Bills' defense showing reasons for optimism despite some ugly results

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- If you look at the numbers without context, there isn't a lot to like about the Buffalo Bills' defense over the past two weeks.

They allowed 419 and 453 yards to the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals, respectively, the third time they have allowed 400-plus yards in their past five games.

Buffalo has not been the stifling defense it was the past two seasons, a span when it allowed the fewest yards and fourth-fewest points per game in the NFL. Those numbers have jumped to 20th and 18th, respectively, in 2020 and the offense has carried the load for the most part.

Part of the problem is the defense has played shorthanded throughout most of the season -- for instance, Josh Norman testing positive for COVID-19 and an injury to Dane Jackson left them scrambling at cornerback against Arizona. But if you look beyond the ugly surface numbers, the unit has provided reasons for optimism as the Bills (7-3) enter their bye week in first place in the AFC East.

Perhaps Buffalo's low point of the season defensively came in a Week 6 loss to the Chiefs, when it allowed a season-high 245 rushing yards. Coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier's plan was to limit the deep passes and make Kansas City beat them on the ground. It burned the Bills in the end, but it wound up being a turning point for a defense that had struggled to find many positives in its first six games.

"That game was such a unique game and even the game plan going in where we were very concerned about giving up plays over the top of the defense and yielded a little bit in the run game," Frazier said. "We've taken a different approach going forward, but it was a unique game in itself and we learned some things from that game. We just tried to become more who we are."

Buffalo's turnaround began on third downs. Through its first six games, the Bills allowed opponents to convert on 53.5% of their third-down opportunities -- the third-worst mark in the league. In the four games since, Buffalo holds the seventh-best third-down percentage in the league at 34.9%. Its red zone efficiency has also improved from 69.2% in its first six games to 50% in its past four.

Since Week 7, the Bills' nine forced turnovers are the most in the NFL, buoyed by a four-turnover performance against the Seahawks in Week 9. It has created opportunities for their offense, which in return has scored 26 points off turnovers in the past four games -- third-most in the league. Those numbers were drastically worse over the team's first six games of the season, when Buffalo forced just seven turnovers and scored 17 points off them.

The sentiment might not immediately catch on with a Bills fans still reeling from the dramatic loss to Arizona, but Buffalo's performance in the fourth quarter in that game might have been one of its most impressive stretches of the season.

While both sides of the ball collapsed during the third quarter, the Bills' defense forced a turnover and back-to-back three-and-outs on the Cardinals' first three possessions of the final quarter, giving their slumping offense ample chances to complete a comeback -- which it nearly did, were it not for the "Hail Murray" miracle in the game's waning seconds. Before that four-play, 75-yard scoring drive, Arizona had mustered 35 yards on 11 fourth-quarter plays.

The Buffalo defense did its job; more blame could be placed on the offense, which managed 36 yards on 10 plays outside of its go-ahead scoring drive.

The Bills have issues to resolve before season's end, most notably a run defense that ranks 29th in yards per carry (dead last in the NFL over the past four weeks). But this unit has shown enough signs of a progression to provide hope for the final postseason push.