The Von Miller injury and where the Bills go from here: 7 observations from win over Lions


After a week that included a massive snowstorm, digging out of said snowstorm, an uprooted home game, four flights and two games in Detroit in five days, the Bills will likely arrive at their homes and take a deep breath from exhaustion above all else. They managed to shake off an, at times, lifeless effort on Thanksgiving to snare a win over the Lions just before the clock expired.

Kicker Tyler Bass sent a 45-yard field goal through the uprights with only two seconds remaining, giving the Bills a 28-25 victory over the Lions and an 8-3 record. The Bills have played in three Thanksgiving Day games under coach Sean McDermott and with quarterback Josh Allen, and the Bills have won all three.

What stood out from the Bills’ victory on Thursday? Here are seven observations from another day in Detroit.

1. The offense awoke from a zombie state in the second half

Over the Bills’ final two offensive series, Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs and the group were simply marvelous. They gained a total of 131 yards, averaged 7.8 yards per play and didn’t face a single third down as Allen completed 8 of 9 passes for 85 yards and a touchdown. Allen also added another 30 yards on the ground, with three of those four runs resulting in a first down. How he and Diggs took over that late-game situation can’t be understated. Diggs was seen on the broadcast screaming to Allen, “I told you! I got you,” in celebration of their go-ahead touchdown connection to take a 25-22 lead. That late effort inevitably stole a win from a Lions team that seemed to deserve more from the game.

But there was something inherently broken about the Bills’ offense for an extended stretch leading up to those two drives. They went from looking on the cusp of pulling away after the first half to needing the defense to bail them out repeatedly. Until those final two drives, the Bills’ defense outscored the offense 2-0 in the second half. They managed only 88 yards on 24 plays, and 30 of those were gained on one play. On the other 23 snaps, the Bills averaged a putrid 2.5 yards per play. Allen was way off and completed just 6 of 15 passes for 54 yards and an interception, and it seemed like each time Allen misfired, CBS analyst Tony Romo would pelt viewers with his belief that the elbow injury was playing a role. If a fan took a shot every time Romo said it, well, let’s just say there might not have been many memories of Thanksgiving dinner.

Allen’s accuracy was off, there were mental errors from his teammates, the pass blocking up front appeared sub-standard and every time the Lions held the Bills from adding to their lead, their confidence grew that they could steal a win against the mighty Bills. The offense hasn’t had a full-game consistent effort since before their bye week, and in the last two weeks, they’ve been against two previously struggling defenses. They have looked severely disjointed since that week off, which has left them susceptible to tight games and coinflip outcomes down the stretch of contests. While the optimist might say that the Bills are getting a healthy dose of what winning in the playoffs could look like, the pessimist would point out that only one team of their last five opponents is presently in a playoff position. With what projects to be a semi-normal full week ahead of their Thursday night tilt with the Patriots, the Bills and offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey have to find a way to limit these extended in-game doldrums from stealing a victory away from the team.

2. The Von Miller injury and where the Bills go from here

The defense gave the offense every opportunity to wake up in the second half, and they had to do so without star defensive end Von Miller, who suffered a knee injury in the second quarter, was carted up the ramp to the locker room and the Bills immediately ruled him out for the remainder of the game. Whenever it’s an immediate rule out during a game, it’s usually never a good sign. Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported that the initial diagnosis was a sprain, but a more serious injury has yet to be ruled out. Regardless, the Bills will likely have to do without Miller for at least a little time and under the current state of their defensive end room, that’s a problem.

The Bills were already without starter Greg Rousseau and top rotational defensive end A.J. Epenesa for the Lions game due to ankle injuries. Add Miller to that, they will need to depend on Shaq Lawson, Boogie Basham and possibly practice squad edge rushers Mike Love and Kingsley Jonathan. The Bills effectively ruled out Epenesa early in the week ahead of the Lions game but didn’t do the same with Rousseau. And on Tuesday ahead of practice, coach Sean McDermott didn’t initially include Rousseau with the non-participants. Epenesa was also only listed as ‘doubtful’ for the game, which means that even if the odds were slim, there was a non-zero chance that he could play. Given those context clues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if either of those players tried to get back in time for the Patriots game next week.



Bills’ Von Miller out vs. Detroit with knee injury

But that’s just the short term. The long-term implications of not having Miller for the rest of the season would be extreme. He has been the difference maker on the defensive line all season, the closer when the defense needs a play, and all the attention he garners from the offense frees up his teammates to make an impact in the pocket. Rousseau has taken a nice step in his second season, but he is not the matchup-proof, game-changing pass rusher that Miller provides to the team. Epenesa has been solid as an all-around defensive end, but he’s been hit or miss as a consistent pressure-creating presence.

Instead, the Bills would need to turn back the clock to the pre-Miller years and depend on their outstanding depth at defensive tackle to force the issue in the pocket. But if they lost Miller for the season, it would be a significant blow to their Super Bowl dreams. He was supposed to be the difference-maker, and instead, they’ll just need to depend that much more on the linebackers, the secondary and Josh Allen to put them over the top in the postseason. But that’s the worst-case scenario. The first step is to see what the MRI says on Friday.

3. Oliver steps up

Defensive tackle Ed Oliver has turned it into a Thanksgiving Day tradition. Oliver has been a star all three times the Bills have played on Thanksgiving over the last four years, showing his tantalizing potential by dominating a matchup with big plays. This year was no different, with Oliver punishing the Lions’ backup guards with regularity. The stats were excellent as Oliver collected a sack, two tackles for loss, forced and recovered a fumble on the same play and played a whopping 67 percent of defensive snaps. His run-defending is also a vastly underrated part of his game, and in the first half, the Bills allowed only 2.3 yards per carry when Oliver was on the field.

Moving forward, especially if the Bills are without Miller for an extended period, Oliver becomes the most important piece of their defensive line. He can take over games in the way he did against the Lions, as his speed, violent hands, strength and balance all made him a borderline unblockable asset for the Lions on Thursday. Oliver has already had a good season to this point and is a critical piece of their defense this year and in the future, but the Bills are going to need him to become the dominant force that he has flashed in spots throughout his career. They will need him to become the team’s new closer, either bringing down the quarterback or setting up his teammates to do so moving forward. The Lions’ game was an excellent start for Oliver in the Bills’ first extended time without Miller.

4. A hidden hero: Boogie Basham

As Miller left the game with a knee injury, that left the Bills with only three active defensive ends for the remainder of the contest. That group included Boogie Basham, Shaq Lawson and practice squad call-up Mike Love, but it was Basham that had to play a gargantuan role down the stretch. After Miller went out, Basham played on 37 of the remaining 39 snaps — 95 percent — by our unofficial count. By the Bills’ standards, that’s a playtime rate that has rarely been seen because of how much they value a healthy rotation at the defensive end position. But because it was a close game, and they have never played Love in an extended appearance, Basham was the player they trusted to get them to the end of the game. That type of effort isn’t on the stat sheet but one that the players and coaches will remember for quite a while.

5. One step forward, two steps back for Cook

Last week against the Browns, it seemed like a potential turning point in James Cook’s rookie season. He had three carries of over 10 yards and had his best rushing performance of his young professional career. But in another plum matchup, Cook was a non-factor on his touches, and, worse yet, he made some mental mistakes that were quite costly to the Bills in the second half. On the Bills’ second drive of the second half, Cook made it look like he was going to continue his route to his right and then stopped it short. The only problem was that Allen also bit on the fake and threw a pass that nearly ended up in his second interception in as many drives. On second-and-10 the following drive, Allen delivered a pass to Cook that could have helped on their third down efforts, to which Cook bobbled and dropped the ball for an incompletion.

The Bills couldn’t deal with those mental mistakes any longer, and Cook did not play another snap the rest of the game. From that point forward, the next 27 snaps all had Devin Singletary on the field with the offense, perhaps furthering the divide between the two players just a little bit. Cook has the speed and explosiveness that can provide a different look from Singletary, but they can’t trust Cook in more than just a 10-to-20 snap role for the time being. And while deadline acquisition Nyheim Hines saw some early work and played on four of the team’s first 11 snaps, he did not get an offensive snap for the rest of the game. It remains Singletary’s backfield until Cook or Hines gives them reason to do anything else.

6. White ramps up as Jackson concerns grow

It was slightly cruel for the Bills to lose Miller to a knee injury on the same day last year that they lost star cornerback Tre’Davious White. But on the bright side for the Bills, White made his long-awaited return to game action from a year-long rehab for a torn ACL. White was with the starting defense and played the first two series as the Bills hoped to get him re-acclimated to a game setting for the stretch run of the season. Those first two series was the plan all along, according to the Bills, as they continue to ramp him up to a likely eventual full-time starter. In his 17 snaps (two of which were penalty plays), the Lions did not try to test White. We’ll take a closer look at White when the coaches’ film comes out this weekend for our All-22 review, but it was mostly a sound debut.

The Bills also showed their hand as to what the defense would look like with White back in a full-time role, and that includes Dane Jackson as the starting cornerback. Jackson played the entire game for the Bills while rookies Christian Benford and Kaiir Elam rotated with one another once White’s day was done. Jackson has been an every-snap player for all the games he was available, so it’s not a big surprise that was their initial plan. But Jackson has really struggled in recent weeks, with teams spotting him as a liability both against a deceptive release from the line of scrimmage and at the catch point, even with solid enough coverage. The boundary cornerback position seems extremely unsettled at the moment, and the Bills need one of Jackson, Benford, Elam or practice squad cornerback Xavier Rhodes to rise above the rest before the playoffs arrive.

7. Klein was an improvement, but the Bills badly miss Edmunds

The Bills claimed linebacker A.J. Klein off waivers only one week ago, but they likely felt the backup linebacker role was in such a precarious position that they needed to use him in the starting lineup immediately. Klein played in place of the injured Tremaine Edmunds and provided a slight boost from what the Bills received from Tyrel Dodson over the last game-and-a-half. His stop of D’Andre Swift in the flat on the Lions’ final drive was a great example of the improvement he provided over Dodson. But it still wasn’t perfect, as the Lions picked on the middle of the field with Amon-Ra St. Brown, and Klein was just a step slow on some coverage reps. The more significant point is that with every game that Edmunds misses, it becomes more apparent how important he is to their overall success of the defense. And the more time Edmunds misses, the stronger the case gets for them to re-sign him to a long-term contract extension.

Bills MVP: WR Stefon Diggs – Diggs’ second half helped save the game for the Bills, as he helped keep the entire team going with his energy and ability. The Bills likely don’t win that game without Diggs.

Bills LVP: Injuries – The Bills lost Von Miller and left tackle Dion Dawkins to injuries Thursday, adding two more high-profile names to their lengthy injury list. Even unprompted, Allen alluded to needing some teammates back from injury during his post-game news conference, a departure from the usual refrain of ‘next man up.’

Up Next: The 8-3 Bills get a full week between games, likely without a snowstorm, before hitting the road for a third straight game away from home. They’ll take on the Patriots in a pivotal AFC East battle.

Final Thoughts

The Bills deserve credit for how they navigated the last week and managed to come away with two wins despite some legitimate disadvantages facing them. The way they came together on offense at the end is the sign of a great team refusing to give away a game. But even with that acknowledgment, the Lions unexpectedly were the better team for much of the game on Thursday. Even on a short week, the Bills were the more talented team and facing a Lions squad down their best cornerback, but left far too many drives and opportunities on the table. There is a slight concern about the offense and their consistency moving forward, along with injuries continuing to play a factor. These are questions they’ll need to answer moving forward.

Regardless, the Bills collected their eighth victory of the season and remained firmly in the race for the AFC’s top seed. As we saw, it won’t always be a perfect scenario, and great teams have to find a way to win even when they aren’t the best team on the field. The Bills narrowly avoided their third loss in four weeks, but on the bright side, they are winning many more one-score games than they had in previous years. Most importantly, with their late-game heroics, they’ve put themselves in the driver’s seat for the AFC East with three huge contests on the horizon. The next three weeks is their most critical stretch of games remaining this season. If they capitalize against the Patriots, Jets and Dolphins, the Bills could find themselves back on track for the AFC playoffs to go through Buffalo.

(Photo of Von Miller: David Reginek / USA Today)


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