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Analysis: Bills' defense went light vs. Niners' big run sets and got job done

Analysis: Bills' defense went light vs. Niners' big run sets and got job done

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The Buffalo Bills opted to stay in nickel defense personnel and got the job done against the 49ers Monday night.

The final numbers for the Buffalo Bills’ defense were not beautiful.

The Bills gave up 402 yards to a Niners’ offense averaging 363 a game.

However, the Bills’ defense passed a tough running-game test in the 34-24 victory in Arizona.

The Bills managed to stuff the run – a 3-yard gain or less – on 11 of 21 carries. That included three tackles for loss, three no-gainers and two 1-yard gains.

“We came in with the mindset that we wanted to play physical and attack and play aggressive, and that’s what it showed tonight,” said Bills safety Jordan Poyer.

The worry entering the game was the Niners’ use of heavy formations – two running backs or two tight ends – would bully a Bills’ defensive front that has been vulnerable.

The Bills entered the game ranked 25th in the NFL vs. the run, allowing 129 yards a game.

Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier trusted nickel back Taron Johnson to play the entire game as a hybrid linebacker/slot defender.

Frazier did not opt to use three linebackers in the base, 4-3 front on one play, even though San Francisco used bigger personnel on 31 of 60 offensive snaps.

It’s a testament to the coaches’ confidence in Johnson’s toughness and tackling ability, which arguably are among his best traits.

The Bills’ “light defense” strategy worked in part because the defensive tackles – especially Ed Oliver and Vernon Butler – won enough interior battles on the line of scrimmage.

It also worked because middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds played another strong game, and the Bills got good tackling from their defensive backs.

“I thought it was big that we were able to establish the line of scrimmage and set the edges,” coach Sean McDermott said. “Leslie Frazier and his staff and the players executed extremely well. There's some meat on the bone at the end of the game there. We have to get off the field. Those are some of the things we can learn from going forward.”

The Niners rushed for 86 yards on 21 carries, a 4.1-yard average.

Lead rusher Raheem Mostert averaged 4.7 yards on nine carries, and backup runner Jeff Wilson Jr. averaged 6.7 yards on seven carries. Pretty good, for the Niners.

With star fullback Kyle Juszczyk on the field in two-back sets the Niners averaged 4.1 yards a carry. Good, but not the dominant production they needed to support young quarterback Nick Mullens.

Key defensive run stuffs included:

• Back-to-back goal-line tackles by Edmunds at the 1-yard line to force a turnover on downs on the Niners’ first series.

• A 2-yard tackle for loss early on Mostert when Oliver crashed the backfield, and run-dogging Johnson assisted.

• A toss-sweep run stuff by Edmunds, with a stout edge set by A.J. Epenesa and edge support by Johnson.

• A 9-yard tackle for loss by Daryl Johnson, who was too quick for an attempted crackback block by the receiver and took down Mostert. The play forced a Niners field goal in the third quarter.

• A 2-yard tackle for loss by Butler, who split a double team on the goal line.

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Bills/NFL writer

Gaughan's insight is featured in the "PlayAction" video series, providing analysis to get Bills fans ready for the next game. He is past president of the Pro Football Writers of America and served as a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector for 12 years.

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