BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Buffalo Bills coach Sean McDermott acknowledged Tuesday that a big test awaited the team’s defensive ends ahead of Thursday night's matchup against the New England Patriots. Von Miller, their best pass-rusher, had already been ruled out for the game due to a knee injury.
“I think we'll get a better feel with Von out, you know, as to how that goes this week. And I think the biggest thing is going to be, you have an opportunity and what do you do with it? They're working hard in practice,” McDermott said. “… So, you like what you see, now it's a chance for them to really rise to the occasion, so to speak.”
The Bills defense did just that, pressuring quarterback Mac Jones on 39.5% of his dropbacks -- the second-highest of rate of his career -- and limiting the Patriots to 60 yards rushing in the Bills’ 24-10 win, the team’s first AFC East victory of the season (1-2).
Their success is a good sign of what the defense can do even without Miller, who was injured at the end of the first half of the team's win over the Detroit Lions last week and was placed on injured reserve prior to Thursday’s game.
“It's really just, it's that time where they call our number,” defensive end A.J. Epenesa said. “They call all four of us, all four defensive edge rush guys [Epenesa, Greg Rousseau, Boogie Basham and Shaq Lawson]. It's our time in the season. It's time for us to step up. It's our opportunity to make plays, and I know the four of us are gonna make the most of it."
The defense got a boost from the returns of Epenesa and Rousseau after both missed time -- three games for Rousseau and one for Epenesa -- with ankle injuries. Rousseau and Lawson led the way in terms of participation and performance with each playing over 60% of the snaps.
Rousseau had a team-high five pressures and now has 17 on the season, second-most of any Bills defender behind Miller (38).
“The defensive line held it down and was controlling the line of scrimmage,” linebacker Matt Milano said. “Greg played well. A.J. stepped up and made some big-time plays. It was a super performance."
The Bills started the game blitzing Jones on five of his first 10 dropbacks, but he responded by going 4-of-5 for 62 yards and a touchdown on those plays. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier adjusted after that, blitzing Jones just once on his remaining 28 dropbacks. The Patriots quarterback averaged 4.3 yards per attempt against four or fewer pass-rushers, his fewest in a game with at least 10 attempts.
“Shaq is a different animal out there this year,” safety Jordan Poyer said. “He came back to Buffalo and golly, he's playing out of his mind. You go up and down that line with guys that are just playing really good football for us.”
The team saw more from another important contributor Thursday in cornerback Tre’Davious White, who played 33 snaps -- up from 15 in his return to the field from a torn left ACL last week.
The earliest Miller will be able to return from IR is the Bills’ Week 17 game at the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday Night Football.
Miller said on his podcast Tuesday that he was hopeful to return before the team’s next game against the New York Jets, but the Bills made the decision to give Miller more time to heal ahead of the team's expected playoff run. The Bills signed the future Hall of Famer in free agency for his presence in key moments, especially the postseason. In the meantime, the Bills will rely on the other pass-rushers to step up with back-to-back games against AFC East opponents up next.
“We’ve been assessing Von this week and seeing how he is, and we don’t want to rush him back,” general manager Brandon Beane said in a pool report. “This gives us a chance to go ahead and count tonight’s game and three more on injured reserve. And hopefully we can get him back for the stretch run.”