Last week, the Buffalo Bills lost cornerback Tre’Davious White, a cornerstone of the team’s defense, in a win over the Miami Dolphins. On Sunday, the defensive injuries kept coming after they lost linebacker Matt Milano to what appears to be multiple lower body injuries and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones to an injured pectoral muscle.
Not to mention the three defenders who missed Sunday’s 25-20 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in London due to injuries, including starting defensive end Greg Rousseau (foot) and starting cornerback Christian Benford (shoulder).
“It was like midway through the first, second quarter, you kind of look out there and some of the guys normally out there kind of gone. Milano, [Jones],” safety Jordan Poyer said after the game. “For the guys that stepped in [like linebacker Tyrel Dodson], I thought played extremely well, stepping in the role of Matt.”
The question now turns to what happens the rest of the season for a Bills defense that has been among the league’s best, including holding the Dolphins’ No. 1 offense to just 20 points last week. The depth of the Bills (3-2) will now be seriously tested.
“It’s tough to see guys get hurt, but flip side, I try to think about it, we do have depth, we do have a lot of guys that can play football at a very high level,” wide receiver Stefon Diggs said. “So, when you go into that deep, the depth that we have, the deep edge that we do have, guys need to play well, guys need to step up and it’s still a standard.”
So, who needs to step up at each level of the defense?
The Bills almost ran out of defensive ends against the Jaguars. With Rousseau and Shaq Lawson out, coach Sean McDermott was down to Leonard Floyd (who was in and out of the game), AJ Epenesa, Von Miller (who played limited snaps in his return from right ACL surgery) and Kingsley Jonathan. Practice squad defensive tackle Kendal Vickers was brought up for the game and ended up playing 43 snaps, more than half of the total the defense played.
The highlight was Epenesa, who had a breakout game. He finished with a career-high two sacks including a strip sack, a fumble recovery and three batted passes — also a career high.
“[Epenesa] showed up,” said McDermott, who took over defensive playcalling this season for his first time as a head coach. “We were getting low on numbers there and the D-line, we only had but so many players down the stretch there. But I noticed A.J., I thought he performed well and gave great effort.”
Epenesa is in a contract year and playing more confidently. He also had four quarterback hits in the game and a team-high five pressures. Overall, the pass rush was effective against Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence, pressuring him on 22 dropbacks — the second most of his career. Lawrence was also sacked five times, tying a career high. The Bills have 21 sacks this season after coming into the game tied for the league lead.
Miller’s playing time should ramp up over the season and will add to what the Bills can do.
“Von was on a pitch count today, so we didn’t have him through the [whole] second half, like we would hope down the road here,” McDermott said. “But it was great to have him back on the field.”
Losing Jones for significant time would be a major hit. He has 2.5 sacks and has paired well with Ed Oliver. Jones leads all Bills defensive linemen with significant snaps in pass rush win rate (26.9%).
Without him, veterans Tim Settle, Jordan Phillips and likely Vickers will be asked to do more.
No linebacker on the Bills’ roster can fully replace Milano, a 2022 Pro Bowler, if he misses time.
The job will come down to fourth-year linebacker Dodson and rookie Dorian Williams. Dodson played 64.6% of defensive snaps on Sunday and Williams 35.4%.
“Next man up,” Dodson said. “Lano’s the energy and the leader of this defense, but that’s football, stuff happens, it sucks. I had to sneak my head in because I felt for him. And linebacker room, we tried to play for him, try to, he covers so much ground, makes so [many] plays.”
Dodson made some impact plays after having to replace Milano, finishing with 5 tackles, 1 quarterback hit, 1 tackle for loss, 1 pass defensed and 1 forced fumble. Williams had four tackles of his own and a pass defensed.
While Milano fills out the stat sheet, numbers alone don’t properly show his impact. If Milano misses significant time, the younger players will need to work with second-year middle linebacker Terrel Bernard and the veterans around them to fill the void as much as possible. The Bills also could look to add depth at the position.
“He’s one of our key pieces on that defense and he flies around and he makes a lot of plays for us,” quarterback Josh Allen said. “Hopefully he’ll get back on the field soon.”
With White out, the Bills’ top cornerback is Benford. But he was inactive for Sunday’s game with a right shoulder injury suffered against the Dolphins.
Without him, the job came down to fourth-year cornerback Dane Jackson and second-year cornerback Kaiir Elam. Elam, the team’s first-round pick in 2022, was a healthy scratch the first four games of the season.
“I just want to win and do my part to help this team win,” Elam said. “If we came away with a win and I didn’t make any plays, I mean I would still be happy. But at the end of the day I want to make an impact, and that’s what I’m struggling to do.”
As the nearest defender, Elam allowed six receptions on nine targets for 93 yards, allowing a passer rating of 100.7. In comparison, Jackson allowed three receptions on six targets, including a touchdown catch, for a 104.2 passer rating allowed, per NFL Next Gen Stats.
“You’re playing, you’re expected to play and perform well,” McDermott said. “Regardless of whether you’ve played or been active or inactive the week before, and guys have done that over the years.”
Late in the game, the Bills substituted in practice squad defensive back Ja’Marcus Ingram for Elam, but Ingram played only eight defensive snaps. McDermott said that was a situational decision to get another player on the field.
Even when Benford returns, the Bills will rely on their young players to step up in White’s absence. All of them continuing to develop will be key for this defense going forward.
“Ultimately, it’s [Elam’s] job to go out there and perform,” Hyde said. “And it’s our job to get those guys lined up and give them the confidence to go out there and play well. So, I feel like [Elam] stepped in and did his job, obviously could he have made some better plays? Yeah, I could’ve also. So, it’s a game that we’re all going to learn from and bounce back next week.”