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Behind dominant defense, Josh Allen and Bills show they are ready to take the next step

INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- Ed Oliver didn't look like a man whose team had just opened the season by manhandling the defending Super Bowl champions. He sat silently at his locker in SoFi Stadium, well after the Buffalo Bills' 31-10 drubbing of the Los Angeles Rams was complete, and stared silently at his phone.

Teammates smiled and laughed around him, but Oliver seemed oblivious to the goings-on. Perhaps it was frustration from turning an ankle during the game -- Oliver is on the cusp of establishing himself as a dominant force along the defensive line, so anything that gets in the way of that is unwelcome -- or maybe that's just his personality, although that suggestion proved to be untrue moments later when he was asked about newcomer Von Miller's impact on the Bills' defensive line.

Oliver looked up for the first time. A smile crept across his face.

"How many sacks did we have today?" he said. "Seven? A seven-piece, that's what it do. He did his best impression of Von. All I can say is, he is who he says he is. He went out there and showed it."

Miller, in his first game since leaving the Rams to sign a six-year, $120 million deal with the Bills, finished with four tackles, two sacks, three tackles for loss and two quarterback hits. Even more valuable than his production was his presence, which was like a rising tide that lifted the play of those around him.

Some context: The Bills were a really good team before Miller arrived. They went to the AFC Championship Game two years ago and were 13 seconds away from a return trip last season before ultimately falling to the Chiefs in overtime. That defeat, as much as any game, highlighted their need for a dominant edge rusher who could make them true championship material. Just imagine, the thinking went, if Buffalo had had such a player at the end of regulation when Kansas City went 44 yards in two plays to set up a game-timing field goal.

We will never know whether having Miller would have changed the outcome, but it does not stretch the boundaries of believability that he would have made a difference, particularly after watching him consistently disrupt the Rams' pass protection in Thursday night's NFL Kickoff Game. When he wasn't doing it himself, Miller was creating opportunities for others. There was tackle Jordan Phillips recording 1.5 sacks, a tackle for loss and three quarterback hits; end A.J. Epenesa adding 1.5 sacks, four quarterback hits and a tackle for loss; and ends Carlos Basham Jr. and Gregory Rousseau finishing with a sack each.

The Bills had nine sacks in a game last season, but that was against a woeful and talent-deficient Jets team to end the year. Recording seven against a defending Super Bowl champion, on the night it raised its championship banner while playing at home before a sellout crowd and national TV audience -- that's completely different.

If nothing else, Thursday night confirmed that the preseason projections which had the Bills listed as Super Bowl favorites were more than warranted. At times, it was almost surgical how they controlled the game. In fact, if not for three turnovers in the first half and four overall, viewers might have turned the channel in the second quarter.

However, the giveaways allowed the Rams to stay close early and even go into halftime tied, 10-10. But the Bills showed there is something special about this year's team by scoring touchdowns on each of their first three possessions in the second half, two on passes by Josh Allen and another on a 4-yard run by the quarterback, a consensus MVP candidate.

Allen finished 26 of 31 for 297 yards and three touchdowns, with two interceptions, but the numbers do not tell the complete story. The poise and patience do. Normally aggressive and searching for the big play, Allen took his time Thursday. He relied on short routes that got the ball out of his hands before the rush could arrive. And after he had softened the defense, he went deep, finding Gabe Davis for a 47-yard gain and Stefon Diggs for a 53-yard score.

"Josh has been doing a great job just taking what the defense is giving," said Diggs, who had eight receptions for 122 yards and a score. "That maturation process is showing up. He's using his legs. He's improvising. He's playing safe, and then he goes for the jugular when he needs to."

And yet, to focus solely on the numbers is missing the larger point that there is a different texture to this Bills team. Privately, club officials talk of an omnipresent edge during training camp. Guys were still upset at how last season ended. At times, it resulted in bad blood during practices when the first-team units faced off. It never carried into the locker room, but it made for occasional tense moments on the field -- which is viewed as a positive within the organization's walls because it showed an urgency.

Fact is, despite all their success the past three seasons, each of which ended with a trip to the playoffs, the Bills were viewed as a team to be respected but not feared. They were good but inconsistent. What they showed Thursday was a team that appears ready to take that next step -- though time will be the ultimate test.

Performances like the win over the Rams showed a maturity and resolve that might not have been previously present. The game also showed a physicality the Rams did not match, particularly in the second half, when Buffalo played bully ball and dominated both lines of scrimmage.

The seven sacks were the most against a Sean McVay team since 2017. They tied for the second-highest total against Matthew Stafford in his career. Stafford was consistently under pressure, going 29 of 41 for 240 yards with three interceptions and one touchdown pass. It was painfully clear that he missed not only left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who retired after last season, but also wideout Odell Beckham Jr., a free agent who is recovering from knee surgery.

The Bills were so dominant defensively that they never had to go deep into their playbook to slow the Rams. They designed specific coverages to slow All-Pro wideout Cooper Kupp, but never called them because they weren't necessary, as Kupp had what can best be described as a quiet 13-catch night for 128 yards and a score. Buffalo played a lot of zone concepts and kept the ball in front of the defensive backs, successfully preventing the explosive plays that were a hallmark of Los Angeles' offense in 2021.

It would be foolish to overreact to the Rams' struggles, as they were slow to find their rhythm in recent openers despite winning them. Part of that has to do with McVay not playing his regulars in the preseason, something they got away with in the past because they were not playing opponents as formidable as these Bills in Week 1.

Afterward, McVay called the performance "humbling" and said he needed to do a better job of putting his players in positions to be successful. Maybe he's right, but the fact remains that some players were simply being beaten, particularly along the offensive line.

"They didn't rush five really at all tonight," McVay said. "For them to be able to do that, it's a real credit to them. We're on our silent count (because of a large Bills turnout in the crowd). Whatever I'm going to say right now is going to be an excuse. I think I put our guys in too many of those tough situations. Credit to Von and their rush. They did an outstanding job. They're an excellent defense, but we've got to be better and it starts with me."

Bills defenders light up when discussing Miller. He is like a Pied Piper they all want to follow. His résumé precedes him, and his ability inspires them. He has won Super Bowls -- first in Denver, then Los Angeles -- and he knows how to connect with guys, such as last season when he was credited with bringing out the vocal and demonstrative side of Rams All-Pro tackle Aaron Donald, whose dominance in the NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl were leading reasons for why the Lombardi Trophy ended up in Los Angeles.

Miller proved to be a missing piece for the Rams last season, after being acquired in a midseason trade. Over his final eight games, including the playoffs, he had nine sacks, 13 quarterback hits, 14 tackles for loss, one forced fumble and a fumble recovery. So it is not surprising why his presence has brought an elevated confidence and attitude to the Bills -- not that Miller will bite when that line of thinking is cast in his direction.

"It's like drinking from a fire hydrant when everybody starts talking Super Bowl," he said. "We got a great group of leaders here, even guys who aren't captains. I like to talk to them about negative and positive energy, and I always like to keep things positive -- or, at worst, neutral. There's always going to be pressure, but pressure is a privilege. It's a lot of pressure playing for the Buffalo Bills and the history of this franchise. But I like for these guys to compartmentalize. I'm focused on the energy of the locker room, on the guys' mindset and mentality. I talk about when we go out there, be at peace. Win or lose, we were at peace tonight."

It's a lot easier to be at peace when you dominate as the Bills did. The challenge now is to maintain it. If Thursday night is any indication, there's no reason to believe they won't.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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