ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Micah Hyde has grown accustomed to being an afterthought, overlooked by so many along his journey from college to the pros. And after almost three seasons in Buffalo, the veteran safety understands why the football world refuses to give this Bills defense its due.
This unit has no All-Pro players. And no current defensive player has been named a Pro Bowl selection since 2016, aside from him and veteran leader Lorenzo Alexander. Hyde insists that’s because of circumstance not talent.
Just call it the Buffalo Effect.
“Take our whole defense, switch our jerseys out, switch our helmets out with another team out there — I’m not going to say any teams, but you can fill in the blank — and they’d be talking about us being the 1985 Bears. It's crazy,” Hyde told Yahoo Sports, during a quiet moment outside of the locker room this week. “But, it’s Buffalo.”
Nestled within the laidback, small-town vibes of Western New York, the Bills’ relevancy is routinely obscured by big-market franchises. Despite their quarterback woes in recent years (prior to drafting Josh Allen), their defense has remained its strength. The Bills are 5-1 for the first time since 2008, largely because of a defense led by head coach Sean McDermott and coordinator Leslie Frazier.
Despite having the No. 3 overall defense, despite having a better record than the Colts and Texans, and despite limiting the NFL’s top-scoring offense (Tom Brady’s New England Patriots) to only 16 points in a Week 4 loss, the spotlight has yet to find its way to the eastern shore of Lake Erie.
“They don’t ever talk about Buffalo,” Alexander told Yahoo Sports. “They’re waiting for it to turn into what it used to be: Seventeen years of heartfelt failure, not making the playoffs, from all the different coaches. And so they’re just waiting for it to explode.”
Inside the Bills’ refurnished facility, you’ll find a mixture of apathy and annoyance at the perceived slights. Players say they’re used to it, insist they don’t need the outside world to take notice, and yet, they admit the naysayers and nonbelievers are partly fueling their push toward the playoffs.
“We’re just a blue-collar town, blue-collar city out here. Guys just put their head down and go to work,” safety Jordan Poyer said, after the crowd of reporters left his locker stall. “We understand. Nobody gives us any respect, even at 5-1. Nobody gives us a chance to win. Every week, really. There’s someone picking against us. So we just use that, man. We just use it to motivate us.”
The Bills currently boast the fourth-best passing defense. Last year, they were No. 1 in that category despite a 6-10 record. McDermott and Frazier, two of the most respected coaches in the league, have constructed a unit that isn’t comprised of well-known stars, but rather an aggressive, tight-knit group of players focused on fundamentals. Continuity has helped, too. The heart and soul of the team, defensive tackle Kyle Williams, retired at the end of last season, but rookie Ed Oliver is the only new defensive starter. Meanwhile, the synergy between Hyde and Poyer, the consistency of defensive end Jerry Hughes and the emergence of 2017 first-round pick Tre’Davious White — the AFC Defensive Player of the Week — has made all the difference for a defense still trying to make a name for itself.
“And that’s a product of being in Buffalo, too,” Alexander said of Bills defenders not being household names. “Because if Tre’Davious White was on the Patriots, he would be a big name. You would call [Jets safety Jamal Adams, White’s former LSU teammate] a big name, and I would take Tre’Davious over him. I mean, he’s my guy.”
Added Poyer: “As a secondary, we always talk about, man, no one respects us. No one believes in us. No one believes we have the talent to do whatever. But we put it up every week. For the last three years, we’re one of the top secondaries in the league, one of the top defenses in the league. And we just want to continue to put that stuff on tape and eventually the league and people will start to respect us a little more.”
In the wake of their subpar, yet hard-fought win over Miami last week, and in the midst of preparing for a reeling Philly team coming to town, players know what’s being said on the outside.
The Bills aren’t to be believed. At least not yet.
McDermott purposely amplified that message during a team meeting this week, projecting words included in a national newspaper’s NFL power rankings. And immediately, his defense felt slighted.
“Sean showed us a tweet that said, because we struggled with Miami last week, our record is built on a bunch of tomato cans,” Alexander divulged, “when the Niners’ and the Patriots’ strength of schedule is worse than ours. They’re not looking at the teams they’re playing and saying, ‘Well, they haven’t really played anyone either.’
“He was trying to use it as a motivating factor, obviously, ‘This is what people think about you. You guys are … not good,’” Alexander explained. “And it was more of him saying, we got stronger out of that game. Don’t make it seem like we're not who we are. We were able to battle coming off a bye, playing ‘a trap game,’ and still finding ways to win.”
This week’s matchup against the Eagles (3-4) is personal for the Bills, not only for a defense eager to prove its legitimacy, but for McDermott, whose tenure as Andy Reid’s defensive coordinator in Philly came to an abrupt end after the 2010 season.
“Shoot, we’re playing Philly this week and he got fired by them, so there’s a lot of guys in this locker room that have a chip on their shoulder, want to get better and want to continue to strive to make this team what it is,” Hyde said.
After 12 years with the Eagles organization — and two seasons serving as the replacement for the late defensive legend Jim Johnson — McDermott coached a stingy Carolina defense all the way to Super Bowl 50. And in 2017, he set his sights on building a similar defense in Buffalo when he became the Bills’ head coach in 2017.
In his first season in Buffalo, McDermott guided the organization to its first playoff berth in 17 years. Now, the Bills are off to their best start in more than a decade. But for a defense that prides itself on playing tough, physical and smart, there’s far more work to be done.
The 2008 Bills opened the season 5-1, then they lost seven of their next eight games and finished 7-9.
Poyer and Hyde, who signed as free agents when McDermott took over, made a pact to help turn around the franchise and “be a part of something special,” Poyer said. And they're determined to keep the momentum going.
“That's why we continue to work,” Hyde said. “It's kind of good being the underdog.”
Bills players wear that Buffalo burden like a badge of honor. They enjoy being an afterthought and they’re more than happy to mimic the long-standing mindset of their adopted city — a place content to be overshadowed by bright lights and big personalities elsewhere. In Buffalo, there is no flashiness. Just guys looking to make some noise on gameday.
“We definitely have that chip. People still aren’t talking about us,” Poyer said. “We understand the more we win, the more recognition that we’ll get. There’s no other way to get respect but earning it.”
Then he smiled.
“We beat the Philadelphia Eagles this week, they’re probably still going to be saying stuff.”
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