The defense returned 80%, good for seventh most in the league, which made it a surprise early this season when the unit didn’t play to the standard it had set in 2018 and 2019. During that span, Buffalo allowed the fewest yards per game and fourth-fewest points per game in the NFL. Through the first half of the 2020 NFL season, the defense ranked 16th in yards per game and 14th in scoring.
But the group is rounding into form at a good time this late in the season, holding the Pittsburgh Steelers to 224 total yards and 15 points during Buffalo’s win in Week 14. Since Week 9, the Bills own the sixth-best run defense in the NFL and the second-best third-down defense.
“As we continue to practice and jell, as the season goes on, we continue to get better,” cornerback Tre’Davious White said after the defense’s strong performance in a Week 13 win against the San Francisco 49ers.
To be fair, the defense’s continuity took a hit when starting defensive tackle Star Lotulelei opted out of the season. And again in Week 1, when Milano and fellow starting linebacker Tremaine Edmunds suffered injuries. In Milano’s case, when he takes the field Saturday at the Denver Broncos (4:30 p.m. ET, NFL Network), it will mark the first time this season he has played in three consecutive games.
It’s still somewhat strange to think a team with so many core players who have been together at least three years — White, Edmunds, Milano, safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, pass-rusher Jerry Hughes and Wallace — would need 15 weeks to find its form. But coach Sean McDermott was prophetic when discussing the team’s continuity in the offseason, emphasizing that simply returning the same players didn’t necessarily mean the Bills were automatic contenders.
“Games aren’t going to be won just because of continuity,” McDermott said in June. “So, you know, we’ve got to make sure that we take that continuity and build on it.”
That has been a tough task with COVID-19 social-distancing protocols in place, as players are strongly discouraged from congregating outside the facility. This meant virtual meetings all offseason and minimal contact with their newest teammates during the early parts of the season.
Hyde said that ordinarily the Bills’ training camp at St. John Fisher College serves as a place for players to bond and learn more about one another. But without that experience this season, the process was slower.
“We had virtual meetings throughout the offseason, but there were still some guys who I’d say, until Week 3 or Week 4, that I hadn’t really sat down and had many conversations with,” Hyde said. “And that’s rare.”
Hyde, one of the longest-tenured players on the Bills’ roster, shared McDermott’s mindset on continuity.
“It doesn’t matter what you did the year before on defense, you have to go out there and do it again,” Hyde said. “It’s tough to repeat. This league, each game is a different challenge with different weapons and different circumstances.
“You could even go as detailed as no crowd on third down and stuff like that. It’s not an excuse, just different circumstances. Throughout this season, we’ve had our ups and downs, and I think that the best thing a defense can do is be consistent, and we’re finding that.”
Edmunds, in his third season, missed one game but played through obvious pain early in the season. He’s healing, and has started to look like the Pro Bowler he was in 2019. He said developing chemistry is an ongoing process for the defense.
“Guys can’t get together outside the facility like we usually could,” he said. “I’m a true believer that sometimes you build a team even stronger outside of the building. … It took time [to jell] this year, the process never stops and we’re still going through it. It’s a good thing to see these guys showing up to work every day, and I think that’s the one thing that we appreciate from one another — that we can count on one another.”
With three games remaining in the Bills’ regular season, and one win standing between them and clinching a second-straight playoff berth, the timing of Buffalo’s defensive improvement couldn’t be better.
“We’re finding our identity,” Hyde said.