Once again, we've entered a realm in which discussing a most recent Buffalo Bills game leads to nausea rather than euphoria. Their 31-10 loss to the Houston Texans was every bit as exasperating to re-watch on tape as it was to take it in live at the stadium, because once again, the Bills had a superior opponent on the ropes for most of the game. Credit Houston for staying patient, but credit them also for realizing that, just like New England and New Orleans before them, the were facing an opponent susceptible to blowing solid performances late in games.
The film has been re-watched, the stomach meds have been ingested, and we've got a few talking points to go over today. Let's get this over with.
The run defense. That old adage that a defense can tire out over the course of a game is completely accurate. Buffalo's run defense isn't just dead last in the league because they generally stink at stopping the run, folks - they're also dead last because the offense can't give them more than a few spare moments per game to get some oxygen on the sidelines.
Case in point: the Bills' run defense was by no means dominant in the first half Sunday, but it was, at least, not awful. Houston was actually out-rushed by Buffalo in the first half (aided, of course, by Terrell Owens' 29-yard touchdown on a reverse). The Texans wound up rushing for 186 yards on the day, but only 67 of those came prior to halftime. If you think some of that didn't have to do with both the sheer amount of time they spent on the field (39:08) and their undermanned depth chart, think again. Considering all of the factors, we couldn't have asked for much more from the run defense, particularly early in the game.
The offensive line. In a more ideal football world than the one we're involved with right now, the "quarterback vs. O-Line debate" - meaning which one is more important to the success of an offense - has always been one that's fascinated me. (I fall on the quarterback side of the argument, by the way.) As bad as Trent Edwards and Ryan Fitzpatrick have been this season, however, it's hard to imagine many quarterbacks being successful behind this offensive line.
I counted five separate times in this game that Fitzpatrick hit the final step of his drop - and one of those was a three-step drop - and was immediately surrounded by Texans defenders. Individually, each Bills lineman - yes, even the revolving door of suck at right tackle - is capable of winning a matchup one-on-one. Houston simply brought pressure straight up the middle and/or stunted, and with Mario Williams commanding attention on the outside, it became too much to handle logistically for these young players. Pockets were collapsing around Fitzpatrick more frequently than the Texans were picking up first downs. We already have a pretty definitive idea that Edwards will re-claim his starting role in Week 10, but given the way the line is playing right now, we're likely to see both of these quarterbacks before season's end.
Get healthy, Shawn Nelson. I'm not saying that the lack of a receiving threat at tight end is the underlying problem behind all of Buffalo's offensive issues - that's obviously not the case - but in watching this offense, the lack of a short-area receiving threat is painfully obvious. (It's made even more painful by the fact that, for whatever reason, the Bills refuse to play Fred Jackson in that role, as they did at the beginning of the season).
Derek Fine is a tough customer and a valuable blocker and special teamer, but he's completely worthless right now as a receiving threat. Same goes for Jonathan Stupar, who has been unable to turn a solid pre-season into anything other than extraordinarily average play on the field in games that count. Meanwhile, Nelson continues to miss games with migraine issues, though Dick Jauron did say Monday that he's expected to practice this week and next, and play in Tennessee. Nelson's only got six catches on the year, but he's a weapon at a position that is, once again, completely non-existent in Buffalo.
Aaron Maybin. I wrote a piece about Maybin last week, so I'll keep this brief. Once again, Maybin had a sack lined up this week, but it was taken away from him by an opportunistic Aaron Schobel. He gets a little better rushing the passer every week, and Perry Fewell is starting to find ways to get him free in games. If Schobel's groin injury lingers, we're likely to see Maybin much more than usual until the veteran returns to full health.
I spent a great deal of my energies watching Maybin in the second half, mostly because the game itself was clearly going to be out of hand soon. Watching Maybin play - from a technical standpoint right down to the way he moves around on the field - he just looks every bit like the 21-year-old he is. He looks uncomfortable in his own skin, like he doesn't have full control of his body yet. The guy busts his butt on every play, and while he makes mistakes, his motor is better than any defenders' on this team. Give him time to mature not only as a football player, but from a body standpoint, too. He's making (extremely) slow, steady progress week to week.
Reggie Corner. I've been meaning to say this for a couple of weeks, but after his performance against Houston, it needs to be said - Corner is the epitome of what's wrong with Buffalo's defense. Corner's a good football player. He's quick, he's active, and he flies all over the field. But boy, is it easy for opponents to find ways to beat this guy. Whether it's mental mistakes or (more frequently) just being overmatched physically, Corner is a player that opponents attack. On the other hand, I'd like to see more of Ashton Youboty - once again, he's giving the Bills solid reps as a reserve DB, and acquitting himself nicely.
Jairus Byrd. There. I said his name. Soak in the happy feelings... and move on.
Bye week problems to fix. Not exactly playing the role of Copernicus here, because these are all fairly obvious, but the top three things that the Bills absolutely have to fix during the bye week if they still fancy themselves playoff contenders are:
Line play. The young guys up front are still working hard, but there are way too many mental errors and physical breakdowns. Not only does the line play need to get better, but Alex Van Pelt needs to figure out a way to finally mask some of their deficiencies.
Sustaining/ending drives. This has been a problem all season, but in particular against Houston. Buffalo's offense has picked up 116 first downs in 8 games, an average of 14.5 per game. Opponents have picked up 161 first downs on Buffalo, an average of 20 per game. The disparity has been especially skewed over the past three weeks, where Buffalo's opponents have a 59-38 advantage in this area.
Getting healthy. This isn't something the team can actively fix, obviously, but if the team can get key players back, it's only going to help. We already discussed Nelson and Edwards. Keith Ellison, Aaron Schobel and Donte Whitner are all "still sore" according to Jauron in yesterday's press conference (via BuffaloBills.com), and are considered day-to-day (or, in this case, week-to-week, probably). Bryan Scott is back and ready to go; he'll practice this week. Jonathan Scott is getting close as well. Jamon Meredith's knee injury was a sprain, and the Bills are looking at it as a week-to-week thing as well. Same goes for the knee injuries for Kyle Williams and Corey McIntyre, who, when they were injured in Week 7 at Carolina, were considered to be 2-3 weeks away from returning.
Obviously, some of those lingering injuries carry more importance than others. But Buffalo was so banged up in Houston that they literally needed to use every available body on the roster just to field a full 45 active players. Getting more depth is critical for this team, and hopefully the bye week will help them accomplish that.