ARLINGTON, Texas – Ed Oliver’s family had a happy Thanksgiving, even though they’re a bunch of Dallas Cowboys fans.
“Most definitely,” Oliver said, “because they’re at the game. That’s one. They seen me go hard, so that’s two. And I got to do it with my guys.”
The rookie defensive tackle from Houston proved he was worthy of the ninth overall pick in the draft with a breakout performance in his return to Texas, as the Buffalo Bills handled the Cowboys, 26-15, on Thanksgiving at AT&T Stadium.
Oliver recorded two sacks, a forced fumble that led to the Bills’ go-ahead touchdown, a pass breakup and four tackles as the Buffalo defense smothered the NFL’s top-ranked offense on national television, a big-time performance on a big-time stage. It was the first multi-sack game of Oliver’s career and his fourth and fifth sacks of the season. He has at least one sack in three consecutive games, joining Darryl Talley as the only Bills rookies to have a three-game sack streak.
And the eruption was sparked by being removed from the starting lineup after a loss to Philadelphia on Oct. 27. Oliver didn’t start the following game, a victory against Washington on Nov. 3, and hasn’t started since. He’s been a wrecking ball the last three weeks.
“Look, I know what he been through,” said defensive end Shaq Lawson, the Bills’ first-round pick in 2016. “I personally told him, like, ‘Bro, you've been through the same situation I've been through. My third year going here, when they (signed) Trent (Murphy).’ I said, ‘Man, don't worry about that, bro. You've got to let that (stuff) go. At the end of the day, you're still a first-round pick. When you time comes, just go in there and make plays.’ He's been doing that. Since he ain't started, he's been taking it and running with it, making hella plays, big-time plays.”
Oliver opened the season as the only newcomer to a defense that returned 10 starters from last year’s exceptional unit, replacing the retired Kyle Williams. He got off to a slow start, with one sack in his first nine games. And that came against a wide receiver, on an attempted trick play by Miami.
Jordan Phillips started ahead of Oliver against Washington, and Oliver was in for only 34 percent of the snaps. The rookie recorded no stats the following week against Cleveland and was in for 33 percent of the snaps. He’s been a force ever since.
Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier explained earlier in the week that a reduced snap count can often lead to increased production. Oliver has played more than half the snaps only once in the last five games.
“It just so happens that with his numbers reduced, his production is going up,” Frazier said, “which sometimes can happen because your focus narrows a little bit. But it's good for us, it's good for our team, good for our defense. Ed’s attitude has been terrific. He didn't pout, he didn't put his head down and go into a cocoon. He's been really good. And he should just get better and better as the season goes on.”
That type of a response wasn’t a given for a player who’s started every game in his career since high school.
“It's really, really good because when we were going through the process back in the spring when we were evaluating, that was one of the things we kept in mind as well,” Frazier said. “He hadn't really faced a lot of adversity. Going back to probably eighth or ninth grade he's always been the man. So, we were going through that process and just trying to determine how he would handle situations like this, a little bit of adversity. He's handled it like a champ and that's good for our team going forward. Good for him as well and really proud of the way he's handled things.”
Oliver went back to A.J. Blum, his defensive coordinator at Westfield High School in Spring, Texas, and defensive line coach at Houston, for advice after being removed from the Bills’ starting lineup.
“Him just telling me to, ‘Do you. Do what you’ve always done. And stay true to you,’” Oliver said. “That’s pretty much what I reverted back to, just remembering who I was and remembering what got me there. I’ve just been playing free.
“He’s definitely a big motivator. When I hollered at him after the Philadelphia game, he was just telling me, ‘You know who you are. You know what got you here. Just do what you’ve always done.’ And I just compartmentalized that and just did what I always did.”
Blum was among dozens of Oliver’s friend and family in attendance for the Bills’ dominating effort against Dallas.
After the Cowboys scored on their opening possession, they didn’t score again until garbage time.
Oliver’s strip sack of Dak Prescott led to the Bills’ go-ahead touchdown in the second quarter.
“Ed Oliver, he’s a monster,” defensive tackle Jordan Phillips said.. “He’s the future of this program. He’s great. He had two sacks, he had TFLs, he played like a No. 9 overall pick. He’s the man. …
“The hardest thing about being a rookie is not being a rookie anymore and after that Week 6, Week 7, that’s when it really starts clicking. You either go down or you go up and he’s hitting his stride right now exactly when we need him to. He has four sacks in the last three games. What else can you ask for?”
Defensive tackle Jerry Hughes called the rookie’s performance “electric.”
“Flying around, getting off the ball, getting to the quarterback,” Hughes said. “Ed’s doing what he knows how to do and we’re happy that he’s doing it.”
Safety Micah Hyde said pressure from the front seven frees up the secondary to make plays, and called Oliver’s response to being removed from the starting lineup as a reflection of his character.
“That’s Ed,” Hyde said. “He’s working. He’s been working all year. Obviously, a young guy, had some ups and downs the first half of the season, but I think he’s really grown into his own. We all understand what he can do to help out this defense, help out this team, and he’s not a rookie anymore.”
Oliver said he understands the coaching staff’s decision to remove him from the starting lineup.
He acknowledged it provided extra motivation.
“I know football is a production-based business,” Oliver said. “You don’t produce, you don’t start. It’s that simple. That’s all there was to it, and that’s the first time it happened to me.
“You put your head down and you go to work. I didn’t change who I was. I didn’t look at myself any different in the mirror. I just knew what I needed to do and I knew it needed to happen sooner, so I just put a bigger emphasis on trying to get better faster so I could have moments like this.”
Oliver pulled on a Bills T-shirt as he prepared to meet his friends and family in the parking lot, eager to celebrate a Buffalo victory, his dominant performance and, of course, Thanksgiving.
“I’m more happy that my people were here to see me have a breakout game,” Oliver said. “It’s crazy. I can’t wait to go outside and holler at them and talk to them. I think they’ve got some food for me, too.”
He feasted all day.