JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — In a nearly empty Buffalo Bills locker room Sunday afternoon, Aaron Williams stood shirtless, dress pants on and arms outstretched, as trainers wrapped gauze around, around and around his sore ribs.
Williams got knocked around but was still standing, just like the entire Bills’ defense in Sunday’s 27-20 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Buffalo defense gave up 159 rushing yards to a Jaguars team that ranked 32nd in the league in rushing and was without its star running back. The Jags ranked last in the NFL on third downs, too, yet managed to convert 8 of 15 third-down plays against the Bills. And the Bills were on the verge of giving up an 80-yard, game-tying touchdown drive in the final four minutes.
Buffalo’s “D,” however, got just enough big plays — including four turnovers — to pull its collective butt out of the fire and preserve the victory.
“We’ve been in these games throughout the year and come out on the short side of it,” said Bills coach Doug Marrone, whose team improved to 5-9. “I give the players credit for hanging in there today.”
“Stats are stats but at the end of the day, we got the win and that’s all that really matters,” Bills linebacker Jerry Hughes said.
The three biggest defensive plays of the game were made, in order, by Williams, Jim Leonhard and Stephon Gilmore.
Williams, the Bills’ third-year safety, forced a fumble with an extra-effort play that saved a touchdown in the third quarter.
Jacksonville running back Denard Robinson sliced through the left side of the Buffalo defense on what was about to be a 25-yard touchdown run. It would have pulled the Jags within 20-17.
But Williams punched the ball out of Robinson’s hands at the 1. It bounced out the back of the end zone for a touchback.
“I was man-up on the guy in the slot on the other side,” Williams said. “They went the opposite way and I just had to hustle over there. I saw he was a little loose with the ball, and I just tried to be aggressive with it and slam the ball and hopefully it would come out.”
“Aaron Williams ran, and I mean he hustled his butt off and caused that fumble,” Marrone said.
“Huge play, huge play,” Hughes said. “I felt like that really turned the game around. That play, along with Jimmy Leonhard’s play. That was a big-time play.”
Protecting a 27-20 lead in the middle of the fourth quarter, the Bills allowed Jaguars quarterback Chad Henne to march his team from his own 20 to the Buffalo 1 with 3:59 left.
On first and goal, Jacksonville running back Jordan Todman, subbing for injured star Maurice Jones-Drew, took a pitch wide to the right but Leonhard sliced through the line of scrimmage and spilled him for a 4-yard loss.
Two plays later, Henne spread five receivers out and threw to the left side of the end zone for receiver Mike Brown, who was covered by Nickell Robey. Gilmore was covering Todman, who had lined up outside Brown. Gilmore left his man and made an easy interception in the back of the end zone of the pass, which was overthrown.
The Bills rushed only three men on the play and dropped eight into zone coverage.
“They had the back out wide, and I was guarding the back,” Gilmore said. “But I knew they weren’t going to throw it to the back. They were going to throw it to the No. 2, the receiver. So I sloughed off and picked it off. I was reading the quarterback.”
Henne thought Robey held up Brown.
“I just saw Mike Brown being held,” he said. “My job is to throw it where he’s supposed to be, and obviously they didn’t see it.”
The Bills got two other turnovers that were important, too.
On the third play from scrimmage, Williams made a nice grab of a Henne pass intended for tight end Marcedes Lewis. He returned it to the Jacksonville 25, and it set up a Bills field goal.
Late in the first half, Robey stripped Brown of the ball after a completion at the Buffalo 38. Robey recovered it, too. That set up the Bills for a field goal at the end of the half.
The Bills improved their season interception total to 20, third best in the league.
They had five sacks of Henne to push their league-best total to 49, even with the official team record.
That was the good news. The bad was that without any one of those turnovers, the Bills may well have lost.
The Bills’ run defense continues to be gashed by long gainers. Todman victimized a Bills blitz by gaining 33 yards on a third-quarter scamper that led to a field goal. Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso blitzed off right tackle, but the Jags made a crease in the Bills’ front line and Todman burst off left guard.
“You over-run a gap, you miss a tackle, someone should be in there,” Marrone said. “Give credit, they ran the ball well.”
“You have to be in those seams when it comes open,” Marrone said. “When we do it well we get a lot of tackles for losses, no gains. When we don’t fit it, we get hurt bad.”
Third downs hurt the defense, too. The Bills entered the game ranked 16th on third-down defense. But they were 30th in situations of third-and-8 or more.
Sure enough, when they got the Jags in obvious passing situations, they often could not take advantage. Jacksonville converted 6 of 11 on plays of third-and-7 or more.
“Obviously you will have some questions about some areas that we did bad in,” Marrone said. “But we are going to enjoy this win.”
“It feels good we finally got a win,” receiver Robert Woods said. “And it doesn’t matter if it was offense or defense or special teams that did it, we finally got a win.”