'We're doing it for him': Greg Rousseau leads Bills' defenders emerging in Von Miller's absence

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- As a group of Buffalo Bills defensive linemen performed their weekly lap around the field together before pregame warm-ups, several players, including second-year defensive ends Greg Rousseau and Boogie Basham, wore T-shirts honoring Von Miller.

Many other Bills players also wore the shirts before hosting the New York Jets on Sunday, the team’s first game since Miller had season-ending ACL surgery. The future Hall of Famer started the trend of wearing pregame T-shirts featuring different players, teammates and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier after honoring his deceased former teammate, Demaryius Thomas, with a T-shirt last year in the playoffs.

Those defensive ends rose to the occasion Sunday, led by Rousseau's two sacks in what has been an impressive stretch for the young pass-rusher coming off an ankle injury. The defense's performance was pivotal in Buffalo's 20-12 win -- the Bills’ second straight AFC East victory -- after the offense put up a season low in production (232 net yards).

“We know we've got to step up,” Rousseau said. “But Von is still with us. He's still paying attention. He's still in our meetings on the phone, Zoom, all that stuff. So, I mean, we're doing it for him. We're doing it for us. I mean, we don't see that as he's out. We just see it as we've got to step up, do our one-eleventh out there and make plays and get the job done."

It was Rousseau's second career game with two sacks (Dolphins, 2021). The 2021 first-rounder also had a forced fumble (second of his career), a tackle for loss and a pass defensed.

After a career-high five pressures against the New England Patriots but no sacks, Rousseau was able to close in on the quarterback Sunday and now has seven pressures in the past two games, which leads the Bills. Rousseau, 22, had 12 pressures in his first eight games played this year.

“[Rousseau’s] growth is unbelievable and every week he puts the work in,” defensive tackle DaQuan Jones said. “... You can see him [in practice] working on the stuff he wants to work on in the game, and to see it show up, it's a huge testament to his character.”

Rousseau missed three games because of an ankle injury -- including the win in Detroit on Thanksgiving Day when Miller suffered his injury -- but has come back when the Bills needed him most. Coach Sean McDermott noted how Rousseau has taken advantage of being able to learn from Miller.

“Greg followed everything that Von did, in terms of watching, listening, learning, taking notes,” McDermott said Friday. “He was in Von’s hip pocket ... now is when that work pays off, really.”

The Bills have had help from a variety of players in the past two games, with nine different defenders generating multiple pressures after spending high draft picks at the position and adding familiar faces in free agency this year.

Defensive end A.J. Epenesa (second-rounder in 2020) has played well with a sack in each of the past two games (career high of 5.5 this year) and ended the game against the Jets by batting down a pass on fourth down.

Shaq Lawson, a 2016 Bills first-rounder who came back for his second stint with the team, has stepped up with five pressures over the past three games. Basham, the team’s second-round pick in the 2021 draft, has rotated in but is not producing at the level of the other three with a 7.8% pass rush win rate this season.

Limiting back-to-back division opponents to one touchdown and not giving up 100 rushing yards in the past four games (after allowing 140-plus yards in three straight games) are positive signs for this defense. It should alleviate some fears with significant tests still to come after the Bills lost Miller, whom they signed to be a difference-maker in the biggest moments.

“I be telling them boys, '... Y’all got drafted first, second round for a reason.’ Like, if you think about it, all our D-ends [are] either first- or second-round picks in the past,” Lawson said. “So, they drafted them, and they brought me back for a reason, so, I feel like, we could do it. And that’s why I just tell them boys, ‘Just have faith. Continue to have faith.’”