BALTIMORE – Jerel Worthy wore a sports bandage around his right knee and a smile on his face.
You expected to see the wrap. The Buffalo Bills’ defensive lineman couldn’t remember how many bodies rolled up on his knee in the middle of a scrum in the closing minutes at M&T Bank Stadium, but there were a bunch. It was a wonder he wasn’t wearing a cast and leaning on crutches in front of his dressing cubicle.
That wasn’t quite as predictable. After all, the Bills had just lost to the Baltimore Ravens, 13-7, to get yet another season of hope off to a discouraging start. Their offense was dreadful, generating only 160 yards, the team’s lowest output since 2006. The pass protection and run-blocking were beyond embarrassing. The play-calling was ultra-conservative.
If this was supposed to be the homecoming/contract-extension validation game for former Ravens backup Tyrod Taylor, somebody forgot to distribute the memo.
But Worthy plays defense. He was on the side of the ball that more than held up its end Sunday.
“I really like where we’re headed,” Worthy said, his voice upbeat. “I like how our defense is playing.”
He should. The Bills’ defense played well. It held the Ravens to a touchdown, which had more to do with Rex Ryan’s admittedly bad decision to place double coverage on the wrong receiver and the secondary’s failure to adjust before the snap than poor execution. It sacked Joe Flacco four times and had a total of nine hits on the Ravens’ quarterback. It held Baltimore to 83 rushing yards and a paltry 3 yards per carry.
Take away the 66-yard touchdown catch and run by Mike Wallace – the inside receiver that Flacco noticed was in single coverage with safety Duke Williams while two defenders were on outside receiver Steve Smith Sr., who was running a short route – and the Bills’ coverage was sufficiently tight the whole game. Flacco repeatedly was forced to hold the ball too long and generally left to feel uncomfortable as he dropped back to pass on a knee that underwent major surgery last season.
Ronald Darby dropped an interception that could have been returned for six. Stephon Gilmore mistimed a chance to break up a 35-yard completion that helped set up a field goal.
“We’ve got a bunch of guys that can cover,” safety Corey Graham said. “It’s not going to be a bunch of guys just running wide open the majority of the time. So (Flacco’s) going to have to hold the ball and tuck the ball a little bit playing against us, because we’ve got a lot of guys that can go out there and lock up on their guys.”
You’ll take a performance like that most of the time. You’ll certainly take it after an offseason when the Bills’ defense generated enough questions to make one wonder if its struggles last season would be viewed as good times compared to what this year had in store.
No Shaq Lawson. No Reggie Ragland. No Marcell Dareus. And then there’s Aaron Williams’ being reduced to a part-time player in his return from neck surgery, which was the reason Duke Williams was on the field for Wallace’s touchdown.
“We go in there with the mentality that no matter who’s out there, we’re going to get the job done,” Graham said. “We know what type of talent that we have on the defense, we know that all our guys can make plays.”
The Bills’ defense overcame and endured Sunday. The more the offense kept hanging it out to dry (the Ravens held a 32:53 to 27:07 edge in time of possession), the more it kept scratching and clawing and doing everything imaginable to keep the Bills in the game.
Yet, on a day when the offense managed only one touchdown from the only player it had delivering his A game, LeSean McCoy, it wasn’t able to do enough. Graham and his fellow defenders were diplomatic.
“Obviously, it wasn’t good enough because we didn’t get the victory,” he said. “So we’ve got to continue to work.”
Ryan volunteered to take the full blame for the mistake on Wallace. Graham wouldn’t let him.
“It’s all of us as a defense,” the safety said. “We’ve got to find a way to get out of that. You’re not going to ever be in the ideal situation. But playing against a guy like Flacco that can switch calls and things like that, as a defense we’ve got to do the same thing. If we find ourselves in a bad situation, we’ve got to find a way to get out of it. So we all take part in that.”
True. That applies to the offense as well.
In 2015, the narrative was that the Bills played well enough offensively to reach the playoffs and that their defense was what kept them out.
It was only one game, but on Sunday, Buffalo’s defense played the way Ryan envisioned from the moment he became head coach. This was what he had in mind when he said the Bills’ D would go from its No. 4 overall ranking in 2014 to No. 1 in 2015 and end the playoff drought.
Speaking as a head coach, he wouldn’t allow himself to find his defense’s play gratifying in the wake of a loss. But you know the defensive coordinator in him was beaming.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of the improvements we’ve made, primarily with our coverage,” Ryan said. “We’ve tightened a lot of things up. And I love the effort of our guys, but we have to start making some plays.”
On a day when the offense couldn’t come remotely close to making game-changing plays, the Bills needed their defense to be better than strong or stout. They needed it to be their offense.