Pressure means a lot of things to the Buffalo Bills defense.
First, foremost and most obvious is the Bills' ability to put an opposing quarterback under pressure, resulting in him either throwing a harried pass or being thrown to the grass.
Another meaning of pressure is the burden the Bills defense carries for the team as a whole. With an offense that averages just 21.6 points per game, the pressure is on the Bills defense to pitch a perfect game so that their team can win.
That's exactly what they've done over the past couple of months, which is why they currently have a shot at making the playoffs. And if they're going to make it over that hump for the first time in a decade and a half, the defense is going to be what gets them there.
That unit has been on an unprecedented run of dominance.
|Buffalo Bills defense, past 8 games|
|Pass TD allowed||3||1|
|Rush TD allowed||10||31|
|Total TD allowed||13||5|
It's been more than one month since the last time the Bills defense allowed a passing touchdown (vs. the Miami Dolphins, November 13). It's been more than two months since the last time they allowed more than 300 passing yards (vs. the New England Patriots, October 12).
Surely, most of the quarterbacks they have faced won't find their faces in Canton at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but some of them might. Two of them, namely Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
To the outside world, these are two of the biggest names in football today, and ever. To the Bills, they're just the guys on the other side of the field.
"We're not going to get caught up in the hoopla of who we're playing or the gauntlet of the quarterbacks because we've played great quarterbacks," said defensive tackle Kyle Williams. "We've played well against great quarterbacks so the only expectation that we had was to play well and to win a football game and we were able to do that today."
That's a playoff mentality. A playoff mentality for a playoff defense. A playoff defense anchored by one of the best defensive lines in football.
The front four has been teeing off on quarterbacks for two years running. Three Bills defensive linemen—Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Jerry Hughes—had 10 sacks or more last year, and if Hughes can notch another half a sack, he will have 10 on the season and it will mark the second straight year with three Bills defenders at or above 10 sacks on the season.
When the defensive line is playing at a high level, everything else falls into place. Both Hughes and Mario Williams rank in the top 10 among 4-3 defensive ends in ProFootballFocus.com's pass-rushing productivity, a statistic which measures pressure created on a per-snap basis. As a unit, the Bills have notched 49 sacks, the most in the NFL, and have sacked the quarterback on 9.1 percent of their opponent's pass plays, the highest percentage in the NFL.
Each defensive lineman has had his time in the sun this season—Dareus is developing into an elite defensive tackle in his third year on the job, and Hughes's moments are well-timed with his contract coming up.
But against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, they proved that their coverage unit can also be a factor in their success. That unit frustrated Rodgers with a physical style of play.
It came as no surprise to Rodgers that the Bills secondary can play that way. Their defensive backs are mostly 6'0" or taller: Stephon Gilmore (6'1"), Corey Graham (6'0") and Aaron Williams (6'0") are the core of the Bills secondary, but even the 5'8", 165-pound Nickell Robey is more physical than he's given credit for.
But the Bills secondary can really spin the dial, from aggressive man-to-man bump-and-run coverage to a read-and-react zone style of defense that allows the secondary to pounce when a quarterback stares down his receiver or throws an errant pass as a result of the pressure up front.
On Sunday, it was a combination of the two, but it was the physicality which really got under Rodgers' skin.
The Bills defense plays a very complementary style. Their defensive front can generate pressure to force errant throws and create opportunities for the defensive backs to jump routes and close in on bad throws; on the back end, the secondary can run and cover when the pass rush isn't getting home, forcing quarterbacks to sit in the pocket and go through their progressions, forcing him to fit the ball into tight windows while also buying time for the front four to bring down the quarterback.
With both units playing at a high level, the Bills could ride their defense to the postseason.
Next week, the Bills travel out west to face the Oakland Raiders (2-12).
The Bills can't afford to take the Raiders lightly, though; they seem to be relishing their role as a spoiler, as they have won two of their past four games against teams that are in the hunt for the playoffs (the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers), and scored 24 points each time. It also bears mentioning that the Raiders followed each win with a blowout loss (52-0 against the St. Louis Rams, 31-13 against the Kansas City Chiefs).
They close out the season with a trip to face Tom Brady and the Patriots (11-3).
The Patriots were the last team to throw for more than 300 yards against the Bills, and they were also the last team to score more than 24 points against them. The two teams were locked in a tight game the last time around, with only nine points separating the teams heading into the fourth quarter before ending in a 15-point Patriots win.
As long as both teams win their matchups this weekend, they will both have a lot to play for—the Bills for a chance to snap their playoff drought, and the Patriots for continued possession of the No. 1 overall seed.
The Bills will need to win out to ensure a playoff spot, but they could back into the postseason with a 9-7 record if they get cooperation from teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins.
If they get there, it will be because their defense played its best ball when it was needed the most, and against some of the best quarterbacks and offenses that the league has to offer.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained via team news release.