CHARLOTTE, N.C. – It’s easy to overlook the good when a team loses in the NFL.
That whole idea about “no moral victories” is true. But when it comes to the Buffalo Bills’ defense in general and pass rush in particular, it would be a gross oversight to ignore what was accomplished Sunday in a 9-3 loss to the Carolina Panthers.
When former Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott took over as Buffalo’s coach in January and announced the team would return to a base 4-3 scheme, this is the type of performance fans could only hope would follow.
Buffalo’s six sacks were the most the team has recorded since it put up seven against the New York Jets on Nov. 24, 2014. Against a former league MVP, the Bills made life difficult for Cam Newton.
“We felt good about our matchups up front and getting pressure on the quarterback,” McDermott said. “I thought the pressure was there and that works together with the coverage, so it was good complementary football.”
It didn’t start out that way. The Bills’ defense had a frustrating first series, allowing a pair of long third-down conversions, seeing a potential interception go through the hands of safety Jordan Poyer and Newton somehow escaping two sacks – one by Lorenzo Alexander and another by Jerry Hughes.
“Just seeing him on film, we knew he was going to be a big, strong guy,” Hughes said. “That was just us … saying, ‘all right, we're getting there, now it's time for us to put him on the ground.’ ”
Eventually, that started to happen. Hughes led the pass rush with a pair of sacks, while Eddie Yarbrough (the first of his career), Poyer, Alexander and Shaq Lawson split up the other four. Hughes put a gorgeous spin move on left tackle Matt Kalil for one of his sacks, a play that Newton was slow to get up from.
"They are good at what they do," Kalil said. "They got us a few times and that's just how it goes."
“We got after it up front,” Lawson added. “That’s great, but our main goal is to come out with a victory. That’s individual stuff.”
Defensive tackle Marcell Dareus suffered an ankle injury on the first series of the game and missed the next 27 defensive snaps, according to an unofficial tracking by The Buffalo News. Dareus returned to the game and made one assisted tackle, his first of the season. Cornerback E.J. Gaines also briefly left the game with an injury, but was able to return, as did wide receiver Andre Holmes, who was checked for a shoulder injury.
Left tackle Cordy Glenn did not play in the second half because of an ankle injury. McDermott did not provide an update on the injured players after the game, saying he hadn't yet received an update from the team's medical staff.
The Bills made a change at returner – but it might not last long. Wide receiver Brandon Tate was a healthy inactive. That meant the Bills used Taiwan Jones as kick returner and wide receiver Kaelin Clay as punt returner.
Clay gained just 2 yards on two attempts, though, and fumbled once. The Bills were fortunate that cornerback Shareece Wright was able to jump on the ball and maintain possession.
"He knows this team," McDermott said of the decision to activate Clay, who came to the Bills in a trade for cornerback Kevon Seymour before the regular season started. "We wanted to give him a chance to return and see what he could do."
In addition to Tate, the Bills' other inactives were running back Joe Banyard, guard Vlad Ducasse, linebacker Jelani Jenkins, tight end Khari Lee, offensive tackle Conor McDermott and defensive tackle Jerel Worthy, who is out with a concussion and is the team's only player sitting because of injury.
It was a quiet homecoming for the ex-Panthers currently on the Bills' roster. Running back Mike Tolbert had three carries for 5 yards, cornerback Leonard Johnson had two tackles and Clay had his two punt returns. Quarterback Joe Webb was active for the Bills and played on special teams, but did not record any statistics. The same was true of Seymour on the other side.
Ex-Canisius basketball player Chris Manhertz also played for the Panthers, but did not record any statistics.
The Bills took an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that is not often seen. In the second quarter, side judge James Coleman was injured when he ran into a coach on the Bills' sideline. Teams are required to keep the 6 feet of white paint along the sideline clear for officials and the chain crew only, a job that is performed by a "get-back" coach. Coleman required medical treatment on the Bills' sideline after the play.
"Unfortunate situation," McDermott said. "We've got to do a better job of staying back."