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Jerry Sullivan: Defense looks great, but it's still early

Some things I've been hearing around town from Bills fans in recent days:

Why can't they get rid of Dareus? When are they going to put Peterman in for Taylor at quarterback? Is Dennison doing to the running game what Rex did to the pass rush? Why doesn't Tyrod audible more?

But the freshest refrain is, "How about that Bills defense!"

Yes, everyone loves the Buffalo defense after two weeks of the regular season, and by extension, the new head coach. Sean McDermott came here with the reputation as a defensive savant, a rising young coach who could repair the damage done by Rex Ryan and his cronies over the last two seasons.

The early signs are promising. The defense seemed rejuvenated in the preseason and has built on it in the first two real games. They're fourth in the NFL in overall defense, fifth against the run, eighth against the pass, fourth in scoring D at 10.5 points a game.

That's impressive, considering that they're operating with four new starters in the secondary and with Dareus, the highest-paid player on the team and most expensive defensive tackle in team history, barely contributing.

"I think they’ve been on the attack," said McDermott, "and that’s what I enjoy seeing. I enjoy seeing our guys attack in all three phases, and when you attack, normally good things happen. They’re playing well. You’re seeing guys that we’ve brought in, or guys that have been here, develop."

Safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, signed as free agents in their early primes, have been a nice upgrade. Linebacker Ramon Humber, third in the NFL in tackles, has been this year's Zach Brown (Brown is fourth, by the way). Shaq Lawson is more comfortable and effective as the left end in the 4-3.

But it's my job to advise caution in these situations. It's only been two games. They shut down a Jets team that is tanking. They made life miserable for Carolina and Cam Newton, who isn't close to his MVP form of two years ago after shoulder surgery and isn't one of the top dozen passers in the league.

You gain a little perspective when a team misses the playoffs 17 years in a row. I've seen my share of seasons when the Bills got off to a rousing start -- on either side of the ball -- and found their level as the year went on.

Let's not forget, the Bills had an encouraging run of defense early last season. The won four games in a row, allowing 13 points and 317 yards a game during the run, leading us to believe that Ryan and his twin brother, Rob, had fixed their defensive woes and put the team on the right track.

Then the wheels came off the Ryans' bicycle built for two. Over the last 10 games, the Bills allowed 27.5 points and 364 yards a game. Their opponents averaged 151 yards rushing and 5.0 yards a carry, which would have put them at the bottom of the league over a full season.

During the four-game winning streak, they forced 10 turnovers. Over the final 10 games, they took it away only six times, the fewest of any team in the NFL over that stretch. They failed to force a turnover in seven of their last 10 games and finished with 18 takeaways, tying the all-time franchise low.

Maybe that's why Kyle Williams and Lorenzo Alexander weren't all aglow after holding the Panthers to nine points. Williams and Alexander are both 34, the oldest Bills, the adults in the room. When they expressed their disappointment with Sunday's performance, it wasn't some reflex of false modesty and team unity.

The Bills didn't force any turnovers in Carolina, which must have summoned bad memories of a year ago. And while they sacked Newton six times, they also allowed him to convert 7 of 16 third downs. Carolina had the ball for 38:53 and the Bills started only one possession outside their own 25-yard line.

One hallmark of Bills defenses during the drought has been their inability to stop opponents when they need it most, when they're trying to rally late. Carolina held the ball for 8:31 on its final possession last week, leaving just 2:38 on the clock for the Bills to mount their final, futile drive.

Alexander said the defense hadn't done enough to help the offense. They weren't taking solace in holding the Panthers without a touchdown or getting six sacks. He said they aspire to a higher standard.

"We can still get better," he said. "We need turnovers. That is the key to making us either an average team or a good team taking that next step."

Linebacker Preston Brown said it's a simple standard. "We have to be the best defense on the field each and every week," Brown said Wednesday.  "We weren't.

"Everyone says, 'Oh, we gave up nine points,' but that is more than what our offense scored. We have to find ways to get less points, to find ways to shut them out. We could have had times to get turnovers and we didn’t, so we have to find a way to get offense the ball on the other side of the field."

The Buffalo defense needs to be the best unit on the field Sunday at New Era Field to beat the unbeaten Broncos, who are first in the league in rushing and TD passes. They have better offensive weapons than Carolina in running back C.J. Anderson and wideouts Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas.

Denver quarterback Trevor Siemian is off to a good start, but he's no Elway. He'll be facing the heat in more ways than one at New Era. The fans are excited about the defense. The 12th Man is mainly a defensive phenomenon, and it can be an intimidating factor for opposing offenses at New Era.

So if the defense aspires to greatness, it needs to show it on Sunday. If they can't have their way at home with Siemian, what can we expect later in the year against Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Derek Carr and, of course, Tom Brady (twice in December)?

It's a defense to be excited about, something to keep fans distracted from all those former Bills making an offensive impact in other cities. History has taught me to be wary. Let's see where they are six weeks from now.

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