Defense key not only to Bills' win over Steelers but also how the playoffs shake out in the AFC in January
The AFC's best defense will likely be the one still standing at the end of the postseason
PITTSBURGH -- All week long, the Buffalo Bills defense listened to the national media talk about the defense they would share the field with during Sunday night's game between two teams fighting for the AFC's last two playoff spots.
When the game was over, the Bills defense was the one that did that talking after forcing five turnovers and four interceptions of Steelers quarterback Devlin "Duck" Hodges in the Bills' 17-10 victory, which clinched Buffalo's second playoff berth in three years.
"We've been hearing about their defense," Bills defensive end Shaq Lawson told reporters from the winning locker room. "We've been hearing about T.J. Watt, all those guys. We ain't getting enough respect. We came out here and played our game."
The Bills' defense did play their game. The NFL's second-ranked scoring defense and third-ranked pass defense entering Sunday night's game, Buffalo allowed just 229 total yards while holding the Steelers to their lowest scoring total since their Week 1 blowout loss to the Patriots. Additionally, the Bills sacked Hodges four times while forcing those four interceptions that included two picks by cornerback Tre'Davious White.
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White's second pick was the first of three fourth-quarter interceptions by the Bills, who entered Sunday's game tied for 10th in the league in forced turnovers. Buffalo actually forced three more turnovers than Pittsburgh, which is second in the NFL with 35 takeaways after recording two turnovers against the Bills.
"It's something that we've focused on all year," linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said of the Bills' focus on forcing turnovers. "(Turnovers) normally come in bunches. So hopefully this starts a trend for us to where we can start consistently getting two to three a game to really help obviously our offense and our team win games."
Another focus for Buffalo's defense was on stopping Hodges, who caught the unit's attention earlier in the week with his apparent failure to properly give them their due.
"(Hodges) had comments at the beginning of the week, (calling us) a normal defense," said Lawson, who recorded a sack of Hodges while also tallying two tackles for loss. "Just a normal defense doesn't catch three or four picks (and record) five sacks. That's not some normal D."
The Bills defense definitely isn't normal, but is it good enough to get Buffalo to its first Super Bowl in over a quarter century? Bills defensive tackle Jordan Phillips didn't exactly say it, but he certainly feels that way.
"We're the best defense in the league, and we put that on display tonight," said Phillips, who led both teams with two sacks. "We work, we play for each other, and at the end of the day, we're just trying to get the chips to fall the way they fell tonight. We needed a big turnover game, and we finally made it happen. We play great defense, but we haven't turned the ball over enough. We did tonight."
Phillips wasn't done with his verbal assault on Hodges, going as far as to openly question whether or not the Steelers may make a change at quarterback for Pittsburgh's next game.
"We definitely heard about, like Shaq said earlier, about how (Hodges) said we're a normal defense, we don't do anything special, and he should be able to handle us, and blah blah blah," Phillips said. "That's just real disrespectful. We'll see if Mason Rudolph starts next week."
A portion of NFL fans -- the ones who like to see high-scoring games -- were likely offended by what they saw Sunday night, as the Bills and Steelers played the type of game that will likely be required by whoever comes out of the AFC this winter. The Bills and Steelers are just two of five AFC defenses that are good enough to lead their teams to the promised land.
The Ravens defense, despite being overshadowed by MVP front-runner Lamar Jackson, has complemented its dynamic offense since the acquisition of cornerback Marcus Peters. The Chiefs, after having one of the league's worst run defenses during the first half of the season, have come on strong during the team's current three-game winning streak. The most consistent defense in the NFL resides in Foxborough, as the Patriots' defense will lead the way if New England is going to become the second team in NFL history to play in four consecutive Super Bowls.
While the Bills' defense spearheaded Buffalo's playoff clinching victory, Pittsburgh's defense put forth another sparkling effort. Steven Nelson's second quarter interception stalled one Bills possession, while Watt's forced fumble of running back Devin Singletary inside Pittsburgh's red zone ended the Bills' first drive of the second half. In all, the Steelers defense held the Bills to just 261 total yards and just 139 yards passing from quarterback Josh Allen.
The main difference in this game was the Steelers' inability to turn their turnovers into points. With their rushing attack stuck in neutral -- the Steelers rushed for just 51 yards on 15 attempts -- Pittsburgh failed to score on either of its forced turnovers. In fact, Pittsburgh turned the ball over itself after getting to Buffalo's 10-yard line following Nelson's second-quarter pick. Instead of getting a momentum-turning score at the end of the half, safety Jordan Hoyer's recovery of a fumble by Pittsburgh rookie receiver Diontae Johnson preserved Buffalo's 7-3 halftime lead.
After allowing their first touchdown of the night (the Steelers marched 69 yards in just seven plays on the opening drive of the second half), the Bills' defense responded with a forced punt (following Watt's forced fumble) and White's interception that set up Stephen Hauschka's game-tying field goal with 12:27 left.
The Bills' defense didn't waste any time getting the ball back to their offense. After Lawson helped force a punt by tackling Steelers running back James Conner for a 7-yard loss, Buffalo's offense marched 70 yards on six plays while taking the lead for good on Tyler Kroft's 14-yard touchdown reception with 7:55 left. While Allen contributed on both of Buffalo's touchdowns (he opened the scoring with a one-yard run in the first quarter), he was complemented by a Bills rushing attack that ran for 130 yards on 31 carries, with Singletary cutting and slicing through Pittsburgh's defense for 87 of those yards.
"(The Steelers defense was) overflowing a lot, but the O-line definitely was getting a lot of push and just creating lanes, even the receivers was getting blocks on the second level, so it was really easy," Singletary said after the game.
Don't take Singletary's "really easy" quote as a shot at Pittsburgh's defense, as he was also asked if the Steelers have one of the best defenses he's faced this season.
"I would say so, definitely," said Singletary, who specifically pointed to the Steelers' defensive front as the best part of the unit.
Buffalo's defense then closed the door, recording two interceptions of Hodges on Pittsburgh's final two possessions. Poyer came up with an end zone interception of Hodges on fourth-and-7 with 1:23 remaining, while cornerback Levi Wallace iced the game with his pick of Hodges with six seconds left.
"We knew that (turnovers) were gonna be a big part of the game," Lawson said. "Both teams were trying to make the playoffs so we knew it was gonna be a defensive game. Whoever created turnovers was gonna win."
Lawson believes that forcing turnovers will continue to be key as December turns into January.
"You gotta win the turnover margin," Lawson said. "Every team that wins the Super Bowl and the playoff games, they win the turnover margin."
Like the Bills, the Steelers' defense agreed after the game with the notion that defense will likely determine which AFC contender will find its way to Miami for Super Bowl LIV.
"You look at the seedings, I don't think there's a bad defense in there," said Steelers defensive captain Cameron Heyward. "These (games) are gonna come down to critical plays and which defense can get the most stops. I know everybody gets hyped for offensive plays and touchdowns, but any Super Bowl winning teams, you gotta have some type of defense. You look at the last Super Bowl, (Patriots cornerback) Stephon Gilmore plays a great game. Defenses are gonna win the Super Bowl, hands down. There's good (defenses) in the NFC, there's good ones in the AFC, but to get into the playoffs, we gotta play better defense, because of that."
Cornerback Mike Hilton, who recovered Watt's forced fumble of Singletary that Pittsburgh's offense was unable to parlay into points, also acknowledged that for the Steelers to get to where they want to go, their defense can't afford to have a bad game.
"When you get down to this part of the season, defense usually wins championships," Hilton said. "In this playoff race, there's a lot of good defenses, so we may run into a couple."
Heyward knows that, despite his unit's solid effort Sunday night, their effort wasn't ultimately good enough.
"I think the offense did great; they gave us the lead," Heyward said. "It was 10-7 at one point, and we gave up a field goal, and then we had them third-and-15. What defense wouldn't want to be in that situation?
"I'm not looking for our offense to be this crazy offense where they have to score 50 points. As a defense, to get to where we want to get to, we gotta get the stops. It's as simple as that."
Unlike 2017, when the Bills clinched their first playoff berth in 18 years, Buffalo's locker room Sunday night was much more subdued. Philips said that the more somber tone was because for this Bills' team, making the playoffs is no longer the goal but the expectation. The Bills have their sights set on bigger things, which includes a win against the division rival Patriots in Foxborough next Sunday.
Frank Gore, the Bills' 36-year-old running back who played on a Super Bowl team seven years ago, knows that it takes a great defense to have a shot at a Super Bowl ring. Gore was part of a 49ers team that boasted a great defense that fell just short in Super Bowl XLVII.
When asked if Gore see similar greatness in this Bills defense, his smile all but answered the question.
"Our defense is tough, man," Gore said. "I knew it was tough since training camp. A very physical group, and it showed tonight."
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