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Why A.J. Epenesa looks like a different player in 2021

A.J. Epenesa (57). Buffalo Bills Training Camp. August 16, 2021. Photo by Bill Wippert
A.J. Epenesa (57). Buffalo Bills Training Camp. August 16, 2021. Photo by Bill Wippert

Simply put – A.J. Epenesa looks like a totally different player than he did in his rookie season.

The 2020 second-round pick played 46 percent of the defensive snaps against the Dolphins up from 33 percent in Week 1. Epenesa's new physique and the additional playing time helped him get into a rhythm early against the Dolphins. He finished the game with one tackle and two QB hits, but his constant pressure left a measurable impact on the game.

"It definitely gave me a lot more confidence and a lot more juice in the game," Epenesa said. "Having my teammates there as well gives me the confidence to keep playing. Like we had spoken about before, with having those OTA's this offseason, that definitely contributes a lot to just having more reps and more experience and getting prepared."

Epenesa worked to get to his ideal playing weight to be the pass rusher that this Bills team needs. Against Miami, the Bills defense had four fourth down stops, and one of them was all Epenesa. On fourth-and-2 in the first quarter, Epenesa perfectly executed a swim move on Dolphins right tackle Jesse Davis and hit quarterback Tua Tugavailoa as he threw the ball which forced it to be incomplete and the Bills offense got the ball back.

After practice on Wednesday, Epenesa explained his thoughts on playing so well throughout the entire game but still not recording a sack.

"It's exciting because you do so well and sacks are distributed to the whole team, but it's also disappointing just because you get there so many times and you don't quite get him down," Epenesa said. "You could be one step behind, or he throws it right before you get there, or you just miss him. I had a couple just plain old misses. So those are the things I want to cut down on and keep those pressures coming but get him down and get that loss of yardage there."

Epenesa's stellar performance against the Dolphins allowed his teammates to get in the backfield and sack the quarterback. It marked the first six-plus sack game for the Bills defense since October 25, 2020. Epenesa's teammates were thrilled for him throughout the game because they know how much work he put in this offseason. 

"All of them came over, jumping, hooting and hollering, slapping me on my head," Epenesa said. "I mean, getting a headache just from that instead of playing the actual game. But those guys are all excited. That's one thing Coach [McDermott] points out that you guys all know is that the tightness in our group on the D-line is unique and it's something that really holds our group together. It's that centerpiece for our group, how close we are and how tight we are as friends and as brothers. It makes us play that much harder for each other."

The veteran players on this Bills defense have noticed the change in Epenesa from year one to year two and have been impressed with his production early in the season. Safety Jordan Poyer who has 8.0 sacks in his five seasons in Buffalo thinks that a player like Epenesa has unlimited potential in this league. 

"I mean the sky's the limit for that kid," Poyer said. "He's grown into himself. He starting to understand the game a lot more, understand our scheme a lot more. He's just continuing to learn so the sky's the limit for him."

Here are a few additional notes from Bills practice on Wednesday.

Josh Allen is excited to see Logan Thomas again

Washington tight end Logan Thomas spent three seasons in Buffalo from 2016-2018. His last season in Buffalo was Josh Allen's rookie year. Thomas had 12 receptions for 77 yards that year and Allen can't wait to reconnect with his former pass catcher after Sunday's game.

"I miss him," Allen said. "I talk to him actually quite a bit still and it's been awesome to see what he's done. His family's awesome and He's made some unbelievable plays and back when he was here, you saw, guys like that that are big, fast, and ultimately smart, those guys usually find a way to stick around in this league. Not only is he sticking around, he's cemented himself as one of the better tight ends in this league and one of the better guys, too, so I got a lot of love for him and his family."

Ron Rivera expects Bills Mafia to bring the noise on Sunday 

From the time spent with one another, Ron Rivera knows what style of football to expect from a Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane lead Buffalo Bills organization. What he continues to warn his players about is the crowd noise from the close to 70,000 Bills fans that will play a huge factor in Sunday's game.

"I've seen it happen and that is Sean and Brandon and the team they've built has brought the fanbase back to Buffalo," Rivera said in a conference call with the Buffalo media. "And I can remember playing there back in the day in the 1990s, especially when Buffalo was truly rolling. Those late 80s, and 90s teams, were tremendous football teams and that crowd got behind them. You know, they can really help as far as getting players excited and getting the crowd going is a neat thing."

"Unfortunately, we're going to deal with it on Sunday," Rivera added. "But I think that's one thing that we appreciate is having the fans back in the stands so they can get going. There can be some excitement. You know, they can really help as far as getting players excited and getting the crowd going."