ORCHARD PARK — Rex Ryan spent the previous two seasons coaching the Buffalo Bills unable to build anything resembling a dominant defense.
In three games under Ryan’s successor, Sean McDermott, the Bills are at the very least showing signs of playing with cohesion despite coming off an offseason of wholesale changes.
“I’ll tell you a story,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said, recalling a conversation he had with a Broncos assistant following Buffalo’s 26-16 win over Denver on Sunday.
“He said, ‘It’s hard to imagine you guys having only been here for such a short period of time with how fast you’re playing,'” Frazier said without revealing the Broncos coach. “He said, ‘It’s three games, but you don’t look like a group that’s been together for three games.”
The Bills are off to a better-than-expected 2-1 start in large part because of a defense that has been stingy, efficient and opportunistic.
Buffalo has allowed just two touchdowns — both rushing — to match a franchise low through the first three games.
The Bills have five interceptions, including one to stop the New York Jets on a 2-point conversion in a season-opening 21-12 win. On Sunday, they twice foiled the Broncos’ on fourth down attempts.
“It’s good to see our guys picking up some of the things we’re trying to get done,” Frazier said. “But it’s week to week in our league.”
If that’s the case, the defense will get a truer gauge of how good it might actually be on Sunday, when the Bills play Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons (3-0), who are already averaging nearly 30 points per game.
“Each week we want to see where we can jump from the previous week to the next,” strong safety Jordan Poyer said.
“Yeah, we understand who were going up against: Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, (Devonta) Freeman, (center) Alex Mack. But at the end of the day it’s about us.”
And that means sticking to a don’t-get-beat-deep philosophy in which the Bills have allowed just one play beyond 30 yards: a 32-yard run by Denver’s C.J. Anderson. That’s a big switch from last season, when Buffalo allowed five plays of 30 yards or more through three weeks.
Six of Buffalo’s defensive starters against Denver were newcomers, including Cedric Thornton playing in place of Marcell Dareus (right foot).
Four of those newcomers are in the secondary. Poyer and free safety Micah Hyde were free-agent additions.
The starting cornerbacks are rookie first-round pick Tre’Davious White and E.J. Gaines, who was acquired in a trade that sent star receiver Sammy Watkins to the Los Angeles Rams last month.
All four starters have an interception apiece, while Poyer also has two sacks.
White has held his own after being beaten several times in the first half against the Broncos. The rookie out of LSU responded in the second half.
He made a great solo open-field tackle in limiting Emmanuel Sanders to a 3-yard catch on third-and-5 late in the third quarter.
Then White helped seal the victory by intercepting Trevor Siemian’s wobbly pass on a first-and-10 at the Buffalo 24 on Denver’s next drive.
Buffalo has also adjusted to making the switch from playing a three-lineman, four-linebacker formation under Ryan, to a 4-3 under McDermott, who spent the previous six seasons as the Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator.
Staying simple — but not too simple — has been the key, said veteran linebacker Lorenzo Alexander.
Whereas Ryan devised intricate defensive game plans, Alexander complained they were too complex for all players to grasp.
McDermott’s system has fewer moving parts when it comes to players’ roles and positioning, but complex enough to not make it predictable for opposing offenses.
“Rex had great stuff, proven stuff in this league, but it could be complicated at times,” Alexander said. “Our coaching staff has found a happy medium.”
NOTES: Dareus practiced on a limited basis for the first time since being hurt in a 9-3 loss at Carolina two weeks ago. … DT Jerel Worthy practiced for the first time since sustaining a concussion in Buffalo’s preseason finale. … PK Stephen Hauschka was the AFC special teams player of the week after hitting all four field-goal attempts, including two from beyond 50 yards.