ORCHARD PARK - At some point, normalcy is going to return for the Buffalo Bills, but they aren’t at that point yet.
Not only are they about to embark on a third consecutive game away from Highmark Stadium in a span of 12 days - something that has probably never happened in the modern NFL - they are also once again facing another week of abnormal practice time.
Sunday afternoon, coach Sean McDermott said that yet another flu-like bug is running rampant through the locker room and the Bills were unable to conduct a full practice as they start preparation for a big AFC East battle against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium Thursday night.
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“It’s out there, right?” McDermott said. “Families have it and these guys are human beings so they pick it up sometimes, too.”
Three players - edge rushers Von Miller and AJ Epenesa, and offensive tackle Dion Dawkins - sat out because of injuries, but defensive backs Siran Neal, Jordan Poyer, Dane Jackson, and JaQuan Johnson, running back Nyheim Hines, linebacker Tyler Matakevich, wide receiver Khalil Shakir, and tight end Quintin Morris all sat out because of illness.
Thus, the Bills were limited to just one team period and most of the rest of Sunday’s practice was individual and position group work. The week of the Browns game was turned upside down by the snowstorm but also illness, and before the Lions game the Bills had only one full day of practice.
“We do what we got to do, that’s the approach,” said McDermott, whose team has overcome all the adversity with two straight victories, both in Detroit. “We find a way and you want to make sure you get enough rest and make sure you edit things out that don’t really lead to the result we’re trying to get. We’ve got a resilient group and they have to do their part, too, in terms of getting the proper rest they need.”
Here’s what else is going on at One Bills Drive:
There was some good injury news
On the positive side of the medical situation, linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, center Mitch Morse and defensive end Greg Rousseau, all of whom missed the Lions game, were able to return to practice Sunday, though it’s too early to know if they can play in New England.
Also, offensive lineman Ike Boettger, who has been sidelined since the middle of last December with a torn Achilles, was activated off the physically unable to perform list, thus opening his three-week window to be activated to the 53-man roster.
“Been through a long journey and it’s good to have him back and certainly appreciate all that he’s gone through to get back,” McDermott said of the veteran who went down last year in the Tampa Bay game.
Tre White will get a longer look this week
The Bills had a plan to work White back into game action starting the other day in Detroit, and they did not deviate from it, even when cornerbacks Dane Jackson and Christian Benford were getting lit up by Jared Goff and the Lions.
McDermott confirmed they wanted White to play between 15 and 20 snaps (it ended up being 16) and that was going to be it. Thursday against the Patriots, the snap count is expected to rise.
“He really did a good job,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said, though to be fair, White wasn’t tested at all. On his 16 snaps he was not targeted on seven pass plays, and he did not make a tackle in run support.
“It was so exciting for all of us to see him back in the starting lineup, he gave all of us a boost,” Frazier continued. “When he was in there, he was in position, he looked confident in what he was doing. Seeing him turn and run, plant and drive, just doing some of the things that he did prior to his injury just lets you know that he’s really close to maybe adding some more plays and getting to the point we can play him an entire game.”
With Benford now on injured reserve, and fellow rookie Kaiir Elam still working back slowly from an ankle injury (he played only 21 snaps), the Bills really need to ramp up White, especially with Patriots QB Mac Jones coming off his best NFL game and starting to look more confident in what he’s doing.
Shaq Lawson needs to step up
It seems as if Rousseau could have a chance to play Thursday, but Miller is definitely out and Epenesa is probably trending in that direction, too.
Last week, the Bills’ edge rushing unit was down to Lawson, Boogie Basham and practice squad player Mike Love who was called up to play for the first time this year. Even if Rousseau can go, his snap count could be limited so Lawson - back for his second tour with the Bills - is going to need to shoulder a bigger burden.
Frazier said Lawson has grown up since he was last with the Bills in 2019 before leaving in free agency. Buffalo’s 2016 first-round pick, Frazier said, has “definitely matured as a person. His maturity in the classroom, his preparation as well, he’s grown in that area and in the way he views football. I mean he looks at every single snap like this might be my last snap. And I’m not so sure that was the case when he was here before.”
That’s probably true, but Lawson had minimal impact against the Lions - 49 snaps, just one tackle and no QB pressures - so he will have to pick that up in the weeks to come when the Bills are going to need him.
Isaiah McKenzie should be happy to see Patriots
New England’s defense is certainly playing better right now than it did at the end of last season when the Bills dominated them in the regular-season game right after Christmas and then in the wild-card playoff game.
One of the players who helped decimate the Patriots in those two games was McKenzie. On Dec. 26, he had the best game of his career with 11 catches for 125 yards and a touchdown as he replaced COVID-stricken Cole Beasley. With Beasley back for the playoff game, McKenzie had three catches for 45 yards.
Those games seemed like a signal that McKenzie was ready to step in for the departed Beasley this season as the primary slot receiver, but things have not gone well. That is until the Lions game. McKenzie caught six passes for 96 yards and a touchdown and played a key role when Josh Allen was struggling to get Stefon Diggs involved.
“I felt good,” McKenzie said. “I felt like I was in a rhythm catching the football, getting open,” he said. “Josh was throwing me the ball, I was catching them and I was having a good game, he was having a good game and things were going well.”
“I thought he did a really good job and that was coming because of how he practiced the previous two weeks,” McDermott said. “It’s interesting to watch sometimes, you put the work in and we’ve all been through that and you don’t see the results right away. But eventually you keep hammering away and it’ll come and I thought that was the case for Isaiah last week.”
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This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Buffalo Bills injury report features several players out with illness