Early in the week, when they saw the plan, there was a lot of nodding and smiling among the Buffalo Bills' backs and linemen.
They knew, finally, that Sunday would be their turn to handle a load that was too often dropped in the previous four weeks.
“As offensive linemen, it’s just the greatest feeling,” tackle Jordan Mills said. “Just put the game on us and watch us work.”
That’s exactly what coach Sean McDermott and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll did. The result was a scrappy, physical, old-school style, 13-12 victory against the Tennessee Titans at New Era Field.
Seven days after reaching the season’s low point in largely ignoring the run, when LeSean McCoy and Chris Ivory combined for a mere 11 carries for 39 yards in a 22-0 loss at Green Bay, the Bills brought their ground game back to life. McCoy and Ivory collaborated for 38 attempts that produced 128 yards against the Titans, matching their big, powerful defensive front with plenty of muscle of their own.
“This is a tough defense and people had been trying to spread them out and it hasn’t been very successful,” fullback Patrick DiMarco said. “So we said, ‘Screw it. Let’s run at them, let’s see what they’ve got.’ And we did that and we did it well.”
“Now, once you start running it, your blood starts pumping, they’re getting tired, we’re getting tired, but that’s what we want,” said guard Vlad Ducasse. “And we got in the groove, the backs got in the groove – Shady and Chris – and everybody's talking trash back and forth.”
Most of the grittiest runs by the duo came on the game’s final possession, as the Bills – after taking over at their own 25 with 4:43 remaining and the Titans ahead, 12-10 – moved into position for Stephen Hauschka’s winning field goal from 46 yards as time expired.
McCoy got things started by generating 20 yards on two runs and a screen pass that went for 13 yards as he twisted and turned his way out of tackles. After that, the 6-foot, 223-pound Ivory repeatedly slammed up the middle, knocking over defender after defender, to push the Bills to the Tennessee 40 with just less than two minutes left. Ivory’s final carry was an emphatic seven-yard blast to the Titans’ 26.
“I mean, you go from chasing me from sideline to sideline, trying to be patient and disciplined in your gaps ... and then you get the bruiser that comes in and just smashing and pounding,” said McCoy, who finished with a season-best 85 yards on 24 carries. “I’m always joking with him, like, ‘Man, you’re dangerous, you’re angry.’ ”
“You see Chris out there, just burying people in the ground, and you see Shady just cut on a dime and making people miss and things of that sort,” Mills said. “It’s incredible to just be a part of that and have running backs like that.”
Ivory isn’t much of a talker. He was stoned-faced after the game, mentioning the importance of securing the ball and doing everything possible to help the Bills get into field goal range. “I’m thinking, ‘It’s a lot of time in the clock, we can still go down and win,’ ” he said.
Titans defensive tackle Jurrell Casey fully expected a heavy load of Ivory and McCoy on the drive, even though he and his fellow D-linemen are a formidable bunch.
“Why would they not try to run the ball?” Casey said. “All they needed was a field goal, and they were successful at it all day. I wouldn’t change the game plan. They did a great job of keeping to it.”
“We decided we were going to run the rock,” quarterback Josh Allen said. “Coach (Brian) Daboll told me, ‘We’re going to put it in our linemen’s hands,’ and they did a really good job.”
Ivory also expressed his appreciation for a Bills defense that forced three turnovers. The formula was similar to what helped the Bills score their only other win this year, at Minnesota in Week 3. But Allen also made some spectacular plays with his feet and passing arm against the Vikings.
That version of Allen hasn’t been seen since. He was awful against the Packers and shaky Sunday, so the Bills, aware of their mistake in giving him no run support, came up with a smarter game plan.
Although he threw only 19 times, Allen embraced it every bit as much as the linemen and running backs.
“I care about letters, I care about W's,” he said. “I don’t care how ugly the stats look. If we’re out on top, that’s all that I care about.”
DiMarco is in his second season with the Bills. He has grown familiar with the hardcore personality of Western New York.
Winning with a run-oriented approach, he believes, is something with which fans can identify.
“That’s just the City of Buffalo,” DiMarco said. “This is a tough city and a bunch of blue-collar people and that’s what our DNA is now. We’re going to be tough, we’re going to be physical, we're going to run at people, and we’re not going to back down.”
Even against one of the stronger and tougher defenses in the NFL.
During a season that McDermott acknowledged was devoted to rebuilding, the Bills need to measure their progress in ways other than a record that stands at 2-3 as they prepare for back-to-back road games against Houston and Indianapolis before a home Monday night clash against New England.
“The Tennessee Titans are a great defense, top seven or top 10 in basically everything,” Allen said. “So to see (the effort from the backs and the linemen) and to see the excitement that they had, it’s going to definitely (mean) progress (for) us moving forward.”