The Buffalo Bills had a good pass rush last Sunday. They need a much better one this Sunday.
Their coverage was exceptional last Sunday. It must jump another notch, even two, this Sunday.
In a matter of seven days, the Bills' defense goes from dealing with a good quarterback, Minnesota's Kirk Cousins, to arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers.
"He's as good as there is in the game," coach Sean McDermott said Wednesday.
"Obviously, you see the quick release, the mobility, he can get out of the pocket and run a little bit, he can just move around in the pocket to make throws," said veteran defensive tackle Kyle Williams. "He's very aware of what's going on around him, knows where his outlets are, strong arm. I mean, all the things that you would want out of a guy, you see in him."
For the Bills, though, the task doesn't look quite as daunting as it did after they fell to 0-2 and failed miserably when it came to both pressuring the Ravens' Joe Flacco and the Chargers' Philip Rivers, and preventing their passes to reach the intended targets. Sure, oddsmakers have the Packers favored by 10.5 points, which is at least a touchdown less than they favored the Vikings, but still a hefty spread.
Nevertheless, the circumstances have changed.
For one thing, the Bills found considerable redemption in last Sunday's stunning, 27-6 victory at Minnesota. They sacked Cousins four times (double the total they had in each of the first two games) and forced him to fumble twice. Pro Football Focus credited the Bills with 40 pressures against the Vikings, something it says hasn't been done since the Denver Broncos had 41 in their victory against the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50.
Another reason the challenge might not seem so overwhelming is the Packers are 1-1-1. Although the 34-year-old Rodgers is still showing his typical brilliance, he has been dealing with a knee sprain suffered in the first week of the season. Also, standout offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga has been dealing with a sore back.
Whatever the reasons, there's a noticeable sense of confidence within the Bills' front seven. Some of it stems from recognizing its ability to perform at a much higher level than it did through most of the first two weeks of the season — even on the road against a Hall-of-Fame-bound QB. Some of it also is the result of believing that it will continue to receive the considerable help it got from the secondary against the Vikings.
"I think everyone was just playing fast and having fun," defensive end Trent Murphy said of the Minnesota game, during which he forced one of the Cousins fumbles. "I mean, there was a sense of urgency. We've been working and working and working, and finally it just kind of came to fruition for us. I think we were having fun; nobody was overthinking. And then guys are playing fast and playing complementary football."
The Bills came close to getting more sacks and producing more pressure in the first two games. However, when it comes to getting to the quarterback, time is always the enemy.
"It's not judged in one-, two- and three-second windows," Williams said. "It's judged in tenths of seconds. If we can rush well, if we can put pressure on the guy, the guys behind us play well. And if the guys behind us play well, we can rush. It all kind of goes hand-in-hand.
"I would equate it to a guy holding it for a half a count more. That turns a no-pressure into a pressure, a pressure into a hit and a hit into a sack."
Buffalo's secondary came roaring back from poor showings through the first six quarters of the season. After showing marked improvement in the second half of the Charger game, it did a superb job of shutting down the Vikings' elite receiving duo of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, as well as star tight end Kyle Rudolph.
What stood out the most to McDermott in studying video of the game was how well his defensive backs recognized what the offense was doing before the snap.
"We were in position, square shoulders, our feet underneath us," the coach said. "We were just in better position, which allowed us to affect the quarterback with our coverage and get to the quarterback. Those were in tandem."
Cornerback Phillip Gaines could sense greater attention to detail during defensive meetings before the game. He sees the same thing happening this week.
"When we're going over the plays, (the coaches are) telling us, 'All right, line, y'all going to stunt this way and when it comes in with the call, you know that Jerry (Hughes is) coming off the edge and he probably ain't gonna be blocked by two people, so the ball's going to come out a little faster, so be ready for quick-breaking routes and stuff like that.' It comes a lot to just knowing the defense, knowing where the pressure's hitting from, knowing how you play to your leverage and then it all works together."
That's the type approach the Bills must take against Rodgers, from the front seven to the back end.
"You have to have guys that are winning and on edges and trying to hit him and get him on the ground, affect him, make him get off his spot," Williams said. "When you play a guy like that, who's as accomplished as he is, who's efficient at everything that he does, it's got to be a full team effort."