The Buffalo Bills' defense has had trouble stopping opposing offenses at full strength. So with two starters out for the game and another missing for most of the first half Sunday, the defense figured to be in for another tough afternoon.
But the New York Jets had a difficult time against a short-handed defense that helped propel the Bills to a 31-13 win.
"I just think some guys stepped up and assumed some responsibility today," said Bills defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. "We talked this week about 'Hey, let's try to play our best football in the month of December. Let's get back to basics and do the things we want to do in the next four weeks.' I think the kids responded well."
The Bills' secondary was under the most pressure because cornerback Terrence McGee sat out with a sprained ankle and strong safety Donte Whitner was inactive due to a sore hamstring. Kiwaukee Thomas stepped in for McGee, Jim Leonhard made his first career start in place of Whitner and rookie Ashton Youboty took Thomas' regular job as the nickel cornerback.
But the secondary didn't miss a beat. Old reliables like cornerback Nate Clements and middle linebacker London Fletcher came up with interceptions (Clements returned his pick 58 yards for a second-quarter touchdown), and new faces added huge contributions.
"We played well," Leonhard said. "We made some good adjustments at halftime and kind of took them out of what they were doing to us and what they had success with in the first half. It's great when guys step up like this and play well when we needed them."
The defense was further challenged when outside linebacker Takeo Spikes had to leave the game in the first half with an ankle injury and didn't return until after halftime.
Keith Ellison and Coy Wire were already expected to split time at outside linebacker as replacements for Angelo Crowell, who is done for the year with a broken fibula. Now they were both on the field at the same time, which meant Fletcher had to make sure he was in tune with his new wing men.
"We did a little bit more communication, just on pre snaps," Fletcher said. "Once I got a feel for what [the Jets] were trying to do, I was just alerting guys of some runs and passes. But Keith and Coy are very smart guys so they know how to line up. They've played enough to know what's going on."
Having Ellison and Wire on the field made an already undersized defensive front seven even smaller. But what Ellison and Wire lack in size, they make up in quickness.
Wire and Ellison were solid, combining for 11 tackles.
"Those guys responded very well," Fewell said. "They executed the game plan and they did what they were supposed to do."
The Jets ran for 134 yards, but seemed intent on winning with the pass. That played into the Bills' hands. The Bills took away the Jets' short passing game by disrupting the receivers' routes and being disciplined in their coverage.
They also got more pressure on Jets quarterback Chad Pennington because he had to hold on to the ball longer than usual.
"I think you're seeing the system that has been implemented and us getting used to playing the style of football we have to play within this scheme," Wire answered. "We're now able to understand the philosophy behind this style of defense and we're able to start making some plays and playing good, solid football."