Ed Oliver said the Buffalo Bills coaches relayed a message to the defense prior to their Week 4 date with the Houston Texans on Sunday.
The defense had done well to build a positive reputation during the first three weeks, the highlight of which was a 35-0 shutout of Miami. Now, they had to protect it.
"Basically, that's what we did," Oliver said. "Went out there, and we ain't overlooking nobody. We had to protect our reputation."
Buffalo shut down Houston's offense for its second shutout in three weeks, a 40-0 victory on a rainy afternoon at Highmark Stadium. The defense produced a season-high five takeaways, including four interceptions off rookie quarterback Davis Mills.
The offense did its part. Josh Allen passed for 248 yards and accounted for three touchdowns. Tight end Dawson Knox continued his productive start to the season with a pair of touchdown grabs, while Stefon Diggs accumulated a season-high 114 receiving yards.
But our three takeaways begin with the dominant effort from a defense that will enter Week 5 sitting atop NFL leaderboards but still feels it has more to prove.
1. The defensive reputation
So, how does this Buffalo defense want to be recognized?
"We're an attack-oriented defense and we've got to protect that reputation," Oliver said. "We're going to play downhill with the linebackers, and our DBs are going to break on the ball and our D-line is going to penetrate. It's just that simple."
The Bills set an early tone with a fourth-down stop during the first quarter, after Allen saw his first pass of the afternoon intercepted by Texans safety Justin Reid and returned to the Buffalo 13-yard line. The Texans handed the ball twice to running back Mark Ingram for a combined seven yards, setting up third-and-3 with the end zone six yards away.
Jerry Hughes stuffed the next run attempt for no gain. When the Texans left their offense on the field for fourth down, the Hughes charged Mills and tipped his attempted pass incomplete.
"Honestly, we treat that like a takeaway," safety Micah Hyde, a defensive captain, said. "That's so much momentum for us. You know, it's not ideal for the offense to give the football away, but as we run on the field, we always huddle up and we always say, 'Hey, this is us, this is this what we got to do.' And we're always going to defend a blade of grass."
The moment marked the beginning of what would be a difficult day for Mills, who entered on the heels of posting a 95.5 quarterback rating against a talented Carolina defense in Week 2. Buffalo has made a habit of making life challenging for rookie quarterbacks in four seasons under head coach Sean McDermott, holding first-year passers to a 1-4 record and a 66.8 passer rating entering Sunday.
Mills finished with 87 yards and four interceptions for a rating of 23.4. The Texans had -23 net passing yards during the first half, the lowest mark by any team since 1999 according to ESPN Stats and Info. Receiver Brandin Cooks, who entered Sunday ranked third in the NFL in both receptions and receiving yards, was held to just 47 yards on five catches.
Tremaine Edmunds read Mills' eyes and intercepted an attempted pass over the middle for Buffalo's first turnover. Linebacker A.J. Klein – filling in for an injured Matt Milano – tipped a pass that led to Hyde's interception during the second quarter.
Safety Jaquan Johnson and cornerback Cam Lewis – filling in for injured starters Jordan Poyer and Taron Johnson, respectively – both found ways to leave their fingerprints on the shutout. Lewis forced a fumble by punching the ball loose from receiver Jordan Akins, which Klein recovered. Johnson intercepted a deep ball from Mills during the fourth quarter.
The Bills have produced at least three turnovers in each of the last three games since failing to force a takeaway during their Week 1 loss to the Steelers.
"They come in bunches, and we know that," Hyde said. "So, keep attacking the football."
The Bills become the third team since 1990 to post shutouts in two of their first four games, joining Washington in 1991 and Baltimore in 2000. Their 44 points allowed are the second fewest in team history through the first four games of a season.
It's a solid reputation to have a quarter of the way through the season. Still, Oliver was adamant they have yet to prove anything.
"The playoffs," he said. "That's what I found out in this league. It don't matter what you do right now, it's about how you play then. We are building up to play well then. We just putting the reps in, getting the work in, so we know what time it is when we get there."
2. Knox continues to produce
Knox has four touchdown receptions over the last three games – more than he had in either of his first two full seasons. His 144 receiving yards in four contests are halfway to his 12-game total from 2020.
Coaches and teammates continue to laud the habits that have set the stage for Knox's career-best stretch. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll said Monday that Knox and tight end coach Rob Boras seem to use every moment of practice productively.
"It's just trying to get better every day," Knox said. "Whether it's just catching or run blocking or pass protection. I don't think a whole lot has changed but just stacking good days on good days like in practice and treating every day like it's a game."
Allen delivered a 25-yard strike to Knox for the game's opening touchdown during the first quarter. He later found the tight end wide open in the end zone for a 1-yard reception to extend the lead to 26-0.
The Bills quarterback revisited Knox's journey during their joint postgame press conference, from walk-on quarterback at Ole Miss to third-round draft pick at tight end.
"You see the progression and how he's done everything right," Allen said. "Whether it be blocking, whether it be pass catching to running routes. He just finds ways to get open. I have supreme trust in this guy right here and he's only going to continue to get better."
3. A change on the offensive line
Rookie offensive lineman Spencer Brown made his first NFL start at right tackle. Daryl Williams slid over to right guard in place of Cody Ford, who was left out of the starting lineup.
"We believe in Cody," McDermott said afterward. "Let's make sure I'm clear on that, and we're clear. Cody Ford is still a good football player."
The Bills drafted Brown during the third round in April. The 6-foot-8 tackle spent last season training with former All-Pro offensive lineman Joe Staley after his senior campaign with Northern Iowa was postponed due to COVID-19.
"I think he rose to the occasion," center Mitch Morse said. "Spencer is an extremely talented football player. I think like any guy on the offensive line, he would say he has some work to do. For the most part I'd say he performed admirably, was communicating very well, played beyond his years in that regard.
"He was very professional. That's one thing about Spencer, he handles himself like a pro at a very young age. That's all you can ask. Very proud of him. He stepped up to the plate."
The offensive line – which also featured Ike Boettger stepping in at left guard for Jon Feliciano, who missed the game with a concussion – allowed one sack and two other quarterback hits. They helped pave the way for a 199-yard rushing day on 40 carries.
"Line play is hard to grade by the naked eye until you can watch the film, but I did like the way we ran the football today," McDermott said.