The Bills started off strong this year, but with no thanks to a 5 game losing streak, (including their last four games), the Bills are all but out of the playoffs with a 5-7 record right now. The losses are a sore reminder of last year showcasing a lack of depth, pass rush and inconsistent play. The Bills started off this this quarter with blowout losses to both Dallas and Miami, but then closed the gap to within a score of beating the Jets and the Titans.
Problems are across the board, although this is partly due to injury. The biggest blows were (should've been) pro-bowl candidates RB Fred Jackson and C Eric Wood as well as starting WR Donald Jones. Defensively, the Bills lost their #1 corner Terrence McGee and NT Torell Troup atop of special teamer LB Chris White and K Rian Lindell. On one note, this gave a lot of the young players a chance to step into the lineup, particularly the top 4 round draft pick rookies including SS Searcy starting in line for the injured George Wilson (who is set to return) and Chris Hairston in place of Demetrius Bell. Unfortunately though, the Bills are lacking the cohesion and play-making that propelled them to a 3-1 start this year. There need to be some roster tweaks and changes in the playbook, but other moves seems to have started to pan out in the interim.
In many instances the team is only as good as the quarterback. Ryan Fitzpatrick struggled in both blowout losses (40-70, 355 yds, 1 TD, 5 INT), but was a lot sharper in the last two games (55-85, 552 yds, 4 TD, 0 INT). Fitz still struggled with some ball placement but it helps when your receivers do not drop the ball (http://www.buffalorumblings.com/2011/12/6/2615239/buffalo-bills-stevie-johnson-drop-cj-spiller). Stevie Johnson similarly struggled going 4-24-0 in the blowout losses and then 13-127-2 in the close games. Johnson also had a strong against pro-bowl corner Revis but also dropped a few big catches.
Part of Johnson's success has been with two developments. The first is that the Bills are finally throwing more to TE Scott Chandler who in the last four games has caught 17 passes for 203 yards. More so, the Bills have been finding more success with Brad Smith operating opposite Stevie Johnson. In the last two games, Smith has gone 11-149-1 and supplies Fitz with a deep threat option.
The Bills running game took a step back with the loss of their all-star RB Fred Jackson. Jackson rushed for 114 yards on 13 carries against Dallas before suffering a season-ending injury against Miami in which he caught 5 passes for 50 yards. All in all, Jackson was on an incredible pace for total yardage having 924 rushing yards (5.5 a carry), 6 TDs and 442 yard receiving (11.3 per catch). C.J. Spiller has become the primary halfback now and despite a tough outing against the Jets finishing with 55 yards on 19 carries, but rebounded with 83 yards on 14 carries and a TD against the Titans (Spiller also had a 40+ yard TD called back). The Bills also signed Tashard Choice to serve as Spiller's backup.
The Bills saw the return of rookie left tackle Chris Hairston against the Dolphins. At the same time, the Bills lost center Eric Wood. LG/T Andy Levitre slid over to center, but after a poor outing against the Fish, was replaced by Kraig Urbik (the biggest center in the league now). Levitre has resumed at left guard and still has chance to make the pro-bowl given his good blocking and versatility. Chad Rinehart meanwhile has taken over at right guard with Erik Pears starting every game so far at right tackle. LT Demetrius Bell meanwhile is set to return to active duty but may find playing time hard with Hairston's success at left tackle. Ideally, Bell should see reps at both tackle spots. The Bills have given up the fewest sacks (16) in the league, but have struggled with pressure at times.
The pass defense has been a major liability for the Bills as it has been the entire season. The only difference was that while the secondary gave up big yardage, they also made a slew of turnovers. Only once did the Bills make an interception over the past 4 games. Aside for the Titans game, opposing QBs have had great success against the secondary with 300+ yard passing games and/or 3+ TDs.
Compounding the situation is the fact that Terrence McGee got placed on the IR again, and rookie Aaron Williams, who has been arguably the best corner is also injured. Returning to the starting lineup are SS George Wilson (rookie Searcy did well starting in his stead) and CB Leodis McKelvin, who after getting demoted after the Dallas blowout, has done well with special teams and defending passes.
One major problem for the Bills in the last four games is that they have only made two sacks. If you account for the ten made against Washington, the Bills have only 5 sacks in their other 8 games. DE/NT Marcell Dareus leads the team with 4 sacks with ILB Nick Barnett behind him with 3 sacks. The outside linebackers need to somehow generate more pressure. The best move Edwards can do is to shift Spencer Johnson back to the D-Line and give more playing time to Moats, Batten or Coleman; especially given that the Bills are having to use DEs Dareus and Heard at the nose, the 3-4 DE spot is a bit thin.
Moving Johnson in also gives the outside linebacker spot more speed where opposing running backs have been dominating. The run defense has been good at points, but have struggled fiercely against the likes of Chris Johnson and DeMarco Murray. Nick Barnett leads the team in tackles and having George Wilson back will step up run defense a notch as well. Kelvin Sheppard has been fair alongside Barnett.
Special Teams Review
Even special teams has been under-performing with a blocked Moorman punt and a flubbed Rayner kickoff. Aside from these errors, the ST unit has been alright. While coverage units seem to still struggle a bit, the return men are able to make some gains. Moorman is averaging around 50 yards a punt. Dave Rayner, flubbed kick aside, has been doing well supplementing the Rian Lindell (IR) hitting 5-6 field goals including a 56 yarder.
Its always difficult for a coach to adjust the playbook given injured personnel. Chan Gailey clearly struggled in the aftermath of several crucial injuries to his team. Offensively the Bills are starting to gel again and this is by distributing the ball more evenly among receivers. Gailey needs to balance the pass attack with the run game, which Chan has given up on in several contests despite impressive yardage. Defensively, the Bills need to shift personnel majorly in order to stop opposing offenses early and somehow rush the QB! (I shall post a mock draft later next week for those of you wondering where it is.) Denver, Miami and New England all have been enjoying good strings of success so if there is ever a time for the Bills to pull off one last victory, it is this week's match-up against the Chargers.