LONDON — The Buffalo Bills lost cornerback Tre’Davious White, a cornerstone of their defense, in last week’s win over the Miami Dolphins. The defensive injuries continued Sunday after they lost linebacker Matt Milano to multiple lower-body injuries and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones to a pectoral injury.
Not to mention the three backs who were out with injuries in Sunday’s 25-20 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in London, including starting defensive end Greg Rousseau (foot) and starting cornerback Christian Benford (shoulder).
“Like the middle of the first quarter, second quarter, when you look out, some of the guys that are usually there are gone. ‘Milan, (Jones),” safety Jordan Poyer said after the game. “For the guys that stepped in (like linebacker Terrell Dodson), I thought they did a really good job and they played Matt’s role.”
The question now is what will happen 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 Bills (3-2) depth will now be severely tested.
“It’s hard to see guys get hurt, but on the other hand, 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 get down to that depth, the depth that we have, the depth advantage that we do have, guys need to play well, guys need to step up, that’s still a standard.”
So, who needs reinforcements at all levels of the defense?
Against the Jaguars, the Bills defense was nearly depleted. With Rousseau and Shaq Lawson out, head coach Sean McDermott has Leonard Floyd (who was in and out of the game), AJ Epenesa (A.J. Epenesa), Von Miller (who played limited games in his return from right ACL surgery) and Kingsley Jonathan. Practice squad defensive tackle Kendal Vickers came into this game and ended up playing 43 snaps, more than half of the defense’s total.
The highlight was Epenesa, who had a breakthrough game. He finished with a career-high two sacks, including a strip sack, a fumble recovery and three pass bats — also a career-high.
“(Epenesa) showed up,” said McDermott, who took over the defensive play for the first time as head coach this season. “We’re getting smaller there and on the D-line, we only have so many players. But I noticed AJ and I thought he played well and put in a great effort.”
Epenesa is in a contract year and plays with more confidence. He also had four quarterback hits in the game and had a team-high five pressures. Overall, the pass rush was very effective for Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence, forcing him into 22 dropbacks — the second-most of his career. Lawrence also was sacked five times, tying a career high. The Bills started the season with 21 sacks, tied for first in the league.
Miller’s playing time should increase throughout the season and will add to the Bills’ capabilities.
“Von was on a pitch count today, so we didn’t have him through the entire second half, like we would have liked,” McDermott said. “But it’s great to have him back on the field.”
Losing Jones for an extended period of time would be a major blow. He had 2.5 sacks and meshed well with Ed Oliver. Jones leads all Bills defensive linemen in pass rush win rate (26.9%).
Without him, veterans Tim Settle, Jordan Phillips and possibly Vickers will be asked to do more.
If Milano, a Pro Bowler, misses time in 2022, there is no linebacker on the Bills roster that can fully replace him.
The job will be shouldered by fourth-year linebacker Dodson and rookie Dorian Williams. On Sunday, Dodson shot 64.6 percent of his defensive snaps, while Williams shot 35.4 percent.
“Next guy up,” Dodson said. “Lano is the energy and leader of the defense, but that’s football, things happen and it sucks. I had to put my head in there because I feel for him. The linebacker room, we try to make plays for him, try to , he covered so much ground and played so many (many) games.”
Dodson had some impactful games after replacing Milano, finishing with five tackles, one quarterback hit, one tackle for loss, one pass defensed and one forced fumble. ball. Williams had four tackles and one pass defended.
While Milano filled out the stat sheet, numbers alone don’t do justice to his impact. If Milan misses significant playing time, the young players will need to work with second-year center back Terrell Bernard and the veterans around them to fill in the void as much as possible. The Bills could also look to add depth at the position.
“He’s one of the key guys on our defense and he can fly around and make a lot of plays for us,” quarterback Josh Allen said. “Hopefully he’ll be back on the pitch soon.”
In White’s absence, the Bills’ top cornerback is Benford. But he did not play Sunday due to a right shoulder injury sustained against the Dolphins.
Without him, the job falls to fourth-year cornerback Dane Jackson and sophomore cornerback Kyle Elam. Elam, the team’s 2022 first-round pick, has performed well through 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 win and I don’t play, I mean I’d still be happy. But at the end of the day, I want to make an impact and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
As the closest defender, Elam had six catches on nine targets for 93 yards and a passer rating of 100.7. By comparison, Jackson allowed three receptions on six targets, including a touchdown reception, and allowed a passer rating of 104.2, per NFL Next Gen Stats.
“You’re playing, you’re expected to play and perform well,” McDermott said. “Whether you played a game the week before or not, whether you were active or inactive, that’s what people have done for years.”
The Bills replaced Elam with practice squad defensive back JaMarcus Ingram late in the game, but Ingram played just eight defensive snaps. McDermott said the decision to bring another player on was a situation-based decision.
Even if Benford returns, the Bills will rely on their young players to step up in White’s absence. The continued development of all of these will be key to future defenses.
“Ultimately, Elam’s job is to go out and perform,” Hyde said. “Our job is to get these guys up and give them the confidence to go out there and play the game. So, I feel like (Elam) stepped in and did his job and obviously he can play some better games? Yeah. , so can I. So, it’s a game that we’re all going to learn from and bounce back next week.”