MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The Buffalo Bills were on the ropes, down by a point with 3:39 to go, and they had just given the ball back to the Miami Dolphins near midfield.
Running back Fred Jackson went up to defensive end Mario Williams on the Bills’ bench.
“I was talking to him on the sideline and I said, ‘This is your moment. Go make something happen for us,’ ” Jackson said.
The big man of the Bills’ defense followed Jackson’s orders, forcing a Ryan Tannehill fumble just two plays later. It set up Dan Carpenter’s winning, 31-yard field goal with 33 seconds left.
The Bills’ 23-21 victory over the Dolphins on Sunday was a testament to resourcefulness.
Buffalo improved to 3-4 despite a sub-par showing by its running game. The Bills even managed to squeeze a little more passing production out of third-stringer-turned-starter Thad Lewis than Miami got out of Tannehill, its franchise QB.
Most of all, however, the Bills won because their defense came up with timely big plays.
Nobody was more clutch than Williams, who got two fourth-quarter sacks, giving him 10 for the season. No Bills player ever has had 10 sacks through the first seven games of the year.
On the pivotal turnover of the game, the 6-foot-7, 295-pound Williams pushed Miami right tackle Tyson Clabo back into Tannehill and slapped the ball out of the quarterback’s hands. Buffalo’s Kyle Williams fell on the ball at the Miami 34 with 2:48 left.
“Obviously, we definitely needed to get the ball back in good field position,” Mario Williams said. “So when I came through, I realized I had a shot on him. I was like, ‘There’s the ball.’ So I just went for the ball and got it out.”
“They called a pass, and with a guy like Mario, you have to be wary of where he is,” Jackson said. “He was able to beat his guy and give us an opportunity to win the football game.”
Kyle Williams had the good sense to fall on the ball rather than try to pick it up and rumble downfield.
“It’s amazing what can go through your mind in one-hundredth of a second,” Kyle Williams said. “When I initially bent down to pick it up, it kind of kicked sideways and hit my hand. When it hit the ground again, I literally thought, don’t try to reach down and pick it up again and let somebody hit you in the back and you lose the ball. So as soon as I bobbled, I just jumped on the ball. It ended up working better that way. We were able to run some clock down, and kick a field goal and kind of milk the clock a little bit.”
The Bills took advantage of a good matchup. Clabo has struggled this year, giving up six sacks the first six games.
Mario Williams beat Clabo for a huge sack just four minutes before. The Dolphins had driven to the Buffalo 43 with 7:02 left and were about to move into position to pad the lead. Mario Williams beat Clabo with a quick inside move and pancaked Tannehill to the ground for a 5-yard loss. The Dolphins were forced to punt.
The two sacks gave the Bills 23 for the season, their most through seven games since 1997.
The Bills came into the game tied for the NFL lead with 10 interceptions. They got two, and both were essential to the victory.
The first was by the smallest guy on the team, 5-foot-7 rookie cornerback Nickell Robey. He stepped in front of Tannehill’s first pass, on the third play from scrimmage, and returned it 19 yards for a touchdown.
Robey, the undrafted rookie from Southern California, has been the most pleasant surprise on the team.
“He tried to run a pivot route – go in and push out,” Robey said of Dolphins slot receiver Brandon Gibson. “I read it and Tannehill threw it. I saw it and believed it and jumped it. It was on film plenty of times.”
“We call him Little Big Man, because he may be little but he’s got a big heart,” said safety Da’Norris Searcy.
“He’s been really close,” coach Doug Marrone said of Robey. “He’s been getting closer and closer. … While you guys are saying great play, I’m saying, ‘Shoot, it’s about time.’ He has very good instincts.”
The other interception thwarted a good Miami scoring chance late in the first quarter. Miami had driven 62 yards to the Buffalo 18. On a third-and-5 play, Tannehill lobbed a pass to the left side of the end zone for Brian Hartline. He failed to see Bills cornerback Aaron Williams, who easily stepped in front of it in the end zone before being tackled at the 1.
Tannehill thought Aaron Williams was following receiver Mike Wallace, who was running a crossing pattern to the right. Aaron Williams had passed Wallace off to safety Jairus Byrd.
“It was pretty much a two-man situation,” Aaron Williams said. “Me and Byrd, we discussed what we wanted to do beforehand. The guy went underneath and I just let Byrd handle it. I tried to play hide and go seek with Tannehill. I didn’t want him to see me. I tried to stay low, and at the last minute I saw the backside receiver come back and Tannehill’s eyes were all over him.”
Tannehill completed 19 of 37 passes for 194 yards and had three turnovers (two interceptions and a fumble).
The Bills’ Lewis completed 21 of 32 for 202 yards and had one turnover (an interception on which his arm was hit). Lewis’ toughness resulted in two field-goal drives for the Bills.
In the second quarter, Lewis stood in the pocket against the blitz, took a hit, and connected on a 30-yard sideline pass to T.J. Graham. That set up a kick that gave the Bills a 17-7 lead.
In the third quarter, Lewis stared down a blitz and hit Stevie Johnson on a 17-yard third-down pass. Dolphins rusher Jelani Jenkins knocked Lewis’ helmet off, and the ensuing 15-yard penalty set up a field goal that pulled Buffalo within 21-20.
“They say you have to be tough to play this position, so I just stood in the pocket knowing my guy was coming open,” Lewis said. “I delivered the ball and took the hit. It’s not a big deal.”
Miami spent $117 million in guaranteed money in the offseason. The Dolphins are supposed to be at least a year ahead of Buffalo in their building process. And the Bills had lost their previous eight AFC East road games.
It was a very big deal for Lewis and the Bills.