Jon Feliciano may not have taken a snap at center during the week leading up to his season debut against the New England Patriots. The veteran was fully preparing to step in at left guard, save for a possible play or two at center in practice.
Yet, when the time came for Feliciano to slide to the middle of the offensive line after Mitch Morse sustained a first quarter concussion on Sunday, he felt plenty prepared.
"At the center position, the offense is counting on you more and I love that pressure," Feliciano said after Buffalo's 24-21 win. "I mean, coming into the league, I was always the backup center in Oakland. My habits don't really change. All week, I train like I'm a center."
The Bills planned to ease Feliciano into his debut with a limited snap count. Feliciano had spent the first seven weeks of the season on injured reserve while recovering from surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle, though he had practiced with the team in recent weeks.
That plan went out the window following the injury to Morse, which occurred on Buffalo's third offensive play of the game. Ryan Bates filled in for Morse for the rest of that drive, but Feliciano moved to center for the remainder of the game thereafter with Ike Boettger taking his spot at left guard.
Feliciano ended up playing all 58 offensive snaps in his first contest since January.
"We talked about it on the sideline and felt that was the best (look)," offensive coordinator Brian Daboll said. "We talk about this it seems like every training camp with the offensive line rotation and things like that. Quite frankly, that's one of the reasons why we do it.
"Position flexibility is important throughout the year. It's rare that you can have all five guys the entire season. So, for other guys to be able to play different spots, know certain assignments, be able to communicate with one another, that's really the job of a coaching staff."
The communication aspect is where Feliciano's mid-week mentality comes into play. He studies opposing defenses as if he is going to have to communicate protections to the rest of the line despite those duties not being typical for an offensive guard.
That preparation, combined with chemistry formed with quarterback Josh Allen while filling in for Morse last season, made for a smooth transition.
"That position is obviously like the quarterback for the offensive line and there's a lot of things that go into it for those guys: making identifications and making quick calls, getting people on the same page," Daboll said. "The line is only as good as all five of them working together, and that's really where it starts, the communication aspect of it for that position."
The result was a newly energized offensive line, fueled by Feliciano's infectious attitude. Daboll said it was apparent that the veteran's edge resonated with the other players on offense, a sentiment echoed by several of Feliciano's teammates on Sunday.
"He brought back the swagger, the juice, just the killer instinct," said left tackle Dion Dawkins. "He came back with the will to want to win and it gave us that extra push."
Feliciano gave the Bills a literal push on their second touchdown of the game. Zack Moss ran into heavy traffic as he crossed the line of scrimmage on a first-and-goal play from the four-yard-line. Feliciano came from behind and powered the rookie running back into the end zone.
"I just want to do all I can to help the Buffalo Bills organization win," Feliciano said. "Hopefully I'm here for a long time and we can just keep grinding it out."
Now, onto more notes from the Week 8 victory over the Patriots.
How the Bills got the run game on track
Sean McDermott is consistent with his message when it comes to the ground game. It takes a mentality, he says, and that mentality requires a buy-in from the coaches and offensive linemen as well as the running backs.
The mentality during the week leading up to the Patriots game was that enough was enough in regard to the Bills' slow start running the football. They practiced with pads on Wednesday, embracing the physicality it would take find success on the ground.
"We came in here with a plan, made a statement to run the ball today," Dawkins said after the game. "Today was going to be our day to run the football. The Patriots are a great team. They had a great defensive plan. But we just kept it personal that we were going to run the ball today."
The result was Buffalo's best rushing game of the season, a 190-yard effort that offered a glimpse of how dynamic the young tandem of Moss and Devin Singletary can be going forward. As Chris Brown noted in his postgame takeaways, Buffalo's three touchdown drives were comprised of 20 plays on the ground as opposed to four through the air.
Moss finished with a slight edge in snaps over Singletary (31 to 28), marking his highest share of the season. He ran for a season-high 81 yards on 14 carries, including a 21-yard gain to put the Bills in scoring position on their first drive, and scored the first two touchdowns of his career.
Singletary also received 14 carries and rushed for a team-high 86 yards. His 6.14 yards per carry was the best mark of his career for games in which he had more than four attempts.
The offensive line, meanwhile, did its job in creating holes on multiple outside zone runs that led to big gains.
"They did a great job of just knocking guys off the ball," Moss said. "We talked about being physical all week. They did a really good job of that. Myself and Motor, we were able to get downhill and just puncture the defense. There were very times, if any really, that we were going backward."
After adjusting to the NFL without the benefit of preseason action and then dealing with a toe injury that cost him three games, Moss said he feels more like himself than at any point prior this season. Daboll said the Bills feel comfortable using their two running backs interchangeably, save for a few specific plays geared toward one or the other.
"We really have confidence in those guys that whatever we call they can go out there and do and try to keep it as fresh as we can," he said.
Strong habits pay off
The win over New England proved to be an exhibition in small habits paying off in big ways. The game-winning forced fumble from Justin Zimmer provided two examples, beginning when Zimmer punched the ball out of the arms of quarterback Cam Newton.
The Bills had a similarly crucial forced fumble back in Week 4 against Las Vegas, when Josh Norman punched the ball from tight end Darren Waller.
"We emphasize it all the time," defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. "It's something we work on in practice, we preach it in practice. We work on it. So, it's not a coincidence that it's happening in games. If you watch our tape, our guys are generally going after the football."
McDermott pointed out the fumble recovery by safety Dean Marlowe and the surprise onside kick recovery by Tyler Matakevich as two more examples of sound habits paying off.
"That's why we run to the ball," he said of the Marlowe recovery. "You've got to play longer and harder. It just goes to show, you never know what play is going to make the difference. It could be the last play of the game, it could be the first play of the game. You've got to do it every play.
"That's the discipline side of it, being one eleventh and embracing that mentality. … Are you going to be disciplined on every other play or every play? That's a mindset and our players do a great job embracing that mindset."