Quite frankly, the play didn’t look all that promising.
On the Buffalo Bills’ second offensive snap last Sunday, quarterback Josh Allen dumped the ball off to running back Devin Singletary in the left flat.
Singletary made the catch at the line of scrimmage, which was the Bills’ 39-yard line, and turned up field. Patriots safety Kyle Dugger was there to meet him at the Bills’ 42-yard line, and at that moment, the play looked as if it were over.
Singletary, however, had other ideas. He lowered his head and plowed forward, literally with Dugger on his back. Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower then arrived at the Bills’ 47-yard line. Singletary still wasn’t finished, though. Hightower bounced off the Bills’ running back and landed right on his seat, before Dugger finally wrestled Singletary out of bounds after an 11-yard gain produced perhaps the hardest-earned first down of the Bills’ season.
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Singletary got the ball on the next three plays, too, rushing for 3 yards, catching another first-down pass with a gain of 8 yards and then rushing for 3 more yards.
Ultimately, the possession ended with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Isaiah McKenzie on a fourth-and-2 play, capping a drive that lasted 13 plays and covered 61 yards and took 8 minutes, 23 seconds off the clock.
“By him converting that one, and the power that he showed on the finish of that run, that just got our whole team going and it enabled us to go down and score, actually,” Bills running backs coach Kelly Skipper said in a phone conversation with The Buffalo News on Friday. “He had a couple checkdowns that he took on that drive where he finished, he was breaking tackles, just that energy uplifted our whole team.”
Instead of third-and-7 from their side of the field, the Bills were put in a good position thanks to Singletary’s refusal to be tackled.
“I loved it,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said Wednesday. “That’s one of my favorite plays of the year for me. I think that’s a signature statement on his part. That says a lot. I think it’s just leadership by example more than anything.”
Singletary went on to have another productive game, finishing with 12 carries for 39 yards and a touchdown and making five catches for another 39 yards in the Bills’ biggest win of season.
Over the past two weeks, Singletary has logged 34 carries that have produced 125 yards and two touchdowns. That’s a big step in production, especially considering he had that many carries over a five-game stretch from Weeks 5-11 that saw him reach the end zone just once.
"That consistency has been good to see. It's clear he's raised his game and he's raised his level of play to a standard that we've been looking for,” McDermott said. “At the same time, I think he's challenged everybody on the offense with his level of play and his consistency. So, he’s played bigger. He's not a real big guy, but he plays bigger and he gives tremendous effort. And I think he inspires people by that.”
A physical edge
It’s true that at just 5-foot-7 and 203 pounds, Singletary isn’t the biggest player on the field, but as dragging Dugger would attest, he’s not afraid of physical contact.
“Squat rack. He was in the squat rack, pulling sleds and just getting stronger this offseason, man,” said Nick Hicks, the co-owner and director of PER4ORM Sports and Fitness Training in Davie, Fla., where Singletary trains in the offseason. “I've got some videos of him squatting, like, 465 with chains. I mean, just explosive moving. That's exactly what that is. That's how it translates. Just being extremely powerful. That play exemplified just that.”
Against the Patriots, nearly all of Singletary’s 39 rushing yards came between the tackles. He’s demonstrated several times this season he’s not afraid of contact, in any form.
“Devin, I can't say enough how reliable he is,” Allen said after the win. “He's smart. If you watch him on any given play, whether he gets the ball or not, he is around the ball. He is helping the pile. He was following the ball in case someone fumbles.
“He just does everything the right way. He's everything you want in a running back. And again, he's had his opportunities this year and today he had some good ones. My mind goes to that first series play – he catches the (ball in the) flat 2 yards downfield and he turns it into a first down. … Obviously, the touchdown run, just some tough yards and again when you have someone that you can rely on him that much – I've got so much faith in him and I'm so happy that he's shining."
Skipper provided an example of what Allen was referring to. After McKenzie made a diving catch on the Bills’ sideline to get the ball into New England territory on the biggest drive of the game as the Bills would answer after the Patriots had cut the lead to 26-21, Singletary was the first one there to greet the receiver. He went to help him up, only to learn that McKenzie was hurt (he ended up knocking the wind out of himself on the catch).
“I think the biggest thing is he's a team player,” Skipper said. “You always got to be ready when it's your opportunity, you've got to seize the moment. He stays ready. He plays snap to whistle. His effort without the ball is outstanding. If there's a ball thrown down the field, he's there to pick that guy up or get an extra block to spring him. … His effort, his hustle, is just outstanding.
“He does that every day in practice, so just the repetitions he's getting have become habit in the game. It's really paid off for him. He practices that way, and now with the more opportunities he's getting, he's really starting to elevate his game.”
Singletary, who doesn’t always have the most to say, was to the point when asked what hearing McDermott call his completion against the Patriots one of his favorite plays of the season meant to him.
“It means you’re doing something right,” he said.
'We're going to be violent'
As for the message it sent, he was more forthcoming.
“I guess for the team, it was just, 'We're going to be violent.' That's the mindset we're coming out with. 'Shoot, let's go. Let's keep applying that pressure all game,'” he said. “For me, it was just, 'Make something happen when I get an opportunity – whatever it may be.’ That was my mindset. When I watched it after the game, when I got a chance to sit down and watch it, I'm like, 'Dang, that was a pretty nice play.' "
“Turned a third-and-long into a first down. That'll definitely make you feel good.”
Singletary’s recent surge has pushed his season totals to 146 carries for 672 yards and four rushing touchdowns – which matches the amount he had in his first two professional seasons. With a big game against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, he could potentially match his rushing output of 775 yards during his rookie season in 2019.
“Just keep on stacking those good days on good days. Whatever I'm doing is working,” he said of his recent involvement. “The hard work started back in the offseason. Of course when you get in here starting with OTAs and training camp, you just want to keep on building, keep on finding ways to get better. That's what we do in this world. We're chasing improvement. You never want to feel like 'I've arrived, this is it.' You always want to chase improvement. That mindset right there, that has helped me. That's really what it's been – just keep on chasing improvement.”
The low point for Singletary was one shared by the entire team. Against Jacksonville in Week 9, he rushed for just 16 yards on six carries. His yardage total and yards per rush (2.67) were both the lowest of the season. A couple of weeks later, Singletary rushed for just 17 yards on three carries in the worst loss of the season, to the Indianapolis Colts.
“That's how the NFL is. It's up and down each week,” Skipper said. “You've got to be ready whether you get 30 carries or two carries, it doesn't matter. You've got to make the most of them. ... When it's time to make a play, you've got to be available to take care of business.”
Singletary has learned that lesson – sometimes the hard way.
“Just stay the course. It's a long season. It's going to take all of us to get where we're trying to go. That was in my mind,” he said. “Like I said, man, just keep chasing improvement. That's really what it was during that time, and it's still that way.”
Singletary said he relied on Skipper during those tough times, but his team-first approach also showed itself.
“Even the guys in our room, even though we're ‘quote-unquote competing,’ we're still brothers, man,” he said. “We're out here grinding, going through this together. I can lean on those guys.”
Singletary wasn’t solely to blame for the Bills’ struggles in the run game. The offensive line failed to execute far too often, and both Zack Moss and Matt Breida have had their issues, as well. The Bills, though, are going to need that trio to produce going forward. The No. 1 rushing attack in the NFL isn’t a requirement, but a running game that is at least respectable is important.
“As far as the outside noise, it might come up here and there, but that's not our focus,” Singletary said. “Outside noise is always going to be outside noise. No matter how it's going – if it's going good, if it's going bad, you know, if it's just an OK day – everybody's not going to be happy as far as the outside noise, but for us, it's just, ‘Stick to it, let's prove to them that we belong, that we can be a factor in the offense.’ That's what we were preaching to each other, no matter who it may be. It can be two of us, one of us, whoever it is, let's make something happen.”
“That running back room is close,” Skipper said. “They're all competing, but they're cheering for each other in the same way. I think that's huge. Everybody gets along. They're working toward a common goal. There are no egos. It's all about the team. If you can put team first, then special things can happen.”
The Bills hope that’s the case. If the Bills can handle their business in the final two games of the regular season, starting Sunday against the Falcons, they’ll repeat as AFC East champions and host at least one playoff game. With as wide open as the AFC has been all season, who knows after that?
The last couple of weeks have shown Singletary figures to be a big part of whatever the Bills do in the postseason – should they get there.
“He's all gas, no brakes all the time,” Hicks said. “I feel like he's always got something to prove – like he's not done. That's what he brought to us every single session this year. You can literally see it in that play.”
His individual effort against the Patriots showed that.
“I think what's happened now, he's getting more opportunities, whether it be in the run or pass game,” Skipper said. “The more you progress in the season, like we're doing, this is where you want to be your best. Finishing off the season, when you try to get into the playoffs and try to make a run, you've got to be at your best down the stretch, and that's what we need right now.”