ATLANTA -- After the Buffalo Bills beat the Denver Broncos last week, a Broncos assistant coach complimented Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier on how quickly he'd developed the defense.
Frazier and coach Sean McDermott have implemented a new system in Buffalo that features a 4-3 alignment and a zone-based coverage scheme. Every starter in the secondary also is new this season, and some of the Bills' returning players in the front seven -- particularly linebacker Lorenzo Alexander -- have drastically different roles. With so much turnover, expectations were understandably tempered.
Yet in a brief period of time, the Bills have not only reversed the failures of Rex Ryan's disappointing two-year tenure in charge of the defense, but they have vaulted to or near the top of the NFL's charts in several defensive statistics.
After their defense stifled 2016 MVP Matt Ryan and the undefeated Falcons' offense Sunday, winning 23-17, the Bills sit at 3-1 and atop the AFC East following the New England Patriots' loss to the Carolina Panthers. Few expected the Bills to have any shot in the division against the Patriots. The Bills' top-ranked defense and the Patriots' 32nd-ranked defense -- allowing 31.7 points per game entering Week 4 -- have changed the conversation.
The Falcons gained 391 total yards against Buffalo but turned the ball over three times, including a 52-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Bills cornerback Tre'Davious White on what came close to being a pass by Ryan, his motion disrupted by defensive end Jerry Hughes. Ryan also was intercepted twice by safety Micah Hyde, who signed a five-year, $30.5 million deal this offseason.
The last time the Falcons were held to 17 points or less at home was Week 17 of the 2015 season. Atlanta was without top receivers Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu for much of the second half of Sunday's game, but for an offense that had gained at least 364 yards in its first three games this season, there still was enough talent to get the job done.
Making the Bills' defensive performance more impressive was that it played without starting defensive end Shaq Lawson, who sat with a groin injury, and played most of the final quarter without starting cornerback E.J. Gaines, who left with a groin injury. Starting linebacker Ramon Humber also sat for much of the game with a thumb injury, thrusting fifth-round rookie Matt Milano in a role on defense.
The Bills will travel to play the Cincinnati Bengals (1-3) next week. Should the Bills win that game, they will enter the bye week with their first 4-1 record since 2011. But Buffalo collapsed to a 6-10 finish that year, serving as a reminder there is still a long road ahead for the Bills before the end of their 17-year playoff drought becomes a discussion.