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Upon Further Review: Run defense showing the necessary improvement

The Buffalo Bills spent big this offseason on their front seven with the idea that investing there would greatly improve the run defense.

Through five games in 2018, the numbers say that has happened. The Bills currently rank 12th in the NFL against the rush, allowing 96.2 yards per game. Last year, they finished 29th in the NFL, allowing 124.6 yards per game.

“We just needed to have consistency,” linebacker Lorenzo Alexander. “That's the big thing that we want to do week to week, continue to build, continue to play at a high level.”

To a man, Bills defenders say the addition of Star Lotulelei has helped achieve that consistency.

“He's been incredible,” defensive end Jerry Hughes said. “Somebody big who can command double teams. He's not getting knocked off the ball. He's working that double team. Any time you have someone on the field who needs two guys paying attention to him, it's great for us as a defense.

“We're all dogs, we're all lions, so we're going to come around hunting. Any time you've got to focus on him, we're going to make a play.”

Lotulelei was credited with one tackle that went for a loss Sunday. For the season, he has just five tackles, but that’s not what his game is about.

Star Lotulelei: A hard worker, a family man and a joker (no, really)

“Stats, tackles for loss is sexy, but he does a lot of things to allow other guys to be the star, for lack of a better word,” Alexander said. “So I love him. Great dude, quiet, but a fiery leader, too, in his own way.”

A look at the Bills’ rushing yards allowed by direction does a better job explaining the impact Lotulelei has had on the defense. Opponents are averaging 3.1 yards or less per carry on runs up the middle, off left guard or off right guard – the areas of the field Lotulelei patrols.

“If they want to run, you want to force them to run outside,” he said. “I feel like we have a quick, fast back seven. Our linebackers can run, our defensive backs play downhill into the run. With any kind of offense, you want to force them to run sideways.”

The Bills largely did that against the Titans. Dion Lewis did get free for a 15-yard gain to the middle of the line, but on the other eight carries by Lewis or Derrick Henry that went to the middle, they combined to gain just 14 yards.

"I mean, he's a big man,” Alexander said of Lotulelei. “He's taking on double teams, letting guys run free. Obviously I benefit a lot from that, playing behind him. So, yeah, he clogs it up and if you don't take him, he's going to make the guy cut before he wants to. He just allows the linebackers to run downhill.”

The Titans finished with an even 100 yards on the ground on 25 carries, an average of 4.0 per rush. Overall, the Bills are averaging 3.9 yards per carry against, which ranks ninth in the league.

“I think we’re doing OK,” Lotulelei said. “We've got to tackle. I think we missed a lot of tackles that kind of led up to some bigger runs. We’ve got to get that cleaned up.”

If the Bills do that, a good run defense could become great.

Stat of the game: 20

That’s how many passes the Bills attempted Sunday, with one of them coming from punter Corey Bojorquez on a broken play. In the last six years, just two games have been won by a team attempting 20 or fewer passes. The Bills are the team to have done it both times, with Sunday’s win joining the 23-17 victory over Atlanta in Week 4 of last season.

Game ball: Stephen Hauschka

He made the game-winning field goal from 46 yards – the first time in his 11 seasons he’s won a game on the final play. Hauschka improved to 7 of 8 on field goals this season after making both of his attempts against the Titans. He has been an excellent free-agent addition.

Quote of the day

“I care about letters. I care about ‘Ws’. I don’t care how ugly the stats look. If we’re out on top, that’s all I care about. Guys that throw for 400 yards and have six touchdowns, but end up losing the game – it’s still a loss at the end of the day, so I’m just trying to do whatever is possible in my power to help this team move the football, stay on the field during third down and ultimately put points on the board." – Rookie quarterback Josh Allen.

Snap count notes

1. LeSean McCoy is feeling better. The Bills’ star running back played 46 offensive snaps against the Titans – 11 more than he has in any of his three previous games in 2018. That’s a sign that McCoy’s rib injury, which kept him out of the Week 3 win over Minnesota, is getting better. So, too, is the fact the Bills decided to make third running back Marcus Murphy inactive against the Texans.

2. Dean Marlowe took all 54 defensive snaps in his first career start. He joined fellow safety Jordan Poyer, cornerback Tre’Davious White and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds in being on the field for every defensive play.

3. The rotation between Matt Milano and Ramon Humber ended. Milano was on the field for 53 of the 54 defensive snaps against the Titans, while Humber did not play defensively. “He’s around the ball,” coach Sean McDermott said of Milano. “He continues to get better every week and I thought he took advantage of his opportunities this week to do that.”

4. Ryan Lewis started, but Phillip Gaines got more of the playing time at cornerback. Lewis took 16 defensive snaps, while Gaines played 40. Rookie slot cornerback Taron Johnson played 27 defensive snaps.

5. Robert Foster played a season-low eight snaps. Foster, the rookie undrafted receiver, had been on the field for 20-plus plays in the last three weeks, but saw his playing time diminish as the Bills focused on a run-heavy game plan.

Coming attractions

The Bills stay in the AFC South, visiting the Houston Texans at 1 p.m. Sunday. Here are three things to know about the Texans …

1. They are comfortable playing extra football. The Texans improved to 2-3 Sunday with a 19-16 overtime victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday Night Football. It was the Texans’ second straight win in overtime, coming a week after they beat the Colts in a similar fashion. The Texans gained 462 net yards Sunday, but the game remained close because they went 1 for 6 in the red zone. That’s been a season-long problem. Houston is third in total yardage, but ranks 31st in red-zone touchdown rate, at 36.4 percent. "It's bad," Houston coach Bill O’Brien told ESPN of the Texans' struggles in the red zone. "We have to get better. We tried everything down there, nothing really worked. We have to go back as a coaching staff and look at it, players, everybody. We all have to look at it and see what we can do to be better, because we are moving the ball. We moved the ball pretty well, but when we got down in there, we have to score touchdowns."

2. They’re worried about the number of hits Deshaun Watson is taking. Although he was sacked just once Sunday, the Texans’ second-year quarterback was hit 10 times. That increases his season totals to 18 sacks taken and 53 hits received. Watson tore the ACL in his right knee less than a year ago. Struggles along the offensive line have led to some of the issues. Former Bills draft pick Seantrel Henderson, the Texans’ opening-day starter at right tackle, was lost for the season in Week 1. His replacement, Julien Davenport, was benched in Week 4.

3. Rookie receiver Keke Coutee has burst onto the scene. Coutee, a fourth-round draft pick out of Texas Tech, missed the first three games of the season because of a hamstring injury. He’s made a big impact since getting healthy, though, starting with an 11-catch, 105-yard game against the Colts in Week 4. That was the most receptions by a receiver in his NFL debut since 1970. Coutee followed that up by finishing with six catches for 51 yards and a touchdown against the Cowboys.

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