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Jerry Sullivan: Marcell Dareus steps out, and guys step up

Jerry Sullivan

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Kyle Williams has been with the Bills since 2006, longer than any other player, and he spent a good seven years of that trying to counsel Marcell Dareus and get the talented, troubled defensive lineman to be a more responsible pro.

Williams is the consummate team player, and like the rest of his Buffalo teammates, he said he loved Dareus as a brother and wished him only the best in Jacksonville. He went to see him on Friday night after the Bills traded Dareus to say goodbye to his old teammate in person.

"It's still tough for me," Williams said after Sunday's 34-14 win over the Raiders,"because I poured a lot of myself into him over the last seven years. So it's tough to see him go, but he'll always be a friend and I'll always pull for him."

No one uttered a disparaging word about Dareus. That's not surprising, considering how tight this team has become under first-year head coach Sean McDermott. But they played with an unmistakable passion Sunday, as if telling the world that an underachiever like Dareus had no place among them.

It was suggested to Williams that the trade was management's way of saying, 'We can do it without Marcell,' and that he backed that up on the field.

"Well, we can do it without any of us," Williams snapped. "That's the great thing about any of us. We're a team, you know?"

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Even without you?

"Sure, why not? If I go down, somebody steps up, we win a football game. We have a safety go down, a guy steps up, gets a pick to score a touchdown, we win a football game. So next guy up."

Who's going to argue with the guy, after what the Bills have achieved over the first seven games of the season? Next man up, trust the process, every man one of 11, all the cliches resonate at this point.

This team is doing a great job of knocking the cynic out of me. They're 5-2 for the first time since 2011 and half a game behind the Patriots, who have quietly rediscovered their defense and won three in a row.

Three things seem fairly evident about this remarkable squad: One, they're a legitimate playoff contender, tied with the Pats, Steelers and Chiefs — who were the top three seeds in last year's conference playoffs — for the fewest losses in the conference after eight weeks.

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Two, they've restored their home advantage to its highest level since the Jim Kelly era. The Bills are 4-0 in Orchard Park for the first time since 1995 (they won their first four home games in 2011, but the fourth was in Toronto). Three, they don't miss Dareus, except maybe at team parties.

At some point, a lack of elite talent is supposed to catch up with them. But don't tell that to the Bills, who have new, obscure heroes rising up on a weekly basis. The PR intern and the secretary in the coaches' office could probably step in at safety right now and force a turnover.

On a day when we skeptics figured the Bills were due to stumble, they again showed their competitive character. Resourceful and resilient, the defense had four more takeaways and dominated an Oakland offense that had put 505 yards and 31 points on the Chiefs in a 31-30 win 10 days earlier.

Derek Carr marched the Raiders to a touchdown on their opening possession, becoming the first team to do so against the Bills this season. Then he melted down in the October drizzle, which was as unrelenting as the Buffalo defense.

Carr threw for 313 yards, but much of it was garbage. He threw two interceptions and was reduced to throwing a lot of dumpoffs against a Bills defense that didn't get any sacks, preferring to play strong in coverage.

A year ago in Oakland, Carr shredded the Bills defense for 29 points in a span of 11:43 after the Bills took a 24-9 lead midway through the third quarter. This time, the Bills dropped 27 straight on Oakland.

"We're a team, man," said defensive end Jerel Worthy, "and we can't put all our emphasis on one guy, even as big a talent as Marcell is. We try to stick together. The adverse situations where we failed last year, we're overcoming this year. That game last year left a bitter taste in our mouths."

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Again, it started with the run defense. The Bills, who were seventh against the run and fourth in yards per attempt, limited the Raiders to 54 yards. As usual, they were tough on first down, holding the Raiders to zero total yards on four first-down runs in the first three quarters.

When you stop the run, you can tee off against the pass. Late in the first half, Carr threw short to DeAndre Washington. He was blasted by Leonard Johnson and the ball flew in the air to rookie linebacker Matt Milano, who ran it back 40 yards for a TD to give the Bills a 14-7 lead.

Another week, another chance for anonymous Bills heroes to make their mark. Johnson, an undrafted free agent and talented chef, is a sixth-year pro who played 10 games in Carolina last season. The Bills drafted Milano in the fifth round with a pick acquired from the Patriots for Mike Gillislee.

"It doesn't matter if you're first string, second string or you just got here," said Johnson, who started for the injured E.J. Gaines. "When it's time to go, you do your job, it's simple as that. I'm proud of the success we've had as a team and it doesn't surprise me one bit where we stand, knowing the moves that were made were for the good of the team."

No one expected this team to be 5-2, Johnson was told. People thought this team was tanking. He shook his head and laughed.

"I was with Coach (McDermott) in Carolina last year," he said. "If there's one person I believe in, it's him. I had an opportunity to sign back in Carolina. But I called Coach personally and told him, 'Hey man, I want to be part of what you got going on.' "

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Johnson told McDermott he was going to create something special in Buffalo, and he wanted to be part of it. Despite the modest expectations and the playoff drought, he had a feeling. So did Kyle Williams, who wasn't sure he would be back at age 34, but saw something in McDermott.

Williams was asked if it was a surprise to be 5-2, after the Sammy Watkins trade and the injuries and the team's history of letting people down. Come on, you had two guys out in the secondary and Dareus traded on Friday night. A lot of people had you losing this game.

"How many times do we have to answer that question?" Williams said. "I don't care what anybody thinks. That's why we play the games, right? I can confidently say these guys are going to prepare, they're going to work, and they're going to play their tail off every second on the clock.

That's what he told me the week before the season, when I asked Williams how he could be upbeat about the Bills after they traded Watkins and seemed to be punting the season. That's why they play the games.

It's a cliche, but like many of the cliches being tossed around One Bills Drive these days, it's ringing true. They're trusting the process, believing each player is one out of 11, doing his job. Next man up.

Next game up is Thursday. They have a chance to get to 6-2 for the first time since ... Williams had a blank look. He had no idea ... since 1993. Yeah, the last Super Bowl year.

And people thought they were tanking.

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