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Ready for prime time | How Buffalo's defense feeds off making timely plays down the stretch

Buffalo Bills vs Pittsburgh Steelers at Bills Stadium on December 13, 2020. Micah Hyde (23),Dean Marlowe (31), A.J. Epenesa (57), Tremaine Edmunds (49),Matt Milano (58), Tre'Davious White (27). TD celebration. Photo by Craig Melvin.
Buffalo Bills vs Pittsburgh Steelers at Bills Stadium on December 13, 2020. Micah Hyde (23),Dean Marlowe (31), A.J. Epenesa (57), Tremaine Edmunds (49),Matt Milano (58), Tre'Davious White (27). TD celebration. Photo by Craig Melvin.

Tre'Davious White warned us.

About halfway through the 2020 regular season, the Pro Bowl cornerback said that the Bills defense would not resemble the one that finished in the league's top five for total defense and top three for pass defense each of the past two seasons.

Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, who has been calling the defense since Sean McDermott's arrival saw it too.

"In my mind very early on, starting with the offseason, with training camp, starting with new faces, new people, new players, I knew it was going to be a little bit different," Frazier said. "At some point you have to make some adjustments, but yet still be able to gain some momentum where in November and December you're making that step towards being a really good group."

White explained how there are three different identities that a defense can adopt. A total shut down defense that holds opponents to low yardage outputs and forces a lot of punts. A stingy red zone defense that holds opponents down on the scoreboard and forces field goals. Or a takeaway defense that helps win games by giving their offense extra possessions to score more points.

White predicted at midseason that the 2020 defense for the Bills would be the latter, and for the most part he was correct.

Though it wasn't until Week 12 that a true trend began to develop, as a lot of the new players took time to blend together following the absence of OTAs, a pad-less training camp and no preseason, Buffalo's defense began to deliver game-changing plays more often.

"I think we made those adjustments along the way," said Frazier. "And we have been playing good defense down the stretch, but that's part of what we have to do as coaches. You have to be able to adjust. Don't be pigheaded and say, 'Okay, I'm just going to keep doing XYZ because it was good with this group a year ago or two years ago.' You've got to adjust. We've tried to do that."

In an effort to make more plays Frazier has increased the team's blitz rate to 37.4 percent, the highest in the McDermott era. He has also blitzed at the fourth-highest rate in the league on first down (37.7%).

The Bills defensive unit has also gone to an almost exclusive nickel personnel grouping, as they lined up with five defensive backs just over 90 percent of their defensive snaps, the highest rate in the league (90.4%).

The critical play or two hasn't always been in the form of a turnover, but Frazier's unit did begin performing more consistently and in a way that Sean McDermott has preached for years.

It's clear that the side of the ball that has carried the Bills to the Divisional Round of the Playoffs this season has been their high-powered offense. Second in the league in scoring with an MVP contender at quarterback, Buffalo's passing game has looked unstoppable at times.

But their defense and special teams has to make their fair share of contributions too, and that's McDermott's vision of complementary football.

Since Week 12, Buffalo's defense shaved it's points allowed from 26.5 per game to 18.3. They trimmed 40 yards off their run defense yardage total, hacked their third down conversion percentage more than 15 percent from 46.5 percent to 29.9. And they boosted their rate of takeaways from 1.6 per game to an even two.

Every one of those figures over the last five weeks of the regular season ranked in the top five in the league. They additionally had the eighth-highest takeaway total in the league this season.

By no means has Buffalo's defense been dominant, but they have been opportunistic and timely.

Even in last week's Wild Card victory the Colts rolled up more than 450 yards of offense, converted more than 50 percent of their third downs and scored 24 points.

But Buffalo's defense changed the course of the game when Taron Johnson dropped Jonathan Taylor for a loss on 3rd-and-goal from the four-yard line on a toss play and Quinton Jefferson and Mario Addison got enough pressure on Philip Rivers on 4th-and-goal to force a turnover on downs.

On the Colts' final drive, Jordan Poyer also forced a fumble that was recovered by Tre'Davious White, but the officials ruled Zach Paschal down by contact even after convincing video evidence to the contrary. Micah Hyde followed up by knocking down a Hail Mary attempt on the game's final play.

"It's something we talk about a lot," said Frazier. "Every guy just visualizing himself being the guy that's going to step up and make a play for us. We tell our guys all the time, don't exclude yourself. Believe that you can be that guy in certain situations to come up with that big play that can create momentum for our team, or really shut the door on an opponent. As long as they believe that and just visualize themselves being that person, there is an opportunity for it to potentially happen, and it's happened to a number of our guys."

In the regular season finale Josh Norman had an interception return for a touchdown and Dean Marlowe had two other INTs.

In Week 16 it was Matt Milano with four third-down stops, including a sack, to force New England to punt seven times on nine total possessions.

In Week 15, White had a strip sack and Jerry Hughes returned the fumble 21 yards for a touchdown.

Every week it's a different defender turning in a play that helps tilt the balance of the game in Buffalo's favor.

"It's amazing man," said Tremaine Edmunds. "It's not just one guy out there trying to make every play. You've got everybody doing their job and most of the time when defenses play their best it's when everybody is doing their job and not trying to do somebody else's."

"This system, it takes all 11 guys doing their specific job, finishing every play," said Poyer. "The players on our defense can make those plays so you don't have to do anything outside the framework of the defense. Just do your job and then from there if a play needs to be made, make it. So we just continue to stay consistent and disciplined throughout the week in order to be ready to make those plays."

The task gets considerably more difficult this week against a Baltimore team that leads the league in rushing. Including 236 rushing yards in its Wild Card victory, Baltimore has totaled 889 rushing yards (296.3 per game) over its last three games.

"It's a totally different style offense than any team we would normally face," said Poyer. "The quarterback run aspect part of the game, they've got every single quarterback run you can think of. So it comes down to guys being disciplined with their eyes and then being able to tackle out in space and having a lot of guys running to the football.

"We've got to be able to force this team to throw the football. Until we're able to stop their running attack, they're going to be running the ball all game long. So we're going to have to come in and prove that we can stop it."

Even though the Bills saw Lamar Jackson and company just 13 months ago in a Week 14 matchup and were the only defense to hold the league MVP to under 200 total yards rushing and passing that year, they know the Ravens offense has changed a bit. They also realize their defense wins in a different way now.

But with a different player seemingly providing an important play every week, Buffalo's defense enters the game confident that they'll win enough plays to support their high-octane offense.

"We're fortunate that we have a number of playmakers that we do, whether it's Matt Milano or Tremaine, Micah, Jordan, Tre'Davious, Jerry Hughes," said Frazier. "We've got some guys that can make those splash plays at any given point in the game. And it's not a bad thing to have that throughout the defense. When the time comes, those special players step up and they make those big-time plays."

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