Kansas City Chiefs vs Buffalo Bills, Regular Season, December 10, 2023 at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium.

"That's what they paid me for, to impact the game like that late in the game," Oliver said after the win, the first of a four-game winning streak that has launched the Bills back into contention for a division title.

Quarterback Josh Allen, who has played with Oliver for the defensive tackle's entire career, has been a firsthand witness to Oliver's maturity and his ability to make those around him better.

"I'd really venture out and say he's grown so much as a person, as a professional football player," Allen said. "He takes things extremely serious, he takes care of his body, he does things the right way. He's straining on each and every single play he's out there and he's becoming more and more of a captain as the season goes. … He's playing at an All-Pro level right now."

Oliver's detailed approach to hard work started long before he laced up his cleats for the first time.

When a neighbor wanted a new barn built on his property, Oliver's father, also named Ed, signed Ed and his brother Marcus up for the job, Oliver told The Athletic before the 2019 NFL Draft. The trio worked throughout the summer, tearing down parts of the pre-existing barn and replacing them with wooden panels, placing 15-yard-long sheets of fiberglass in the rafters of the barn.

"He introduced horses into my life. … He's a hard worker, a blue-collar guy. So that just kind of rubbed off on me," Oliver said on his father, Ed Sr. "All I've ever known is work, especially being around my dad all the time, he just had us working all the time."

Oliver's dedication to his craft is a product of consistently paying attention to the small things throughout his life.

"Not to go into a well-worn cliche, but he understands that the quality of his actions, the consistency of his habits are the best things that he could do to put himself in a position to be productive and to lead our teams in a way that that fits his personality," McDermott said before the Bills' win over the Dallas Cowboys. "And Ed has got a great personality, but at the same time, when it's time to go to work, he's a very serious, very focused young man, and he's a very prideful person."

Oliver's pride extends beyond how he or his defense performs. While he might be competitive against his opposition in practice, Oliver celebrates with the best of them when the offense makes big plays on game days.

"You break it down to the simplest form, this is a child's game that we're still playing at my young, but big, age of 26," Oliver said. "So, it's a way to keep it new and keep it fresh, keep it fun and just have fun with the game and get the most out of it. Like, we're not gonna be playing this game for forever."

"That's a memory I'll always remember, and something that [Shakir] will probably remember for the rest of his life," Oliver said.

Five weeks later, after capturing his first career interception against the Patriots, Oliver led his defense – as he has been doing all season – to the sideline where they celebrated as a team, one that has only been made better by the presence of Ed Oliver.

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