Jerry Hughes has a nickname for Justin Zimmer. Hughes, an elder statesman on the Buffalo Bills defense, has taken note of how the 28-year-old defensive tackle approaches his craft: first person in the building, last one to leave, unassuming in nature but relentless in his drive.
"We know what Zim's about," Hughes said. "We call him our quiet assassin."
Just when it felt like the Buffalo Bills were on the ropes against the New England Patriots on Sunday, the assassin struck with the loudest play of his life. The Patriots, trailing 24-21, had driven into the red zone with less than a minute remaining. At best, it felt like the Bills might force a game-tying field goal.
Facing second-and-10 with 37 seconds on the clock, the Patriots continued to do what had gotten them there: they ran. Quarterback Cam Newton kept the ball and sprinted left for what would have been at least a six-yard gain, had Zimmer not caught him from behind and punched the ball loose.
"It was kind of perfect timing," Zimmer said of the fumble. "Right as he cut through the hole, I was running full speed sideways at him. I just took a punch at the ball and knocked it out."
Dean Marlowe pounced on the fumble to secure possession and, with it, Buffalo's first victory over New England since October 2016. Back then, Zimmer was a free agent who had received a shot with the Bills in training camp but was cut before the season began.
Zimmer latched on with practice squads in New Orleans and then Atlanta, making his NFL debut for the latter in 2018. He played two games with Cleveland last season but was cut this past August. He then returned to the Bills, who elevated him to the gameday roster for Week 1 against the Jets.
Zimmer tackled Le'Veon Bell for a four-yard loss early in that game, helping create a three-and-out during a first quarter that was dominated by the Bills offense. He went back to the practice squad and was protected each week until being called up again for the Bills' Week 6 matchup with Kansas City.
That game nearly gave Zimmer the play of a lifetime. During the fourth quarter of a one-score contest, Zimmer forced the ball out of the hands of running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, momentarily setting up a potential go-ahead drive in advantageous field position.
The call was reversed after video replay showed that Edwards-Helaire was down before he lost possession. Still, Zimmer's performance was enough to earn him a full-time promotion to the 53-man roster the following week.
Veterans on the Bills beamed Sunday when discussing Zimmer's success.
"He's very quiet, he keeps his mouth shut, and he works hard," said offensive tackle Dion Dawkins. "He hustles to the football and he's a workhorse. Zimmer just flies around in practice. He's consistent and he's a guy that we can count on. I'm happy that he's on this football team.
"Honestly, I couldn't be more happy for another guy in this locker room. … Zimmer's been patient. He's had a career where he's been all over the place. But he just kept coming back, kept coming back stronger and stronger. The opportunity showed and Zimmer came and punched his ticket."
Jordan Poyer championed the defensive tackle as an example of the team's identity.
"He's not the biggest D tackle. But at the same time, the dude is strong as hell and he works extremely hard," Poyer said. "He's what the Buffalo Bills embody. He's a Buffalo Bill. I'm happy that he's on our team. He made a huge play, probably the play of the year so far."
Zimmer was still catching his breath when he spoke to the media after the contest. Teammates had coaxed him into delivering a postgame address, an uncharacteristic ask for their quiet assassin. He appeared to blush as he spoke to a raucous locker room.
"I love all you guys," he said.