An exhausted expression was sprawled across the face of normally energetic Ed Oliver as he stood at his locker.
The defensive tackle just closed out the Buffalo Bills’ 24-22 comeback win over the Los Angeles Chargers with a sack in the closing moments of the game and said he would enjoy the moment more if he wasn’t so tired. But he was likely to perk up a little bit once the adrenaline faded and he could fully comprehend the sack also hit his $500,000 contract incentive.
Plus, Oliver is a festive guy during the holidays. He just celebrates by dancing in opponents’ backfields.
In three career games on Thanksgiving, Oliver has 14 tackles, three for a loss, 3 ½ sacks and a safety. Against the Chicago Bears on a bitterly cold Christmas Eve day, Oliver was on a heater, making four tackles, two behind the line of scrimmage, along with a sack.
Shoot, he even had a tackle for a loss against the Miami Dolphins on Halloween 2021. The Bills also went 5-0 in those games.
So, technically, Saturday’s game didn’t fall on a holiday — my apologies to those who celebrate Festivus — but Oliver still had that Christmas morning feeling. Oliver had four tackles, two tackles for a loss, two sacks and was the cause of a third awarded to Poona Ford.
“This one and the first Cowboys game on Thanksgiving — every Thanksgiving game,” Oliver said when asked to rank his favorite games. “This one’s up there with all the Thanksgiving games.”
The reality, though, is that Oliver isn’t just popping up around the holidays anymore. He’s been Buffalo’s most consistent, and perhaps best, defensive player this season, his first after being awarded a four-year $68 million contract extension over the summer.
Consistency is what questioned whether the 2019 No. 9 overall pick’s play warranted an extension of that magnitude. It’s not that Oliver wasn’t good over his first four seasons, but his best play came in flashes or stretches, not for the duration of an entire season.
Oliver had five sacks as a rookie, but hadn’t duplicated the number since and had 2 ½ last season, which was partially marred by missing three games with an ankle injury. The Bills still (rightly) felt the 26-year-old showed his best play yet.
Counting Saturday’s game against the Chargers, Oliver has career-highs in sacks (8 ½) and tackles for a loss (13), while being two off his season-best in quarterback hits (12).
Last season after his sack-and-safety outing against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving, Oliver said his big games — especially sacks — tend to come in bunches, but now they come regularly.
A terror to start the season, Oliver had seven TFLs and four sacks in the first five games of the season, but was kept off the stat sheet entirely against the New York Giants in Week 6, suffering a toe injury that kept him out the following week against the New England Patriots.
While additionally dealing with increased double-teams since defensive tackle DaQuan Jones suffered a torn pectoral in Week 5, Oliver had just 2 ½ sacks and two tackles for a loss since his injury, but his presence has been notable and he was finally able to put it on paper against the Chargers.
“That’s what they pay me for,” Oliver said. “When I got paid, everybody had their certain opinion and I had an opinion about my own self. I’m the type of guy who walks around with a chip on my shoulder 24/7, so I just compartmentalized and went after a goal.”
With Jones being out of the lineup, and now Jordan Phillips, also, Oliver has taken on an increased workload. He has played a career-high 71% of the team’s defensive snaps — including three games over 80% — after never playing more than 60% in his first four seasons. And now he’s still finding energy to close games.
In the fourth quarter, with the Chargers threatening at the Buffalo 30-yard line, down 21-16 with 8:49 left, Oliver was double-teamed. Ford shot through the line to force Los Angeles quarterback Easton Stick to scramble and defensive end Leonard Floyd kept him in the pocket until Oliver could steamroll him for a 7-yard loss that held the Chargers to a field goal.
And then, of course, Oliver beat Jamaree Salyer off the ball and dropped Stick for a 9-yard loss with 22 seconds left on the clock to preserve the win. It also comes after knocking down a Patrick Mahomes pass on the final drive to seal a 20-17 win over the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 14.
“When we needed it (on) some critical third downs we had some big-time sacks,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “Ed had two of them, obviously the last one was huge just to burn so much time off the clock cause … pretty much they could only do one or two things right there. … They have a really good field goal kicker so really, we only had about 20-25 yards to play with right there and give because he’s hit one from, I think, 55 yards already.”