Leslie Frazier wasn’t happy with the effort in practice Thursday, and he let his players know.
They hadn’t worked hard enough at creating turnovers, the Buffalo Bills’ defensive coordinator said, and to have a chance to beat the Tennessee Titans, they’d need to take the ball away. The message was clear, and on Friday, typically a lighter, less physical session – think more two-hand touch than tackling – the defense dialed in.
“You come into practice with the idea of every time you tag off on somebody, you’re going to take a punch at the ball, whether you hit it or not,” safety Jordan Poyer said. “So, it’s a mindset to be able to get the football out.”
It carried over into the game.
Buffalo’s opportunistic defense helped propel the Bills to victory for the second time in three weeks, forcing three fumbles, recovering two, and snaring an interception in a 13-12 triumph against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday at New Era Field.
The Bills scored 10 points off the three turnovers, all of which occurred on Tennessee’s side of the field. It would have been more if not for a bizarre botched field goal. And the forced fumble they didn’t recover – it squirted out of bounds after Jerry Hughes sacked Marcus Mariota on third down – helped short-circuit a late Tennessee drive that ended in a field goal rather than a touchdown.
“We put the time in during practice throughout the week to focus on that,” Hughes said. “We watch the film, so we know guys that are susceptible to that. So for us, it’s not where it’s just you go out there and tackle him and the ball comes out. No. The first guy tackles, the second guy comes in and he’s fighting his head off to get that ball out.
“That’s how we’re coached. That’s how we play. We want to go after the football to cause a short field for our offense so they can go out there and execute.”
That final Tennessee field goal left Buffalo trailing by two points with 4:43 remaining in the fourth quarter and all three timeouts. It was plenty of time for the Bills to lean on their effective running game and use a couple of quick passes from Josh Allen to move into position for Stephen Hauschka’s game-winning 46-yard kick as time expired.
“We knew Mariota was their guy,” defensive end Shaq Lawson said. “So we knew what we had to do. If we forced turnovers, we knew we’d be in a fight with them and have a chance to beat them, so that was our goal, just taking the ball away and getting it back to the offense and they scored.”
Buffalo also forced three turnovers in a stunning road victory against the Minnesota Vikings on Sept. 23, and just like in that game, the Bills forced a fumble on their opponents’ first possession of the game, gifting the offense a short field.
This time, it was rookie Tremaine Edmunds jarring the ball from the grasp of Titans receiver Taywan Taylor, and Matt Milano hopping on the fumble, giving the Bills possession at the Tennessee 47.
Allen capped an 11-play drive by scrambling 14 yards for a touchdown, his third career rushing score and the first points Tennessee had allowed in the first quarter this season.
“Coach talks about it all week, takeaways,” Edmunds said. “When you have that many takeaways like we did tonight, it’s a beautiful thing.”
In the second quarter, rookie fourth-round pick Taron Johnson came up with his second takeaway in as many weeks, jumping a slant route in the middle of the field for his first career interception at the Tennessee 35. Mariota telegraphed the throw.
“He was staring it down,” Johnson said.
Although the Bills failed to score on the ensuing drive, when punter Corey Bojorquez botched the hold on a field goal – he appeared to attempt a fake when nobody else on the team followed suit – the turnover at least helped swing field position, as the Titans took over deep in their own territory.
In the third quarter, Lawson ripped the ball from running back Dion Lewis, and Poyer recovered at the Tennessee 49, setting up a field goal drive.
“They just attack the football,” Mariota said. “If you’re a ball carrier, you have to pay attention because the guys will come from behind and are doing their job at attacking the football and causing a fumble.”
The Bills have allowed just three touchdowns in the last three weeks.
Some of that is the result of good fortune.
Titans receiver Nick Williams dropped what would have been a go-ahead score early in the fourth quarter, forcing Tennessee to settle for a field goal.
But there’s no denying Buffalo’s improvement after being shredded through the first two weeks of the season, despite a shorthanded secondary that was without safeties Micah Hyde and Rafael Bush on Sunday.
The Bills’ defense even held firm after the offense’s lone turnover against Tennessee, when Allen was intercepted by Adoree’ Jackson near midfield midway through the fourth quarter.
The Titans never found the end zone, settling for a mere four field goals.
“Instead of having 28 points, they have 12 points, and that’s the big difference,” defensive end Lorenzo Alexander said. “We found a way to do that and it’s all about executing, knocking the ball down, sniffing out a screen and early in the year, (opponents) were making those plays and we weren’t. Simple as that.
“I think we have that confidence. Obviously, we’ve proven today and let some of these young guys know that we can win these games. Now we just have to capitalize on this confidence and carry it into the next game.”
That mindset begins with their effort and attitude throughout the week.