It’s one of the age-old truths in football: Win the turnover battle, (most likely) win the game.
The 2017 Buffalo Bills are following that script to the letter. The Bills have won the turnover battle in six of their seven games, including all five wins, and broke even in the other. They’re not just winning the battle lately, either. They’re blowing teams out. Dating back to a Week Three win over Denver, the Bills are plus-13 in turnovers, recording at least two more takeaways than giveaways in every game while going 4-1 in that stretch. Last Sunday, the defense recorded a season-high four takeaways – and the offense didn't lose the ball – in a 34-14 walloping of the Oakland Raiders.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, at how much of an emphasis the coaching staff puts on the statistic. At the start of nearly every team meeting, players are shown a video from the day before that shows “respect for the football,” either good or bad, center Eric Wood said. The idea is to drive home the point that taking care of the ball on offense and taking it away on defense will always be priority No. 1.
Including interims, Wood has played for seven coaches in the NFL. None of them have spent as much time preaching – and practicing that – as Sean McDermott has.
“We harp on it, Wood said. “We preach it, and it's shown up for us.”
History has shown that winning the turnover battle greatly improves a team’s chances of winning. According to Chase Stuart of footballperspective.com, teams that did so in 2016 won 78 percent of their games. Over the last 10 years, that number is the same. In fact, Stuart went all the way back to 1950, and found from then through 2016, the average winning percentage for a team that won the turnover battle was … you guessed it, 78 percent.
“It's as much a mindset as anything,” defensive tackle Kyle Williams said. “It becomes a part of you at a certain point. A guy’s got the running back wrapped up, receiver locked up, you see the next guy coming in knocking at the ball. You see guys picking the ball up, taking it down field. At some point, when you harp on it so much, you practice it so much, it becomes second nature.”
For the season, the Bills lead the NFL with a plus-14 turnover differential. The defense has 11 interceptions (which is second in the league) and six fumble recoveries (which is tied for fourth). The offense, meanwhile, has just three giveaways – two interceptions by quarterback Tyrod Taylor and a lost fumble by LeSean McCoy. Taylor has always done a remarkably good job avoiding interceptions (and fumbles), while McCoy has never fumbled more than four times in a season despite consistently handling a heavy workload.
But even though the offense can reasonably be confident that its two primary playmakers will continue to take good care of the ball, counting on winning the turnover battle every week can be risky business. There is a lot of luck that goes into how the ball bounces, after all.
“They or we have got to make a mistake,” Wood said. “At the same time, we force a lot, too. Yeah, it appears like a quarterback throws it right into the guy's hands. Well, he doesn't do that unless someone's in his face, you know? You never see a quarterback unaffected throwing a real easy pick. Guys generally don't fumble without getting hit pretty hard. We're doing a very good job of forcing them.”
Going back to training camp, the defense always picks up a loose ball during practice, and more often than not runs it back to the other end zone. Offensive players are instructed not to dive after loose balls in practice so that there aren’t big collisions, but always follow the play closely. That has shown up twice, when right tackle Jordan Mills and left tackle Dion Dawkins recovered fumbles because they were chasing after the play.
“We coach that. You don't see a lot of other teams hustle to the ball like we do,” Wood said. “Some do. Not all, though. … It's habit now. Those are two we would have given up, had they not been running to the pile.”
The Bills’ defense isn’t just satisfied with taking the ball away, though. It also wants to go the other way.
“Takeaways, takeaways, takeaways — and score,” safety Jordan Poyer said. “When you've got that in your head, any time you come up to make a tackle or any time the ball is near you, you're trying to strip it or punch it out. It’s just our mentality.”
Poyer was beating himself up after the loss to Cincinnati in Week Five because he wasn’t able to return his interception or fumble return for a touchdown.
“You look at that game, and we lost by four points,” he said. “If I get even one of those to the end zone, it’s a win. Any time we get the ball in our hands, we feel like we can take it to the end zone.”
The Bills have done that twice on defense, when cornerback Tre’Davious White alertly returned a fumble by Matt Ryan for a touchdown while several of the Falcons quit on the play, while rookie linebacker Matt Milano took a fumble forced by cornerback Leonard Johnson back for a score in Week Eight against Oakland. Is it luck that the ball found White and Milano? Sure. But they were also alert and in the right position, which is a testament to coaching.
“I think if we keep continuing to work, continue to play this defense and not try to do too much, the plays will be there,” Poyer said. “We just have to catch the ones they throw to you. It's going to happen at least once or twice a game, so we just have to make those plays.”
Wood cautioned that there will come a game where the turnover differential isn't so lopsided. Perhaps the offense loses the ball, or the defense doesn't make some of those plays Poyer referenced. More often that not, however, the Bills feel like the coaching points that have been drilled home will lead to success.
“It's not always going to be four,” Williams said. “Maybe it's one, but it comes at a critical point when you need it. If you're paying attention to it and it's part of who you are, you're bound to get more than if you're just paying lip service to it.”