They got as far as the Buffalo 25-yard line before quarterback Sam Howell got a taste of what the day ahead would be like. Defensive tackles Ed Oliver and DaQuan Jones combined for a sack on first down.
On second down, linebacker Terrel Bernard introduced himself to Howell by taking advantage of confusion created by the Bills pass rush to sack the quarterback. On third down, Bernard intercepted a pass intended for wide receiver Dyami Brown.
Those plays set the tone for the Bills defense as a whole -- nine sacks and five turnovers -- and introduced Bernard to a wider audience. In the 37-3 win over the Commanders, Bernard filled nearly every column of the defensive stat sheet, finished with a team-leading 7 tackles, 2 sacks, a pass defended, an interception and a fumble recovery.
“[Bernard’s] been playing like a maniac, man,” defensive end Greg Rousseau said. “He's sharp. He's all over it, and we're happy to have him here.”
The steps the second-year linebacker has taken are crucial after the team decided in the offseason to give younger players already on the roster a chance to replace five-year starter Tremaine Edmunds, who signed with the Chicago Bears. Bernard, a third-round pick in the 2022 draft, has stepped up in the team’s first three games after not playing a preseason snap.
“I think, just building confidence that I can do it,” Bernard said of his early success. “Coming in, you don't really know to be honest with you. So, going day by day, trying to stack days, get the confidence in my teammates, get the confidence in myself, confidence of the coaches, so it's been fun, but like I said, just gotta keep stacking days.”
The stack has an impressive start after Bernard became the first player since Brian Urlacher in 2007 to record two sacks, one interception and a fumble recovery in the same game.
In just his third career start at middle linebacker, Bernard had an interception for a second straight game. The impressive start for the Baylor product comes after he missed the last portion of camp and all three preseason games with a hamstring injury.
But what he did show -- on and off the field -- left an impression as Bernard, 24, won the middle linebacker job.
“He comes to work every day and he puts in the time, he prepares, he's mature beyond his years, and that's really why he's had some of the success that he's had to this point,” coach Sean McDermott said. “He's still a young player and he's still gonna continue to grow and the guys, the older guys are really taking him under their wing and helped him take one step at a time.”
His second sack Sunday also came at a crucial time -- third-and-9 with less than two minutes remaining in the first quarter. After the Washington punt, the Bills scored on the very next play on a 35-yard touchdown pass to Gabe Davis.
Bernard, who receives and communicates the defensive plays from McDermott, has come off as calm and not overwhelmed by the situation, according to defensive teammates.
“He always in the building, always the last person in the building, always taking care of his body, as a young player, Year 2, you don't see that, man. I wasn't even doing that my time,” defensive end Shaq Lawson said. “But he approach the game like a pro and it's paying off each and every Sunday when you come out here making big plays like that.”
Rousseau described Bernard as playing “fast” and as a “natural, he really has an instinct,” and the linebacker has shown that consistently, recording at least six tackles in each of the first three games. Against the Commanders, he helped the Bills defense make history.
The game marked the first time the Bills have recorded nine sacks and five takeaways in a game since 1963 when team sacks were first tracked. The only other team since the start of 2000 to match that feat was the 2014 Eagles in Week 10 against the Panthers.
Other Bills defenders shined, too. Defensive end AJ Epenesa had his first career pick-six, while cornerback Tre’Davious White and safety Micah Hyde had their first interceptions of the season. Leonard Floyd had two more sacks and now has 3.5 for the season.
The Bills defense could use some confidence going into a key AFC East game next Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS) against the Miami Dolphins, who scored 70 points Sunday.
“To go out there and actually have everything come together and get all the hype and stuff, it's great,” Rousseau said. "But we're just gonna keep on going through our process and staying humble, staying low and we'll just be ready for next Sunday.”