The architects are different, but the blueprints they’re working off remain the same for the Buffalo Bills.
A strong running game and a defense that depends on taking the ball away will be the keys to an upset victory Sunday for the Bills in their first playoff game in 18 years. That’s a vision that was laid out on March 10, 2015, the day the team officially acquired running back LeSean McCoy from the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for linebacker Kiko Alonso.
Under former General Manager Doug Whaley and coach Rex Ryan, the Bills planned to be a run-first team that succeeded with a healthy dose of Shady and a defense that forced turnovers. When new coach Sean McDermott and later General Manager Brandon Beane took over this year, they assessed the roster and agreed the Bills could win with that approach – provided they upgraded the secondary. They accomplished that, while McCoy showed that even at 29, he’s still one of the elite players in the NFL at his position.
Since the trade for McCoy, the Bills have led the NFL in rushing by a wide margin. Buffalo has gained 7,079 yards on the ground the last three years. The next closest team, Dallas, has 6,456 over the same time span. McCoy has led the league with 3,300 rushing yards since coming to Buffalo, 4 yards more than the Rams’ Todd Gurley.
It’s somewhat cruel, then, that McCoy may not be available for the Bills when they visit the Jacksonville Jaguars at 1 p.m. Sunday. A sprained ankle suffered in Week 17 against the Miami Dolphins has him listed as questionable for the game.
“We’ll see him do some things today, and we’ll go from there,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said Friday, in perhaps the most vague injury update ever given. “One movement at a time right now. We’ll just see how he does through the individual part of practice and then go from there.”
McDermott admitted the obvious, that “you never replace a player like LeSean.”
“I’m not going to sit up here and say that we can check that box,” he said. “But this is why we coach, this is why we build the depth – part of Brandon’s weekly pursuit of finding the right players, maybe not as starters, but as the next group of starters. The coaches do a phenomenal job and the players have really bought into that approach of everyone has to be prepared to play. If it’s a practice squad player, he could be called up as late as Friday into the weekend, so he has to be prepared. That really goes back to the whole overarching philosophy of accountability. A part of it is discipline but the other part of it is making sure you’re ready to do your job when called upon.”
McCoy spoke to reporters Thursday, answering the same questions his teammates have been asking him about his possible availability.
"I know my body, I know myself. Especially the way I play, it's more cutting than running," McCoy said. "I just want to be able to cut well enough where I don't have a lot of pain when I cut. I just want to be close, as far as 100 percent, as I can get. The type of game like this, you've got to lay it on the line. If I can't get 100 percent, as long as I'm out there and can run effective enough, I'll do it."
McCoy participated on a limited basis in Friday’s practice. With him or without him, the Bills’ game plan won’t change. McDermott has preached “next man up” all season, and that means Marcus Murphy and Mike Tolbert will be counted on to lead the running game if McCoy is down.
“My confidence is still there,” McDermott said. “I saw it in Mike and ‘Murph’ last week in Miami, and that’s really been the approach of our team all season long – preparing 53 guys and the next man up. We’ve done a good job of that to this point.”
The Bills’ rushing attack ranked sixth in the NFL this season, averaging 126.1 yards per game. Buffalo’s 487 rushing attempts were fourth most in the NFL, behind only Jacksonville (527), Minnesota (501) and Carolina 490. Only Dallas with 480 rushing attempts finished in the top six in the NFL and missed the playoffs – interesting given the obsession with throwing the ball.
“Shady's obviously a super talented player, probably the best player on our team, but I still have confidence in the run game,” center Eric Wood said.
There is good reason for that. The Bills have shown an ability to run the ball under three different offensive systems, starting with Greg Roman in 2015, then Anthony Lynn in 2016 and now Rick Dennison this year. A big part of that has been stability along the offensive line. Outside of an injury to left tackle Cordy Glenn, the Bills have had stability up front starting with Wood, left guard Richie Incognito and right tackle Jordan Mills, all of whom took at least 97 percent of the offensive snaps this season. Right guard Vlad Ducasse has also settled into a starting role after taking over for John Miller in Week 5.
“The same guys are blocking,” Tolbert said. “So we'll be ready to go. Myself and Marcus, if Shady plays or not, we'll be ready. I'm confident that he'll be out there, but we'll see what happens. We’ve done a good job of preparing during the week.”
A huge part of McCoy’s game is making defenders miss, which requires him to be able to – as his Twitter handle refers to – cut on a dime. That’s why playing through a sprained ankle might be easier for a different style of running back.
“The good thing about adversity and this team is that we’ve proved to be able to stay focused through the midst of whatever happens,” said quarterback Tyrod Taylor. “We want the best for Shady. If he’s healthy, we want him absolutely to be out there playing and giving us his all. If he’s not, we have a tremendous group of guys in the backfield that would be able to step in and carry the load. … We’ll pick him up if he’s not out there. We can’t make excuses about it.”
The second part of a winning recipe for the Bills on Sunday will involve winning the turnover battle. The team was 8-1 when it did that in 2017, masking some otherwise underwhelming statistics. The defense finished 26th in yards allowed per game at 355.1, but was seventh in turnover differential, at plus-9. They weren’t very good at stopping the run (29th in the league, allowing 124.6 yards per game) or sacking the quarterback (tied for 29th with 27). One thing they have, though, is a rebuilt secondary that can take the ball away.
The free-agent additions of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer at safety were home runs. So, too, was the drafting of cornerback Tre’Davious White. Even the trade for E.J. Gaines, who was thought to be a throw-in with a second-round draft pick for Sammy Watkins, has paid off in a big way. Those four players have combined for 15 of the Bills’ 18 interceptions, a total that ranked tied for sixth in the league.
“We hold ourselves to a high standard,” said Hyde, who on Friday was named a second-team All-Pro and already was selected to the Pro Bowl.
Hyde and Poyer became the first safety tandem in NFL history to each win the league’s Defensive Player of the Month award, with Hyde taking it home in October and Poyer winning for December.
"It says a lot about the guys that are on the defensive side of the football – all 11 guys," Poyer said. "It's a credit to this whole team. It's great to be recognized, but this Sunday, it's the Jacksonville Jaguars. I know that's cliche, but honestly, at this point of the year, with what's at stake, with everything that's gone on with the Bills' organization for the last 17 years, honestly I just want to get this win on Sunday real bad."
The Bills will take that any way it comes.
“As far as yards per game, all that stuff, that's wishy washy,” Hyde said. “If they drive the field and they kick field goals, you can limit them from scoring points. There's a lot of stats that we don't really pay attention to, but there are a few that we like to go into a game knowing.”
One of those Sunday will be Blake Bortles’ propensity for throwing picks. Since coming into the NFL in 2014, Bortles has thrown a league-leading 64 interceptions.
“I feel like they've done a lot in their play calling to kind of limit Bortles from making any risky throws,” Hyde said. “But at the same time, we understand his history. He sometimes throws interceptions. The confidence is sky high for us. We feel like we can go in there and get a win.”