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Bills’ non-stars on defense shine brightly

LOS ANGELES -- There's nothing flashy about the Buffalo Bills' defense, especially when it's missing one of its biggest names and a couple of celebrated newcomers who were supposed to provide a lot of that flash.

This is just a gritty, hard-working group that, for most of the season, has come through at the absolute right time.

In Sunday's 30-19 victory against the Los Angeles Rams, that right time was with 3:54 left in the third quarter at the L.A. Coliseum. The Bills and Rams were tied, 16-16, with the game pretty much hanging in the balance.

Enter nickel defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman. He doesn't have the star quality of the other defensive backs, such as Stephon Gilmore or Ronald Darby. He just has an off-the-charts work ethic that drove him to thoroughly study the Rams' offense to the point that he could easily anticipate what was coming his way as he covered wide receiver Pharoh Cooper on second-and-14 from the Los Angeles 31.

The result was a 41-yard pick-six for what proved to be the decisive points in the Bills' third win in a row.

"We were in man-to-man coverage, and all week on film they were showing us that same look, out-breaking routes to press us," Robey-Coleman said. "I just trusted my technique and I broke when (the receiver) broke and the ball was there and I just intercepted it."

You can look at the Rams' offensive stats and say that 345 total yards were far too many for a team that has been struggling to move the ball. You can say the Bills' defense never should have allowed Case Keenum, who is keeping the Rams' quarterback seat warm until top overall draft pick Jared Goff is ready to take over, to throw for 271 yards.

Fine. But for all of the bending the Bills did between the 20s, they didn't do a whole lot of breaking. The Rams reached the red zone four times and only came away with a touchdown and three field goals.

"We do a great job in the red zone," Robey-Coleman said. "Coach Rob (Ryan) comes up with a great game plan in the red zone. We harp on that every day at practice. We do at least a little bit of red zone either in film or the football field. So red zone is a big thing for us.

"And if we can stop them in the red zone and force them to kick a field goal, that's like a win for the defense, so we try to keep that going."

Granted, there were a couple of questionable coaching decisions by Jeff Fisher, such as kicking a 22-yard field goal with 5:51 left in the fourth quarter and the Bills holding a 23-19 lead. Or attempting a fake punt, from deep in Los Angeles territory, that failed and set up the Bills' final score.

But the game was a testament to the collection of non-stars who play defense for the Bills for coming up big.

Outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, whom the Bills signed as a low-priced free agent in the offseason to play special teams, had three of the team's four sacks Sunday. That gives him seven for the season and leads the NFL, something he says he never envisioned when he joined the team.

"If you're in the NFL, you can play," said Alexander, who is starting while first-round draft pick Shaq Lawson recovers from shoulder surgery. "And I think our guys are doing a good job of taking advantage of their opportunities, understanding the game plan, understanding the (other) team and how they're attacking us, and any time you're prepared, you can go out there and make plays."

That was Robey-Coleman, who joined the Bills in 2013 as an undrafted free agent from the University of Southern California. And he came through with a pair of interceptions, the second coming with 1:48 left on the clock.

Not only did his first one give the Bills a seven-point lead they would never relinquish, but it also gave the members of their defense a significant boost of energy.

"It was kind of sluggish and then that play, I feel like it sparked us," he said. "I feel like it gave our defense some juice, it gave our team some juice, it gave our sidelines some juice. And sometimes that's what you need to bring everybody together. Somebody's got to make a big play."

The big plays were few and far between from the Bills' offense. LeSean McCoy did have a 53-yard run as part of a 150-yard rushing day on which he capitalized on the fact the Rams were missing three of their four starting defensive linemen. Tyrod Taylor had a 22-yard run on third-and-19.

For the most part, though, Taylor wasn't making a whole lot happen with his throwing arm. He was missing throws and running around the pocket when he either didn't see anyone open or couldn't find the receivers who were open.

The Bills pretty much played the close, slug-it-out style of football that the Rams rode to a 3-1 start. It was the sort of game where the defense had to contribute in a big way, and the Bills' D did.

After Marcell Dareus suffered a pulled hamstring in Friday's practice, the Bills' $100-million defensive tackle never ended up making his much-anticipated return from a substance-abuse suspension. Without Lawson and Reggie Ragland, the second-out pick who suffered a season-ending knee injury in training camp, the Bills needed their down-and-dirty, no-name defensive crew to make the difference.

"I think a big deal is you're seeing 11 guys out there playing as one," Rex Ryan said. "They don't want to let each other down. We're fighting like crazy, but they're doing it for each other. It has nothing to do with individual glory and all that.

"I think we sold out to being a team, and that's how we're playing."

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