Bills have been carried by defense without stars, but now face their biggest challenge short-handed

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- With 1:15 left in the third quarter, down 38-3 to the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets quarterback Mike White threw a deep pass to the sideline intended for wide receiver Keelan Cole.

But safety Jordan Poyer picked it off, setting off a celebration among the Bills defensive backs, who counted to five on their fingers and then let the "money" rain. Five marked the number of turnovers the defense forced that day -- four interceptions and one fumble -- one by each of the starting defensive backs.

Per the Bills, it marked the first time five defensive backs for any one team had each gotten a takeaway since at least 1967.

And Poyer was plenty aware of the history he set.

"Heck yeah, that boy knew," fellow safety Micah Hyde answered for his teammate. Hyde wanted his defensive coordinator to know, too.

"I was joking around with [defensive coordinator Leslie] Frazier," Hyde said. "I said, 'Not the '85 Bears' [who accomplished that feat]. He thought that was funny."

Frazier, a cornerback on the Super Bowl champion 1985 Chicago Bears, has been the Bills defensive coordinator since 2017. This season, his defense is ranked No. 1 in yards allowed (275.2 per game), second in scoring defense (16.5 points per game) and tied for second in takeaways (25). But the offense gets most of the attention, led by stars such as quarterback Josh Allen and receiver Stefon Diggs.

The Bills' defense wasn't built around flashy acquisitions -- although it did flirt with free agent J.J. Watt before he landed with the Arizona Cardinals. Instead, the team's focus has been on adding productive players who didn't fit elsewhere and developing its own draft picks and re-signing them to long-term deals.

One of the biggest tests for the Bills (7-4) comes against another top-ranked defense -- and longtime division bully -- the New England Patriots (8-4) on Monday night (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN). And Buffalo will have to do it without one of its top players in All-Pro corner Tre'Davious White, who was lost for the season after tearing the ACL in his left knee in the win over the Saints.

But it's the lesser-known players on this defense who make it work, and will have to rise the occasion this week.

The challenge ahead

The Bills have a chance to beat the Patriots for the third straight time. New England has lost three times in a row to a single opponent (including playoffs) only five times under Bill Belichick, and not since the 2007-12 Giants.

Buffalo will have to do it without White, who allowed just a 50.8% completion percentage and 58.9 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks, both fourth best among defensive backs with 50-plus targets this season, per NFL Next Gen Stats. He was the only player who had not given up a passing touchdown this season among nearest defenders with at least 50 targets.

"We want to play for T. White. T. White was one of the best players on our team," Diggs said. "He's one of the hardest workers on our team, and not having one of your pieces or one of your guys out there, it's definitely a little different. ... Because we knew at one point this season we was gonna need guys to step up."

Second-year corner Dane Jackson is expected to fill in for White. One piece of good news: The Bills are getting some help at defensive tackle with Star Lotulelei expected to return after missing three games on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

The game will be a measuring stick in multiple ways. Buffalo will be trying to take down the team that dominated the AFC East for so many years and has beaten the Bills in 35 of 42 games under Bill Belichick, with two of the Bills' wins coming last year. The Patriots won 17 AFC East titles under Belichick and spent 233 weeks in first place since 2000, nearly 200 more than anyone else.

With November's AFC rookie of the month in quarterback Mac Jones playing well, and the $163 million they invested in free agency, the Patriots are playing at a top level once again.

"[Jones has] grown throughout the year," Poyer said. "I think he's kinda found a rhythm, and he's got good players around him. They run well, he throws the ball well, and his receivers catch the football well. That's a good formula for a win right there."

It'll be another stiff challenge for a defense that has been dominant while the offense continues to find its identity. And it's the two players on the back end of the group who have played key roles in doing just that.

A top safety duo

Just before the start of the season, Hyde and his wife, Amanda, had their second child, a baby girl. The safety joked his newfound early-morning energy from the baby might annoy his teammates.

"I'm up in the morning getting the milk hot. I'm feeding her and I'm coming in the building already up for a couple hours, so the young guys are probably going to get tired of me soon because I'm motivated. I'm ready to go. I'm on a mission. I want to do whatever I can to help this team win a championship."

The two captains -- Hyde and Poyer -- are both in their ninth seasons. They epitomize the model coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane have used to find defensive success, with both coming over in free agency in 2017 after having less success with former teams.

"They're interchangeable. They can both play in the box and they can both play on the back end," Greg Cosell of NFL Films, an analyst on ESPN's NFL Matchup, said. "... I think both of those guys have a great feel for what they see."

Since joining the Bills in 2017, Poyer, a seventh-round pick in 2013 by the Eagles, is tied for fourth in the league in interceptions (18) and is tied for the third most in the NFL this season (five). While Hyde doesn't get flashy takeaway numbers (three INTS in 2021), he has been a dominant member of the secondary, third in interceptions (12) and pass breakups (34) since joining the team.

The defensive backs have a group chat just for them and go out to dinner every week, another example of the extensive time spent together. Taron Johnson is one of the least involved in responding to text messages, while backup safety Jaquan Johnson is one of the players who responds often, while Poyer and Hyde are "just really telling us what to do most of the time," said Taron Johnson.

The most valuable nickel

While Taron Johnson might listen to advice from the two elder safeties, his own work and contributions to the defense have been vital. The Bills have a nickel corner -- almost always Johnson -- on the field for 94% of snaps. That's the highest amount by any team in a single season since personnel tracking began in 2007, and nickel defense wasn't used as commonly in the past.

For comparison, the Colts use it the second most this season at 79%. What's the reasoning? The Bills' trust in Johnson, who signed a three-year, $24 million extension in October.

When Johnson is the nearest defender in slot coverage, he allows a 46% completion percentage (ranks first in the league), an expected points allowed of minus-14.4 (first), a passer rating of 57.7 (second) and yards per attempt of 4.6 (third). He's playing at an incredibly high level, while also being asked to play linebacker at times for the Bills.

"I remember coming here my rookie year, and wanting to be on the field 100% of the time, because I was just playing nickel and at that time, my rookie year, it was about probably 65% nickel," Johnson told ESPN. "For them to have that kind of trust in me ... hopefully I keep making them right."

It helps that Johnson has excelled playing wherever the Bills need him, often as the third linebacker on the field.

"Taron Johnson is critical," Cosell said. "I don't think they've played with three linebackers since Week 6. So, they play nickel on every snap. You can't do that unless your slot corner can do everything. And when I say everything, he has to be able to play the run, and we're going to really find out this week because the Patriots are a run-first team."

When Johnson steps up to help as the virtual third linebacker on the field, he works with a pair of strong linebackers in 2018 first-round pick Tremaine Edmunds and recently re-signed Matt Milano. Despite uncertainty on which position Milano would play when he got to the NFL because of his size (6-foot, 223 pounds), he has emerged as one of the defense's key pieces.

'A complete multidimensional linebacker'

Offensive tackle Dion Dawkins remembers meeting linebacker Milano for the first time. The two were part of McDermott's first draft class and were roommates for OTAs.

Milano is Dawkins' "guy" because of his ability to keep up with the offensive linemen at the dinner table.

"He gets the exact same order as me," Dawkins said. "If I get 20 wings, he's getting 20 wings. If I get waffle fries, he's getting waffle fries. And he is legit when it comes to food. I couldn't ask for any better of a skinny guy that likes to eat."

The linebacker doesn't quite agree with Dawkins' assessment.

"I don't know about to the full capacity, but [Dawkins] likes Bar-Bill and I enjoy Bar-Bill occasionally. ... Not as much as him."

Milano had interest elsewhere as a free agent this offseason, but he re-signed with Buffalo and has been a key contributor. He leads the Bills in tackles for loss (10), which is twice as many as the second-ranked player on the team and ranks ninth in the league.

"He can play the run. He's very aggressive, he's got a good feel for what he sees," Cosell said. "He can match up man-to-man to tight ends, which they do with him a lot. He's a sideline-to-sideline player. Obviously, he can play in zone coverage.

"I just think he's a complete, multidimensional linebacker that really fits today's NFL game extremely well."

With the key pieces having played together for four or five years, this defense has the potential to finish as the best this season, despite the growth that still needs to occur from a young pass rush. The experience in the back end plays a key part in that.

"Whenever we're, like, clicking on defense, you can feel it as a team when everybody's playing together, everybody's doing their job, everybody's making plays," Milano said. "Then when we have an off couple plays or something, you can feel it. So I think just guys knowing each other's strengths and weaknesses and kind of where they're going to be and ... everybody's on the same page communication-wise."