Let’s hear it for some big-time defense.
In a league where points are once again on a record pace and no lead seems safe, the Buffalo Bills were not about to go out on Sunday in Las Vegas as somebody’s victim in a big comeback job.
Not after the experience of the previous week against the Rams, when a second-half collapse by the defense nearly turned into a disaster.
That’s as essential of an explanation as any for the scrappy Bills earning a 30-23 victory against the Raiders that secured the franchise’s first 4-0 start since 2008.
Here’s what it looked like in the fourth quarter, when the Raiders kept threatening to take control of the game’s momentum … only to have the door slammed shut by Buffalo’s high-energy defense on three consecutive drives:
• First, it was Josh Norman punching the ball out of tight end Darren Waller’s hand in the open field, then pouncing on the fumble to snuff out the drive. It was a textbook example of a cornerback using savvy, angles and instincts at the perfect time.
• The next Raiders drive ended on fourth-and-1 from the Las Vegas 34. Nearly 10 minutes remained on the clock, but Raiders coach Jon Gruden went for it, anyway. Ed Oliver, the burly defensive tackle, made him pay for that decision by shedding a block and stonewalling Josh Jacobs as on an off-tackle run.
• Then it was Quinton Jefferson’s turn. The defensive tackle slapped at the football during his rush as the pocket collapsed on Derek Carr. Like Norman, Jefferson recovered the fumble, too, with about five minutes remaining.
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Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson (90) celebrates with cornerback Josh Norman (29) and defensive end Trent Murphy (93) after a fumble recovery in the fourth quarter against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium. (Photo: Kirby Lee, Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
No, perfection is not a one-man show. It is usually about complementary football, as the defensive unit constructed by Sean McDermott and coordinated by Leslie Frazier reminded us of at the glitzy new Allegiant Stadium.
“The mentality changed,” McDermott said. “Leslie dialed up some good defenses in the second half and the guys responded.”
Sure, Josh Allen, the third-year quarterback, deserves much credit for raising his game to another level this season. He continued his sizzling start on Sunday, throwing for 288 yards and 2 TDs, plus punching in another touchdown on a sneak.
After Norman’s fumble recovery, Allen took the next snap and launched a dime to Stefon Diggs for a 49-yard completion that set up Buffalo’s last touchdown. That’s complementary football. Give the ball back to Allen, he’ll make something happen – and so, too, will Diggs, who tallied 115 yards off six receptions on Sunday and is the big-play weapon that was desired by Buffalo when he was obtained from the Vikings in an offseason trade.
But this goes both ways. Buffalo’s hard-nosed defense is a perfect match for Allen, the strapping young passer whose physicality goes far beyond his strong arm.
This point was hammered home after Allen was taken to the locker room late in the second quarter, having left the field in pain with an apparent injury to his left shoulder. Allen was shaken up after he scrambled to extend a play and was sandwiched by two defenders before shoveling a desperation pass to Diggs.
A few minutes later, Allen was back on the sideline. He never missed an offensive snap.
“He’s a competitive sucker,” McDermott said.
It helped that his defense had his back, setting a tone early by forcing the Raiders to settle for field goals while the Bills turned their early drives into touchdowns.
And this time, the Bills' defense was all too game to play with a lead. They’ll probably never forget the Week 3 experience against the Rams, when Buffalo blew a 25-point lead and won only after Allen and Co. pulled off a last-minute rally.
The unit used a different script, too, to finish off the Raiders.
“Coach kept saying, ‘Somebody make a play!’ “ Norman recalled.
Turns out, he was eager to leave such a mark in his Bills debut.
"The mentality,” McDermott said, “that’s part of what Josh brings to this team.”
The forced fumble was also a second-chance scenario. Earlier in the game, Norman tried to rip the ball away from Waller while trying to make a tackle and failed on both counts.
"He just shrugged me off, like a big, 6-6 guy would do if you don’t wrap him up,” Norman said. “I was kind of pissed off.”
In making amends, Norman went for the football as the tight end was wrapped up by safety Jordan Poyer. Jackpot.
“Josh really ignited the turnover situation,” McDermott said.
The Bills will take it. Especially these days, when timely, big-play defense in the NFL is at such a premium.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.
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