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Graham: How the Bills backups proved their mettle with Jacoby Brissett stuffing


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All of them were second-stringers, substitutes, names we don’t hear in pregame introductions.

From left to right along the Buffalo Bills’ defensive line, four backups squatted into their stances, fully aware what the Cleveland Browns were about to try.

The Browns didn’t care their plans were known. Defenses hadn’t stopped them yet. On quarterback keepers, Jacoby Brissett was perfect all season on third-and-1 and failed once on fourth-and-1. He’s the NFL’s most effective sneakmeister.

“Jacoby Brissett,” said Bills edge rusher Von Miller, “is one of the slipperiest quarterbacks.”

And across the line was a row of Bills subs: Boogie Basham at left end, Tim Settle and Jordan Phillips at defensive tackle, Shaq Lawson at right end.

They buried Brissett twice, snatched Cleveland’s soul and propelled Buffalo to a 31-23 victory Sunday at Ford Field.

The sequence was crucial. Buffalo led 16-10 with about six minutes left in the third quarter, but hadn’t been crisp against opponents who had lost five of its previous six games.

Perhaps the stress of digging from beneath 77 inches of snow in Orchard Park and all the aggravation from abruptly schlepping 270 miles to Detroit took too big a toll on the weary “home team” looking to recover from a two-game skid.

The Bills were pushed backward. They committed penalties. Grateful, the Browns reached the 27-yard line and needed a couple inches for another first down.

Turned out, after the week these weathered Bills endured, there was no way Brissett could burrow through them.

“We have that killer instinct,” Basham said. “We got that look in our eyes. Nothing else needs to be said.

“The second group of guys, we all approach our jobs like starters. That’s our mind frame. We love being out there in critical moments.”

Brissett is a big dude. At 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds, he was perfect on all seven of his keepers when the Browns needed a yard or less and averaged 3.3 yards a try. Phillips ended the streak, bursting through the line, hugging him around the waist and dumping him for no gain.

Phillips raised his fist, football’s universal signal for fourth down.

But Brissett this season had converted six of his seven fourth-down sneaks, making him 92 percent successful on both downs combined.

“Fourth-and-inches, I don’t want anybody to take my pride away from me,” Basham said. “We don’t want to get embarrassed.

“The adrenaline rushes on fourth-and-inches. That’s as good as it gets, you know?”

Buffalo’s backups pummeled Brissett again.

Lawson grabbed Brissett first. On the right edge, linebacker Matt Milano toppled tight end Harrison Bryant while also clogging tailback Kareem Hunt’s path to shove Brissett forward. Basham and cornerback Dane Jackson combined to finish the tackle, again for zero gain.

Officials didn’t even measure. Buffalo took possession, drove the 73 yards for a touchdown and the victory became inevitable.

The eight-point margin didn’t reflect how immense Sunday’s gap was. A 28-10 lead deep into the fourth quarter was dented by a pair of garbage-time Cleveland touchdowns.

Josh Allen ended a stretch of 10 shaky quarters with an effective, managerial performance. Tyler Bass kicked six field goals without a miss. Devin Singletary and James Cook rushed for 86 yards apiece. Singletary scored a touchdown; Cook gained his on 11 carries.

Flaws remain with Sean McDermott’s and Leslie Frazier’s defense. Browns receiver Amari Cooper was almost unstoppable with eight catches for 113 yards and two touchdowns. The Bills got lucky early in the second quarter when Brissett’s end-zone strikes to Bryant and tight end Pharaoh Brown were dropped on consecutive plays and brought a mere field goal.

Yet there were distinct moments for Buffalo’s defense to celebrate — not a given over the past month.

The Bills needed to remind themselves what it’s like to extinguish an offense’s spirit.

“You stop a team on fourth-and-inches, you take their pride away,” Basham said. “You can just feel it. You can’t have no better feeling than that.”

The Bills couldn’t fully enjoy a similar moment last week.

Essentially the same unit (plus starting defensive tackle DaQuan Jones) stonewalled Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins from the end zone on fourth-and-inches in the final minute. Lawson yanked him down short of the goal line, seemingly to preserve a razor-thin victory.

“It’s a tough play to stop,” Phillips said, “but we’ve done it a couple weeks in a row now.”

But their valiant goal-line masonry was forgotten mostly. One play later, the Vikings’ defensive front made a historically rare play, pouncing on Allen’s fumbled snap for a miracle touchdown. The Bills crumbled in overtime.

Sunday’s profound stand was the defensive highlight of a brilliant afternoon. Cleveland’s formidable ground attack got every bit as stuck as those snowbound tractor trailers last week on Abbott Road.

Browns tailback Nick Chubb entered with an NFL-best 11 rushing touchdowns and a league-high seven games with at least 100 yards from scrimmage.

The Bills, meanwhile, have struggled to stop runners. The Packers rushed for 208 yards three weeks ago. On the New York Jets’ winning, final drive, their first six plays were rushes for 68 yards. Vikings star Dalvin Cook was held in check last week until he erupted for an 81-yard touchdown.

Buffalo discovered a Chubb solution. He ran 14 times for 19 yards, a career-worst when he has nine or more carries and his worst average aside from four years ago, when he ran twice for 3 yards as a rookie.

The Bills made eight tackles for losses, seven on runs. Defensive tackle Ed Oliver recorded three of them. The Bills stuffed three more rushes at the line of scrimmage. McDermott praised his run defenders for staying in their gaps and for their “hand violence.”

Milano was a relentless blur. With captain and fellow linebacker Tremaine Edmundssidelined by a groin injury, Milano recorded three tackles for losses, tied for most in his career. His first fumble recovery of the year led to a field goal. His first sack forced a fourth-quarter punt. Seven of Milano’s dozen tackles were versus the run.

“It’s not just this game,” Phillips said. “It’s every game he makes those big plays. He doesn’t miss tackles. Interceptions, touchdowns, you name it.

“You can’t tell me anybody that’s playing better defensive football than Matt Milano. He’s consistent. He’s a leader. You can count on him every week. Tell me who plays better.”

Hunt ran five times for 32 yards, a healthy 6.2-yard average, but 21 of his yards came on a second-quarter possession that ended with Brissett’s fumbled snap. Milano recovered it.

Cleveland’s centers keep getting hurt. Ethan Pocic suffered a game-ending knee injury early and was replaced by Hjalte Froholdt, a Denmark native who normally plays guard and was in his 24th NFL game in his fourth season.

While Froholdt likely didn’t enhance Brissett’s chances to convert those sneaks, the Browns’ offensive line features All-Pro left guard Joel Bitonio, Pro Bowl right guard Wyatt Teller, All-Pro right tackle Jack Conklin and left tackle Jedrick Wills, the 10th overall draft choice two years ago.

You can understand why Cleveland feels confident with quarterback keepers.

Browns coach Kevin Stefanski wields a play card with more small print than an iTunes user agreement, but the Bills’ second-string defensive line anticipated one call and one call only.

“We knew that on third-and-1, fourth-and-1, they always do QB sneak,” Phillips said. “They’re averaging 2 yards every time they did it.

“You know it’s coming. You just got to get off the ball and make a play.”

On such a high-percentage play, odds were the Bills’ defensive line would yield an inch.

With two cracks at it, the Browns loved their chances.

Against the Bills’ second team? Well, the Browns were mistaken.

“It just is what it is, man against man,” Phillips said. “Whoever is dominant on that play is going to win that snap.”

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

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