CINCINNATI – Jordan Poyer couldn't hide his conflicting emotions.
This should have been a good day for the Buffalo Bills' defense, one to celebrate. When you get three takeaways, you win. Period. You're not supposed to be answering questions about how on earth that was part of a losing effort.
"It's frustrating," the safety said after the Bills' 20-16 loss against the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday. Poyer searched for more words, but could only come back to the same theme. "It's frustrating," he said again.
At 3-2, the Bills still shared first place in the AFC East with the New England Patriots and New York Jets, but neither Poyer nor his teammates wasted time searching for bright spots. Their mood was as dreary as everything else in rain-soaked Paul Brown Stadium.
The Bills had squandered an opportunity to validate themselves as the contenders, or at least non-pretenders, they were thought to have been after scoring one of their biggest road victories in years against the Atlanta Falcons last week. They allowed all of that good will they accumulated locally and nationally to dissolve into, "Yup, same old Bills."
The Bengals tried, repeatedly, to give them a second road win in a row and the Bills simply refused to take it.
Then, Poyer, who had one of two interceptions of Andy Dalton, finally came up with something that might very well have spoken volumes about the state of the Bills, whose defense makes plays and whose offense makes a mess.
"At the end of the day, with those three turnovers, we've got to find a way to put the ball in the end zone," he said. "That's on me. I've got to find a way to get in the end zone, somehow, some way we've got to find a way to get in the end zone."
Yes. Poyer's solution for the Bills' problems is for the defense to score touchdowns. His 13-yard return after grabbing a ball that deflected off of A.J. Green's hands fell short of the goal line, as did the 13-yard return fellow safety Micah Hyde had on his interception of another Green deflection. And when linebacker Lorenzo Alexander blasted Green and forced a fumble, Poyer picked it up and had a 32-yard return that also didn't reach the end zone.
That's the answer, apparently. More points. Even more turnovers. Seriously.
"We felt like we could have more takeaways than just three," Hyde said. "This was the perfect game to do it -- rainy. We tried to get our offense in good field position, because at the end of the day when it's raining like that, it's hard for the offense. The pass game's a little off because the ball's wet and in the run game, you try to hit that ball out because the ball's wet. We felt like we could have got more (takeaways) and we just didn't."
But three still should have been plenty to get the job done.
Sean McDermott has succeeded in building the type of defense he wants: aggressive, hard-hitting, fast, and most of all, opportunistic. He went for a back-to-front construction, wanting the secondary to be the strength and have everything else feed off of it. Goal achieved. Hyde and Poyer form arguably the best safety tandem in the league, and thanks largely to them the secondary weathered being without injured cornerback E.J. Gaines (groin) and losing another corner, Leonard Johnson, to a hamstring injury.
Dalton did manage to throw for 328 yards, including a 77-yard touchdown to Green, who blew past rookie cornerback Tre'Davious White on the first play of the Bengals' second possession. The Bills only sacked him once and only had four hits on him.
"We just gave up too many big plays, allowed them to move too easily and from there it hurt us," Hyde said.
"We talk about getting turnovers and, obviously, the offense wants to punch that in and get points," defensive tackle Kyle Williams said. "(Sunday) we didn't do it. Maybe if we get one more or we get another stop or not give up one of those big plays, maybe it's the difference. I'm only going to look at myself and looking at us defensively, what we can do better, how we can get better, and try to help the offense even more."
"We got three turnovers, but at the end of the day, we gave up too many big plays," Alexander said. "Most teams can't go play-for-play downfield and if we give up chunk plays the way we did, it's going to be hard to win."
But the Bills' defense, which limited the Bengals to average of only 2.4 yards per rush, wasn't the problem.
The problem was an offense that could only manage one touchdown and a mere 36 second-half yards after generating 185 yards through the first two quarters. The problem was their quarterback, Tyrod Taylor, throwing for only 166 yards and having a killer interception with 2:14 left in the game – the Bills' first turnover in 19 quarters – that killed Buffalo's last chance to rally. The problem was their receivers combining for only three receptions for 34 yards.
"Yes, it's definitely tough when those guys are playing their butts off and getting the ball back and getting us great field position," said Taylor, who completed 20 of 37 passes and finished with a passer rating of 63.6. "There were a couple of times in the game where we just didn't capitalize on the field position that we were given, especially after one of those picks. We have to get points out of that drive. There's no way we should be punting when you get the ball (on the plus side of the) 50."
The Bills have a bye to let the bitterness of this performance to sit in their collective mouth. They will rest and heal. They will also study all that went wrong and ponder ways to get it fixed.
As far as Alexander and Williams are concerned, that's the most vital item on their agenda through the next two weeks.
"We learn from it," Alexander said. "That's the only way we can grow and continue to get better. It's still early in the season."
"I think this game can be pivotal for us," Williams said. "We can either learn from it and know how to move forward or it leave a sour taste in our mouth for a long time."