Perry Fewell says he's always liked fitting things together. In his spare time -- what little he has of it -- the Bills' defensive coordinator makes jigsaw puzzles. Big, small, it doesn't matter. Anything to occupy his mind and satisfy his love of connecting.
"Depending on the amount of time I have, I can sit down and put together 500, 600, 1,000 pieces," Fewell said Wednesday. "I really enjoy it. I don't have as much time as I used to. I have a 5-year-old son, so we only make small puzzles right now."
He works on the more difficult puzzles at his job. Fewell has done a masterful job in his second season in Buffalo, fitting together the pieces of an injury-riddled defense that has defied expectations and lifted the Bills into playoff contention with a 5-4 record.
Every time Fewell thought his pieces were connected, another one disappeared. The Ko Simpson piece. The Paul Posluszny piece. Fewell adjusted. He took odd-shaped pieces and made them fit. He moved others around to new spots. He put in his "sugar rushes," which have defensive linemen standing up at the line to confuse the opposition.
"It is like a puzzle," Fewell, 45, said. "You kind of talk to your puzzle pieces. You say, 'Hey, this is where you fit in the scheme,' and 'This is what you do within this scheme.' I wake up at night sometimes and visualize different things we need to accomplish to make things fit a little better. So the puzzle becomes alive to me."
Somehow, it worked. After three weeks, the Bills' defense looked like the worst in the NFL. But they've rallied in the last six games to become one of the most effective in the league. The Bills are ranked 28th in total yards. But in the stat that matters most, points allowed, they're up to ninth in the league at 18.4 points a game.
Last year, the Bills were 18th in defense but 10th in points allowed. It's no coincidence. It's an expression of the defensive philosophy of Fewell and head coach Dick Jauron. Play conservatively in the Cover 2, prevent big plays down the field, and expect your small, quick athletes to create turnovers.
The Bills have won four in a row, giving up 12 points a game. They haven't been scored on in the fourth quarter in the last three games. Now Fewell, the unsung hero of the Bills' season, gets the toughest puzzle of all. On Sunday night, the Bills host Tom Brady and the unbeaten Patriots, who are averaging 39.4 points a game.
"I'm juiced," Fewell said. "I'm ready to jump out of my skin. . . . As a coach, this is what you coach for."
Fewell said the Pats' offense is the most potent he's ever faced. Brady has thrown 33 touchdown passes and four interceptions. It'll be a success if the Bills hold the Pats under 30 points. If Fewell can figure out a way to slow down Brady, he'll be the talk of the NFL.
Fewell has already sparked interest around the league for getting the most out of a beleaguered defense. The Bills' D did a remarkable job against the Cowboys last month. But in the end, they played soft and allowed Dallas to move into position for a last-second field goal. Fewell was ripped to shreds in some quarters. Paul Zimmerman, the respected "Dr. Z" of Sports Illustrated, called it a "gutless" display of coaching.
"George Allen said every time you lose a game, a little piece of you dies," Fewell said. "We didn't finish that game. We did the best job we possibly could. You always learn from experience. In the same situation, maybe I could do some things better. I didn't second-guess myself when I made the call.
"You have to be comfortable with yourself and the decisions you make, and you don't look back. You look forward, so I look forward to the next time I get to make that call again."