Marcell Dareus didn't start against the Atlanta Falcons last Sunday, and there's reason to believe it wasn't strictly because he was being eased back from the ankle injury that sidelined him against the Denver Broncos a week earlier.
Coach Sean McDermott made it clear Wednesday that Cedric Thornton earned the right to start in Dareus' place at defensive tackle, and that Dareus -- like all of the other players on the roster -- needs to compete for playing time.
"There's great competition on our roster right now, and I love that," McDermott said. "And the players want that. That's why they work during the week. They understand what's at stake and we're only going to continue.
"Competition takes everyone's game up a notch, so that's good for us."
The entire line appears to be buying into that notion. That even includes Dareus, whose 22 snaps against the Falcons was the lowest of any of the Bills' defensive players even though his $9.75-million base salary and $16.4-million cap hit lead the team and make him one of the highest-paid players in the NFL.
After being pulled aside for a quick briefing by the member of the Bills' media relations staff, Dareus was careful to say all of the right things to reporters Wednesday.
"I wouldn't feel right knowing that the guy that I'm playing with, that's playing the same position as me, isn't trying his best, doing the best he can, just as well as I am," he said. "We're all out there trying to be the best to help the team. And like I've been saying and what McDermott has been preaching to us from Day One, we're one/eleven. We want everyone to own up to what their position is, what their role is and do the best you can at it, no matter if you're a starter or you're a backup."
Through three games, Dareus has been on the field for 73 snaps, or 27 percent of the total defensive plays. His only stat is an assisted tackle.
Dareus did lament about being part of a once-dominant group that included end Jerry Hughes, fellow tackle Kyle Williams, and former Bills end Mario Williams. The last time they were together, in 2014, Dareus had a career-best 10 sacks that went a long way toward him landing a $100-million contract extension.
"At the same time, we're not living in the past," he said. "This is where we are now, this is what the team needs, and we're going be a collective unit and we're going to be one/eleven."
McDermott, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier and defensive line coach Mike Waufle preach that all of their defensive linemen must have an attacking, aggressive mentality. They must play fast and physical on every play. To that end, the coaches do their part to try to keep them as fresh physically as possible, so there is frequent rotation.
The players liken it to a tag-team approach, with each man pouring as much energy as he can into every shift. "You play until you're exhausted and you get up off the field," backup defensive tackle Jerel Worthy said.
The system doesn't just cater to the marquee names, such as Dareus, Hughes and Kyle Williams. It also has plenty of room for others to make an impact. Thornton, who made his first start in two years, is one. Ryan Davis, who started at end while Shaq Lawson sat out with a groin injury, is another. So are reserve end Eddie Yarbrough and Worthy, who played his first game of the season against the Falcons after being out with a concussion.
They've been part of a defensive effort that has done plenty to help the Bills to their 3-1 start. Each made a contribution last Sunday as the Bills held the Falcons' highly explosive offense to two touchdowns and a field goal.
"It's definitely a competitive room," Thornton said. "We've definitely got some great athletes, some great football players in our room, and this week we don't know who's going to start. It'll dictate itself throughout the week. Hopefully, I'll get a chance to start again because I definitely want to prove myself again."
"With the work that they do through the week, the results are not a mistake, they’re not by accident, I guess I should say," McDermott said. "The Eddie Yarbroughs, the Ryan Davises, these guys are not household names and we realize that, but they’re in our house and that’s what’s important. We appreciate everything in what they do to prepare to play well."
Davis, Thornton, Yarbrough, and Worthy appreciate being appreciated.
"Outside of our front starting four, I'm cool with being called a no-name guy, not a household name yet," Davis said. "But at the same time, if you're really looking at it, we hold our own weight. Eddie's just been phenomenal the whole season. I think I've been pretty solid. If you look at like that, yeah, we're not household names, of course, but we don't take offense to that. We've got a workman's attitude, we're blue-collar. We're going to put in the work, regardless, and whatever conditions, we're going to go out there and play. We're not into the whole big-name thing."
"Having us go out there and competing for our positions, it just creates a better camaraderie around our team," Worthy said. "When we go in the room, we congratulate each other on good moves. We congratulate each other on good plays that we make, but we also call each other out on the bad plays that we make and we're just trying to hold each other accountable. At the end of the day, it's all about accountability on our team, because last year and the year before we didn't have it."
By all accounts, Dareus is making progress in recovering from his ankle injury. He said he's feeling better "every day."
"He continues to get the treatment he needs to get at this point and taking care off business off the field with respect to treatment," McDermott said. "So I think we're trending in the right direction."
In the highly competitive environment on the Bills' defensive line, however, that direction won't necessarily lead him back to the starting lineup or an increase in snaps.