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Bills look to take back their takeaway prowess

It once was something that happened often enough to become the Buffalo Bills' calling card, the driving force of a 5-2 start that went a long way toward changing the annual wait-'til-next-year conversation into hopeful discussion about the present.

Members of the Bills' defense were the consummate thieves of the NFL. They would swipe passes, force and recover fumbles (returning two for touchdowns) on sacks and run plays after pass receptions and on kick returns. And they did it in bunches.

They turned turnover production into an art form.

During a stretch of four consecutive games — victories against Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Oakland, and a loss against Cincinnati — the Bills had no fewer than three takeaways in each. After four takeaways and zero giveaways in a 34-14 victory against the Raiders on Oct. 29, they sat atop the league in turnover differential at plus-14.

Then, all of a sudden, it stopped. Cold.

The Bills began their current three-game losing streak through which, not coincidentally, they've taken the ball away only once and given it away 10 times. Half of the turnovers resulted from interceptions rookie quarterback Nathan Peterman threw in the first half of last Sunday's 54-24 loss against the Los Angeles Chargers.

Still, with hardly any stealing by their defense, they've fallen into a 10th-place tie in the league with a plus-five turnover differential and find themselves at 5-5.

"I mean, damn, you look at the first seven games of the season, we were dominant," safety Jordan Poyer said. "We understand, these last few games, we haven't taken the ball away, and it shows on the scoreboard."

The Bills have been outscored, 135-55, in losses against the New York Jets, New Orleans Saints, and the Chargers. It's the most points they've ever allowed in a three-game stretch.

And for all of the shortcomings they have on defense, with an inability to stop the run and pressure the quarterback high on the list, the most noticeable is the drop-off in generating turnovers. That's something they're out to change beginning Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.

"We’ve got to continue to get those," coach Sean McDermott said. "Those are critical. You watch some of the games (Thursday), you turn the ball over (and) it’s going to be hard to win games like that. Turnover differential is a big part of winning. That’s a critical stat."

It has been and continues to be a point of emphasis for the Bills' defense. Coaches preach it constantly to players. Players preach it constantly to each other.

"(The coaches) are still driving us insane talking about it," said safety Micah Hyde, who ranks second in the NFL with five interceptions. "They're talking about it even more now since it's not happening. It's the same mindset throughout the players, throughout the coaches. We're just trying to get it done."

Nevertheless, it does involve some good fortune — the proverbial bounce of the ball, which could be argued was going in the Bills' favor more often than not earlier in the season.

Neither McDermott nor his players will dismiss the streaky nature of getting takeaways.

"I'm not like a 10-year vet, but this is my fifth year and I understand that turnovers come in bunches and then sometimes you have droughts, simple as that," Hyde said. "Sometimes you can't buy a takeaway."

Getting even one against the Chiefs won't be easy. They've given the ball away a mere seven times, which is second-fewest in the NFL, and are tied for fifth in the league with a turnover differential of plus-seven.

But the takeaway message is being delivered frequently and loudly during each practice and defensive meeting.

"We've just got to keep harping, keep practicing, taking the ball away in practice," said Poyer, who has a pair of interceptions. "We had some (in Wednesday's practice). They'll come. Obviously, strip attempts and big hits are going to force turnovers. You've just got to keep working it and be in the position, when the ball's thrown to you, catch it.

"Think of all the picks we've had this year. The ball's just kind of thrown in our direction, whether it's a tip ball of whatever. Guys aren't doing anything spectacular. They're just doing their job and the quarterback makes a bad decision."

Applying pressure to the quarterback, something the Bills have done infrequently this season, would figure to help generate turnovers.

But there are multiple ways the Bills have been working on to cause them.

"It’s never one thing," McDermott said. "It’s always about putting pressure on our opponent through our fundamentals, through our pressure schemes, through our different things we do in the kicking game. And that’s all part of it.

"When you talk about teams turning the ball over, it’s because they’re pressured in some way, shape or form. Fundamentally, leverage-wise, and that’s really what we continue to emphasize as we build this thing."

With the emphasis must come a bit of caution. Worrying too much about creating turnovers can, in fact, create different problems for the defense.

There has to be a balance between trying to take the ball away and not trying so hard that it results in shirking assignments.

"I mean, you can't press it, because then you're going to be out of position," Poyer said. "You can't force trying to make a play. You've got to let the plays come to you in this defense. And I think we'll start to get them again. It's the perfect time to get hot right now with takeaways at the end of November, going into December. It's going to trigger. Maybe get that first one, and then they'll start to come.

"We're still confident. We believe a thousand percent that we can create turnovers and we will create turnovers moving forward."

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