ORCHARD PARK — It’s not hard to find Jordan Phillips before every defensive series. While the opposing offense is still in the huddle, he steps over the line of scrimmage and gestures feverishly for the crowd to make more noise.
But there was a chunk of last season where even that was painful.
When Phillips is healthy, he’s more explosive than any 340-pound man should be. Players his size are typically used to eat blocks to spring teammates for big plays, but Phillips is the penetrator, the guy who gobbles up ball carriers in the backfield.
In 2019, last season of his first stint with the Buffalo Bills, Phillips had a team-high 9.5 sacks. But that was also the last time the defensive tackle played a full season, and until now, it’s the last time he felt completely healthy on the football field.
Over the last three seasons, Phillips has missed 19 of 49 games and each time he felt back to normal, another injury seemed to be lurking nearby. But after missing the entire offseason due to shoulder surgery, Phillips has gradually worked himself back to old form.
He played fewer than 20 snaps during the first two games, increasing to more than 40% of the defensive snaps in three of the last four. Against the New York Giants, Phillips played a season-high 48% of the snaps and it was the first game he felt back to normal since the injury in Week 13 of last year.
“Just being on the field more, getting consecutive snaps, not playing somebody a filler role and getting into a rhythm,” Phillips said after practice Thursday. “As the game goes on you can tell what’s coming and what’s feeling. And when you don’t get a lot of snaps out it’s like you’re just trying to get your feet in the water and feeling it out.”
After signing a lucrative free agent contract with the Arizona Cardinals in 2020, the injuries seemed to pile up. Phillips pulled a hamstring and it just wouldn’t go away, landing him on injured reserve and limiting him to nine games.
The following year, Phillips started the season on injured reserve, missed the first five games and had groin, thumb and knee injuries that again limited him to nine games. His three-year contract with the Cardinals ended after two seasons.
Upon returning to the Bills last season, Phillips pulled a hamstring chasing teammate Matt Milano on a pick-six in Week 2, which cost him two more games. When finally recovered, he injured his shoulder, lost two more games, and although he came back, he was in pain.
Phillips could have ended the season after the shoulder injury, but he decided to play through it for his teammates and hoped a deep playoff run might make the pain worthwhile.
His last three seasons have netted 6.5 sacks, two stints on IR and one on the physically unable to perform list. Last season Phillips felt he could have prevented those injuries and now the 31-year-old is focused on playing smarter to spare his body.
“You just gotta think about your routine and figure out different ways to try to maximize not getting injured and stuff like that,” Phillips said. “But this is a 100% injury rate sport. It’s going to happen, I just wish it wouldn’t happen consecutively the way it did, but we’re gonna keep it out of the way this year.”
Playing limited snaps as Phillips worked his way into the lineup after missing the first preseason game made it difficult for him to get into the flow of the game. He felt detached playing a few plays here and there or in situational moments of the game.
Phillips had a sack in the season opener against the New York Jets, but only played 17 snaps. Then he played 10 the following week against the Las Vegas Raiders. While he only made one tackle against the Giants, Bills coach Sean McDermott was impressed with how Phillips played, particularly since they needed someone to take a bigger role following DaQuan Jones’ torn pectoral muscle against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“I thought last week was his best game of the season so far,” McDermott said. “And we need that because of DaQuan not being out there. … He wasn’t able to really train other than rehab too much this offseason. So, he had a gradual climb, but it’s important that he continues to climb because we need him to and his play continues to raise to a level that can really impact the game for us like I know he can.”
Phillips’ resurgence comes at the right time because the Bills went from having too many defensive tackles — to the point where offseason signee Poona Ford was inactive the first five games — to needing everyone left. It’s unknown if Jones — the team’s highest-rated defender this year, according to Pro Football Focus — will return this season and Ed Oliver missed the first two days of practice this week with a toe injury.
The Bills may need the old Phillips, the one who started 53 games and played at least 50% of the defensive snaps three times in his first eight seasons. To go from easing his way back into the lineup to being a regular or starter isn’t something that Phillips is concerned about.
“This is my ninth year in the league, I’ve been a starter every year,” Phillips said. “I’m used to this, I’m used to the snaps, I’m used to the pressure that being a starter holds and I just gotta raise my level to try to compete with Ed, and keep pushing him because he’s having a phenomenal year. It’s his best year, so whatever I can do to stay on his heels to make him keep working.”
NOTES: RB Damien Harris (neck/concussion), TE Quintin Morris (ankle) and DT Ed Oliver (toe) did not practice Thursday. … DB Cam Lewis (shoulder) wore a red non-contact jersey and was a limited participant, as was CB Kaiir Elam (ankle). … All other players, including Josh Allen (right shoulder) and TE Dalton Kincaid (concussion) were full participants.