Q1 Report: Grades, Stars & the Next 4 Games
So for those of you who don’t know, I try to take a look
Passing Game: C
The passing game has been sluggish at times, but that is what happens when you are breaking in a rookie quarterback. E.J. Manuel has not been great, but not atrocious either. He certainly has the arm strength to make throws, but still is working on mechanics. Still he has completed almost 57% of his passes for 856 yards, 5 TDs and just 3 picks. Starter Stevie Johnson leads the team with 18 catches for 235 yards and 2 TDs, but has had some costly drops. Rookie Robert Woods has complemented Stevie well with 11 catches for 201 yards and 2 TDs. TE Chandler meanwhile has recovered well making 14 grabs for 155 yards and a TD. Lastly the offensive line has been decent with exception to the Jets game. Their biggest problem has been penalties across the board.
Running Game: A-
Given the struggles of C.J. Spiller in particular, some people may be surprised that the Bills stand second in the NFL with over 150 rushing yards per game. That’s in part because Marrone is trying to take pressure off of a young QB, but also because he has two excellent running backs. Spiller has been hurt over the last few weeks and is not up to last season’s form; still he has 66 carries for 230 yards (3.5 avg). Veteran Fred Jackson though has been solid with 48 carries for 256 yards (5.3 avg) and 2 TDs. The offensive line still needs to generate the push when blocking. Also, hopefully Marrone sees how effective FB Frank Summers has been to quick start his running game.
Run Defense: C+
Part of the problem with the up tempo offense that cannot sustain drives, which means more time on the field for the "D" and thus wears down the defense. I feel the run defense has improved (122 yards per game this year from 146 yards per game last year) thanks to a faster front seven, but they have been prone to give up a big run at times. The defense is still adapting to Pettine’s packages with all new starting linebackers (Lawson, Alonso and Moats) at its center. The defensive line is still quite strong despite losing Carrington and with Dareus and Kyle Williams, has been stouter in the middle.
Pass Defense: C-
Obviously, injuries have been a major problem for the secondary. Currently the Bills have been without their top 3 corners (Gilmore, McKelvin, Brooks) and pro bowl safety Jairus Byrd. McKelvin was solid before being inured with 7 passes defended. Our young, inexperienced corners have been picked on a lot in this time frame, particularly Justin Rogers, but they are slowly making plays. The big stat that jumps out is the fact that the Bills have notched 9 interceptions (4 by Alonzo, 2 each by Leonhard and Williams and 1 by Rogers). McKelvin and Byrd should be back soon with Gilmore a few weeks after so keep your fingers crossed. With more blitzes, the pass rushers meanwhile have notched 13 sacks total (tied 7th best in the league), Mario Williams with 5.5, and Dareus with 3. The pass rush has been more effective, but still could be better at times.
Special Teams: B+
The injury bug also hit early on here. First the Bills lose rookie kicker Dustin Hopkins for a few months. His replacement, Dan Carpenter, has been solid, making 10 of 11 field goals, including a 55 yard try. Likewise, both main return-men (Goodwin & McKelvin) have been injured, but their replacements have not had to do much. Coverage units on kicks and punts have been very good. The only hiccup here has been the inconsistencies of punter Shawn Powell who despite averaging 46.3 yards per punt and 10 inside the 20, has shanked one or two punts badly in each game.
Injuries have been costly for the Bills. But credit first year coach Doug Marrone and his staff for working through them. Both wins were close calls, but so were both losses. Marrone still has things to learn of the nuances of the NFL’s game and his high speed offense would do well to slow down until E.J. settles in. The defense has seen a lot more playing time, and while they’ve given up an average of 23 points in these first four games, that’s a vast improvement to last year’s 33 points per game at this time. Pettine’s defense, as bruised as it is, is showing a lot more ability and life than Wannstedt’s did.