By Mike Meiler
Niagara Gazette — ORCHARD PARK — The last time the Buffalo Bills beat the defending Super Bowl champions, Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed still roamed the field (with Todd Collins replacing Jim Kelly) on September 22, 1996 at Rich Stadium as the Bills topped the Dallas Cowboys, 10-7.
The Bills had gone 0-7 against defending champs since then, with six of those losses coming against the New England Patriots in the 2000s.
Sunday, for the first time in 17 years, the Bills beat last year’s best, thanks in large part to the play of a ragtag group of defensive backs that looked like a glaring weakness just a week ago.
One week after getting torched by New York Jets rookie Geno Smith, the defensive backfield made life difficult for 2012 Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco, grabbing five interceptions on the way to a win.
Sure, Flacco threw for 347 yards — 16 more than Smith last week. And yes, there were breakdowns for long gains, but the play of Aaron Williams, Da’Norris Searcy and Jim Leonhard (and of course rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso) was the biggest surprise of the early season.
Williams was moved to strong safety before this season because of questions about his ability to play cornerback — doubts that went back to before he was drafted, when experts questioned his hip movement and agility. He was expected to start at safety, but injuries forced him back to cornerback for this week despite his struggles there last season.
Searcy was pencilled in as a backup safety before the season, and Leonhard was signed one week before the opener when Jairus Byrd went down with a foot injury.
The three teamed up for big plays on four of Flacco’s five interceptions. Williams grabbed two INTs, one on a Flacco misread and another on an athletic play on a deep pass. Leonard grabbed an opportunistic pick on a tipped pass by Baltimore tight end Ed Dickson, and Searcy laid a perfectly-timed hit on Dallas Clark during Baltimore’s final, forcing the ball to pop up and leading to Alonso’s second interception.
Kyle Willams, the defense’s longest tenured player, said the group’s mentality was a big part of it’s success.
“It’s kind of been next man up back there with all the injuries we’ve had and guys have come in and answered the bell,” he said.
“That’s the NFL,” added Leonhard. “It’s a next-man-up league. Nobody cares if you have injuries, you just have to go out there and perform, scratch and claw to win, and that’s what we did. ... We’ve proven we’ve got a room full of guys on the back end that’ll fight no matter what happens.”
Bills coach Doug Marrone said he’d like to move Williams back to safety as his team gets healthy, and it’s probably the right call.
It’s doubtful that the secondary can replicate this performance week after week, but the good news is that reinforcements are on the way. When Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin return (and if Jairus Byrd joins them), the experience gained by the guys playing now could go a long way toward establishing a dominating unit.