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Bills' defense learns takeaway lessons well

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The schooling is constant. Playing on the Buffalo Bills' defense means you don't simply do everything possible to prevent an opponent from scoring. It means you take what's rightfully yours.

The football? It belongs to you every bit as much as it does to them. Or so the Bills' defenders are reminded. Constantly.

On any given day in the defensive meeting rooms at One Bills Drive, a video will be showing, not of an upcoming opponent or even of Buffalo's defense, but of NFL games from days gone by. In the sessions run by linebackers coach Bob Babich, there are plenty of clips of players he coached with the Chicago Bears, such as cornerback Charles "Peanut" Tillman and linebacker Brian Urlacher, separating opponents from the ball.

"(Tillman) actually came in one day, he talked about it," linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said while savoring the Bills' 30-27 victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The lessons in the art of the takeaway are paying off, because Bills defenders, young and old, are generating turnovers in droves through the team's 4-2 start. Takeaway No. 13 of the season came with 2:20 left and the score locked at 27-27 in Sunday's game.

That was when rookie cornerback Tre'Davious White, still fuming about having allowed a touchdown catch by Mike Evans less than a minute earlier, knocked the ball out of the grasp of Adam Humphries after the Buccaneers' receiver caught a first-down pass.

White made the recovery at the Tampa Bay 33. The Bills ran the clock down and set up Stephen Hauschka's game-winning field goal from 30 yards with 14 seconds left.

Humphries carried the ball somewhat loosely with his right arm, which was something White immediately noticed. "Carrying it like that, so I just went and punched it out," he said, matter-of-factly.

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That's how routine those sort of plays are becoming for the Bills' defense. They aren't merely encouraged. They're expected, in practice as well as in games. Ball carriers are always seen as vulnerable prey, ready to give it up.

"It's awesome," Alexander said. "(In 11 NFL seasons, including 22 games with the Bills) I've never been around a team that has done it this well. I think that's a testament to our coaching staff as far as emphasizing it consistently and keeping it fresh in our minds.

"And guys are loving it. It's almost like a competition in the way that we're in practice or in the game as far as who can get the ball out, recover it, because we know it's going to only help our team and our percentages of winning go up. You have a guy in Tre who's very aware, is able to punch the ball out there and able to give us the opportunity to win the game, and we capitalized on it."

Actually, the Bills forced two other turnovers earlier in the game, although they failed to capitalize on either one.

The first came with 6:26 left in the second quarter when, with the Bills holding a 10-6 lead, defensive end Ryan Davis sacked quarterback Jameis Winston and forced a fumble that cornerback Leonard Johnson recovered at the Buffalo 44. The Bills drove to the Bucs' 23, where their drive stalled, and Hauschka was wide right on a 41-yard field goal attempt.

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Then, with 23 seconds remaining in the half, rookie cornerback Matt Milano intercepted a Winston pass intended for tight end Cameron Brate at the Buccaneers' 26. But in a bizarre sequence that saw the Bills allow 11 seconds to tick off the clock on a short pass to running back LeSean McCoy before calling their final timeout of the half, they ran a play in which Tyrod Taylor threw a two-yard pass outside to Jordan Matthews. The clock ran down to zero before there was any chance to even try for a field goal.

New Era Field filled with boos as the teams headed for their dressing rooms. It was a silly way to squander a second gift provided by a defense that has been providing for them all season.

Thoughts no doubt went back to Oct. 8, the final game before the bye, when the Bills also had three takeaways against the Bengals yet still managed to find a way to leave Cincinnati with a 20-16 loss.

The Bills' offense owes this defense much better. Granted, the defense was far from perfect. It allowed Winston to throw for 384 yards and three touchdowns. And on one of those scores, the entire defense — but especially Alexander — was fooled on a play-action play in which Winston bootlegged to his right and threw left to a wide-open O.J. Howard for a 33-yard touchdown to knot the score at 20-20 early in the fourth quarter.

But eventually, the Bills' offense put together a performance that supported the defense's opportunism.

For one thing, the Bills rediscovered their running game, producing 173 yards, the best ground output since generating 190 in the season-opening victory against the New York Jets. McCoy had 91 rushing yards, his best since getting 110 in the Jets game, and his first two touchdowns on the ground (or anywhere else) this year.

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Tyrod Taylor did his part by throwing for 268 yards and a touchdown, with no interceptions. So did the underachieving receiving corps. Deonte Thompson, who was only signed last Tuesday, led the wide receivers with four catches for 107 yards. His 44-yard catch, plus a 15-yard penalty he drew on an unnecessary roughness call, set up McCoy's seven-yard touchdown run to tie the game at 27-all.

Nick O'Leary and Logan Thomas picked up the slack for injured No. 1 tight end Charles Clay — O'Leary with a career-best 58 yards in receptions and Thomas with his first career TD.

That's what had to happen when the defense is going to such great measures to put the offense in the best position to succeed. Coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier have put a definitive stamp on a unit that spent the past two years floundering under Rex Ryan. And they're doing it through intricate teaching.

"To go as far as to show a video in certain ways that we can get the ball out, that's huge," defensive end Jerry Hughes said. "You see guys taking notes in the classroom, writing it down. When you see everyone soaking up all the information, and then it translates on Sunday, that's great."

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