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Bills defense stays hot despite injuries, but Dolphins pose stiff challenge

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Diggs explains what's different with the Bills this season (1:12)

Stefon Diggs explains how the Bills are a more confident squad this season after losing in the AFC divisional round to the Chiefs. (1:12)

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Down two defensive tackles against the Tennessee Titans and 2020 rushing champ Derrick Henry on Monday, the Buffalo Bills looked like they could be in for a challenge. A season earlier, the Bills defense had given up 143 yards and three touchdowns to Henry in a 34-31 loss.

But things were different this time around. The Bills defense showed for a second straight week just how good this group can be, by limiting Henry to 25 yards and the Titans’ offense to 187 total in a 41-7 win.

The Bills' offense is understandably getting much of the attention through this season's first two weeks. Quarterback Josh Allen is receiving early MVP buzz and leads the league in total QBR (87.1). But the defense is doing its fair share of the work, ranking in the top three of almost every major defensive statistical category, including No. 2 in total defense (215 yards per game). The unit hasn't allowed any points in second halves despite being without multiple starters.

“I thought [defensive coordinator] Leslie Frazier and the defensive staff put together a great plan [against the Titans],” coach Sean McDermott said. “The players executed. Just fundamentally strong, really more than anything.”

Henry had just 7 rushing yards before contact against the Bills, his fewest since being held to 5 in 2019 at Denver. He was contacted at or behind the line of scrimmage on five of his 13 rushes. Not only did the Bills prevent the Titans from scoring after their first drive, the Titans reached Buffalo territory only one more time all game.

That was without starting defensive tackle Ed Oliver (ankle) and rotating defensive tackle Tim Settle (calf) up front, in addition to losing cornerback Dane Jackson (neck), who had to be taken off the field in an ambulance at the end of the second quarter. Practice squad defensive tackles Brandin Bryant and C.J. Brewer were asked to make contributions, alongside veteran Jordan Phillips, who leads the team in pressure percentage (15.4%). Phillips (hamstring) and safety Micah Hyde (neck) did not practice oj Wednesday.

"You have to trust the guys that could potentially step into roles, if someone is not able to play, that they'll be able to handle the game plan," Frazier said.

With Jackson’s injury and cornerback Tre'Davious White still on the reserve/PUP as he recovers from a torn ACL in his left knee, rookies Christian Benford and Kaiir Elam will likely be asked to play a lot more snaps with both projected to start after rotating at the No. 2 corner spot the first two weeks.

“It comes down to at the end of the day, just communication,” safety Jordan Poyer said. “Just making sure that us on the back end, we're all on the same page. [The rookie corners], I trust them. I know that if I get a call, I can tell them a call and they'll be able to execute it.”

The rookies will be challenged in a big way against the Dolphins passing attack led by quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. Tagovailoa passed for 469 yards Sunday in a win over the Baltimore Ravens.

Since the start of 2021, the Bills have been the best in the league at taking away the deep ball. They rank first in opponent QBR and have given up no touchdowns on passes 20 or more yards downfield. In five games against Hill, the Bills have been able to limit the former Chiefs receiver to 12.05 yards per reception and scoring one touchdown.

“[Hill] is an excellent receiver and one of the best in our business," Frazier said. "But for us, the way we play defense, it's a collective effort between our secondary and our rush and our linebackers.”

That is in part due to the Bills’ ability to get after the quarterback without blitzing (5.2%, second-lowest in the NFL), while being second in the league in sacks (9.0) and fifth in quarterback contact percentage (28.7%). It helps that one of the newest Bills, Von Miller, is second in the league in pass rush win rate (46.4%).

“We have an attitude of domination,” Miller said. “We're not playing the game to just win the game, we’re playing the game to dominate the game. And we've got a team full of killers.”