At one locker, Nigel Bradham leaned back with his injured ankle covered in a walking boot. He’s likely out this week, but expects to return this season.
At another locker, A.J. Tarpley’s practice jersey still hung on a hook. He was waived and signed to the practice squad. Nearby, Kevin Reddick studied plays on his tablet. Zoned in. And here stood rookie Tony Steward, the one who has played four defensive snaps all season. He'll start at inside linebacker next to Preston Brown.
“It sucks that Nigel had to get hurt,” Steward said, “but this is really how guys get opportunities in the league. I think right now I’m where I want to be. I feel comfortable in the system.
“The biggest thing is to make sure I take advantage of my opportunity.”
A defensive turnaround, in large part, could hinge on how replacements at linebacker and defensive end fill in. At end, the status of Mario Williams (foot) is up in the air — coach Rex Ryan said he hopes Williams can play “in some capacity” — but nothing is certain. His top back-up, Alex Carrington, was placed on injured reserve.
At linebacker, Steward will be back backed up by Reddick, who spent nearly three months on the team's practice squad.
A defense blistered for 30 points and 413 yards by the Kansas City Chiefs must regroup — quickly — against the Houston Texans to save the season. So after months of being ignored in this locker room, Steward was the first player swarmed by the media Tuesday. A spotlight, suddenly, is directed on him. This wasn't the trajectory Buffalo envisioned for the sixth-rounder. The team initially viewed Steward, who overcame two ACL surgeries, as a core special teams player.
On Sunday, Tarpley was exposed. Tarpley was waived. Urgency is rising.
You could say players are on high alert at One Bills Drive.
“It’s pretty crazy. It just kind of reminds you that no job is really safe,” Steward said. “You’ve got to continue to do what you’re supposed to do and make the most of it.”
As for his own game? Physically, he feels ready. Mentally, he’s comfortable in this scheme and got a vote of confidence from Brown, who said “We know he knows his stuff.”
“I know what I’m doing,” Steward said. “So just getting the feeling of playing in another normal game. It’s been a while.”
Steward chuckles. The last, true full game at linebacker he's even played was on Dec. 29, 2014 in the Russell Athletic Bowl against Oklahoma. Part of him feels like that was a long time ago, part of him feels like “it was just yesterday.”
He's talking to Brown daily to pick up the scheme — he wants zero drop-off from Bradham. Last year, Steward led Clemson with 13 quarterback pressures, then ran a 4.64 at the combine in the 40-yard dash with a 34 1/2-inch vertical leap and 29 reps on the bench press at 225 points.
“I feel like I’m fast,” Steward said. “I play physical so I think that’ll help out a ton. ... Get to the ball. Run around and be physical.”
Elsewhere, Mario Williams doesn’t hang around the locker room much at all when it’s open to reporters, but teammate Manny Lawson said he believes Williams will play.
With or without him, newcomer Lavar Edwards could play a role. The 2013 fifth-round pick has practically lived out of a suitcase this season. Hopefully he's racking up Delta SkyMiles. Edwards spent training camp in Dallas, was cut, signed by the Oakland Raiders, released after two practices when they signed former Pro Bowler Aldon Smith, signed with Chicago, released 11 days later, returned to Dallas on the practice squad and, just now, signed with the Bills.
Get all that?
The cruelest cut was Oakland. The 6-foot-4, 275-pounder hardly had time to say “Hello." All the nature of the business, he says, all what he signed up for. Cut, cut and cut again feeds the motivation for this moment.
“That’s what I use it as,” Edwards said. “I needed to make sure that whenever I got another opportunity, I take full advantage of it.”
Grasping Rex Ryan’s entire defense right now, he admits, is not realistic. He wants to grasp this week’s game plan for Houston.
“I feel like I’m a pretty smart guy,” said Edwards who has played in 12 career games with 10 tackles, one pass-break and one tackle for loss. “So no matter what is thrown at me, I can retain the information and I look forward to helping the team out.
“Ball is ball at the end of the day. Schematically, football is football. It’s picking up the different terminology.”
The Bills must add bite to the pass rush. Maybe Edwards, part of a star-studded line at LSU, finally capitalizes on his potential. He describes himself as a well-rounded rusher who mixes in speed with power.
Said Edwards, “I’m ready to just get out there and show what I can do.”
Steward. Edwards. Reddick. Not the knights in shining armor Buffalo expected on Dec. 1. But they need them now.
And Steward vows there’s still time to get it right on defense.
“Oh man, I think there’s definitely more than enough time,” he said. “We have a great defense here. We just have to continue to put it together and just put together a full game.”