The veteran spent three weeks on IR with a hamstring injury. During a normal season, he would have watched home games from the Bills’ sideline, but the NFL’s coronavirus protocols restricted him from joining his teammates. So as the Bills’ defense struggled in Week 3 against the Los Angeles Rams, Norman was even further from the action than he would have preferred.
“I was up in the box pissed off that I couldn’t be down there actually watching,” Norman said. “So I was up there tweeting about it. Now to be activated and be down there with them and kind of see how it is, it’s very strange. It is really weird, to be on the ground where there’s nobody, just you and the other opponent.”
Norman was activated Saturday from IR and made his Bills debut in Sunday’s 30-23 win against the Las Vegas Raiders (2-2). He didn’t start but he might as well have, taking over for an injured Levi Wallace on the Bills’ second defensive series.
Norman, 32, also made the biggest play of the day for either team.
Six plays after the Bills (4-0) pushed their lead to seven points in the fourth quarter, Norman forced and recovered a fumble by Raiders tight end Darren Waller. Buffalo scored another touchdown soon after to put the game out of reach, but it kicked off three consecutive defensive series in which the Bills forced two turnovers as well as a turnover on downs.
“It changed the entire direction of the game,” Bills quarterback Josh Allen said. “For our defense to step up like that, it was huge.”
For Norman, the play was the product of a five-year effort to become a turnover-producing tackler. He has former NFL cornerback Charles “Peanut” Tillman to thank for that.
Tillman, known for his ability to force fumbles by punching the ball out, played with Norman in Carolina in 2015. Norman said then-Panthers defensive backs coach Steve Wilks constantly stressed the importance of punching the ball out whenever possible but it took Tillman joining the team for Norman to really get it.
“It never really, really registered with me until Peanut came to the ballclub. And he was this all-world guy, who could punch out,” Norman said. “My competitive drive is, ‘I’m going to beat that guy out at his very own technique. I’m going to instill it, I’m going to take it and I’m going to put it in my arsenal. Put it in my bag.’
“If I can’t get you in the air, I’m going to get you on the ground.”
So when Waller caught a 4-yard pass and had all but broken free of Bills safety Jordan Poyer‘s tackle, Norman ran over to help and fulfilled his promise, punching the ball out from Waller’s grasp.
Bills coach Sean McDermott had challenged his defense to make an impact, and Norman said he answered the call.
“Coach was just asking, ‘Somebody make a play. Somebody make a play. Make a play,'” Norman said. “And I was like, ‘I’ll make a play.'”
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) October 5, 2020
Buffalo immediately rode the momentum of its second turnover in as many games. Allen completed a 49-yard pass to Stefon Diggs on the first play from scrimmage after the fumble, setting up a Devin Singletary touchdown. The Bills forced a turnover on downs the next time their defense took the field, and recovered another fumble on the following series after a Quinton Jefferson strip-sack of Derek Carr.
After the disappointing Week 3 effort, Norman’s return and play energized a defense that needed a jolt.
“We know what J-No brings to this team, brings to this defense. He brings a lot of energy and goes to the football,” safety Micah Hyde said. “History shows what he can do. We’re excited to have him back after being out a couple of weeks. That’s the type of depth we have on this football team. One guy gets hurt, another guy steps in and J-No made a huge play for us.
“Once we got that takeaway, we were able to go out there and start making more plays. Just a credit to him and what he’s been able to do.”