The Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of the Buffalo Bills’ defense showed its good side again Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals.
Coach Rex Ryan cooked up a dizzying number of pressure packages, making sure that the mistakes of Week Two were not repeated. After that loss to the Jets, Ryan said he was “afraid to pressure” because the Bills’ man coverage wasn’t holding up on the outside against New York quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and receivers Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker and Quincy Enunwa.
“I wanted the opponent to think we weren’t going to pressure, either, for that reason,” Ryan said Monday. “We thought we had those guys dialed in. We had done it in the past, been very effective against the Jets running a four-man rush. We knew what we were getting, we just didn’t really execute quite honestly. But yeah, this opponent was a lot different.
“You’re not going to give Carson Palmer the same looks over and over. If you thought the Fitz thing was bad, you can imagine what it would have looked like with Carson Palmer, so we weren’t going to live that nightmare again.”
Palmer dropped back to pass 55 times against the Bills, and was sacked five times and hit 10 overall.
Just how varied was the defensive scheme? On one play, the Bills used Jerry Hughes as their only pass rusher. On another, a whopping seven defenders came after Palmer.
Overall, Buffalo used three rushers on 22 Palmer drop backs, sent four after the passer 21 times, and used five or more on 11 snaps.
The analytics website Pro Football Focus credited the Bills with producing 19 total pressures, six of which came from Jerry Hughes.
“When we really wanted to make a change and sell out more to a 3-4 defense, it was going to be based on a couple of things: having an outstanding nose tackle, and then having a great pass rusher,” Ryan said. “Jerry’s been great. It’s interesting because as much havoc as he causes, he only got his first sack of the game on a three-man rush. It’s tough sledding, but he found a way to get in there and did a great job.”
Hughes was credited with three quarterback hits and increased his season sack total to three.
Here’s a look at how each of the Bills’ five sacks came to be:
• On a third-and-5 play in the first quarter, the Bills rushed five and Hughes blew past Cardinals right tackle D.J. Humphries, forcing Palmer to step up in the pocket. Outside linebacker Lerentee McCray gets past left tackle Jared Veldheer on the other side and defensive tackle Kyle Williams knocks over right guard Earl Watford in the middle. Williams gets the first hit on Palmer, and McCray does the rest as those two share the sack.
• On a third-and-14 play in the second quarter, the Bills rushed four, including defensive backs Jonathan Meeks and Aaron Williams off the left edge. Lorenzo Alexander blew past guard Mike Iupati for the sack, but Hughes came in too aggressively and took a personal foul when he knocked Palmer’s helmet off trying to finish the play.
“They don’t know if we’re blitzing or in coverage so we were able to switch it up,” Alexander said.
• On a first-and-20 play in the fourth quarter, the Bills sent a blitz with six defenders, including safeties Corey Graham and Duke Williams. Graham was untouched as he dropped Palmer for a 9-yard loss.
• On a first-and-10 play with 2:52 left in the game, the Bills rushed just three, but Hughes blew past Humphries and sacked Palmer for a 6-yard loss.
• On a first-and-10 play with 1:51 remaining, the Bills rushed four, with Kyle Williams shoving center A.J. Shipley into Palmer’s lap, then tripping the quarterback up. Alexander finished the job to split the sack.
Alexander became just the third member of the Bills since 1982 (when sacks became an official stat) to participate in a sack in the first three games of a season, joining Chidi Ahanotu in 2002 and Chris Kelsay in 2006.
“He’s played well,” Ryan said. “The one kid that’s not showing up in the stats is ‘Big Mac’ (McCray). He doesn’t have any production, but he is causing some problems. So yeah, I’ve been pleased with our guys.”
Palmer went 4 of 9 for 52 yards under pressure, according to PFF, with a 63.2 quarterback rating. The Bills generated pressure on 30 percent of the plays in which they rushed either four or five, according to PFF, and 80 percent on the five plays in which they sent six rushers.
“We did a poor job of running routes, finding guys, getting open and protecting the quarterback,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said.
All those bodies around him got into his head – his four interceptions came on plays in which he wasn’t under pressure.
“We work hand in hand,” cornerback Stephon Gilmore said. “Once the defensive lineman and linebackers get there, it allows us to jump routes and things like that. Our D-line did a great job and we were aggressive on the back end.”
Aggressive. Attacking. Opportunistic.
Those are the descriptions Bills fans have to hope they can continue to use for the defense moving forward.