There's plenty to be excited about in Buffalo with the Buffalo Bills off to a 4-0 start for the first time since 1992. Yet despite four straight wins to open the 2008 regular season, Bills fans seem increasingly negative about the team's play, specifically in the last two weeks. I'm here to quell some of that pessimism - because what I saw in tape in reviewing the Bills' 31-14 victory over the Rams was quite encouraging. The tape never lies.
For the third time in four games, the Bills started off slowly offensively. The penalties, missed assignments and general first-half woes that our (still very young) offense has displayed are the most-referenced low points when Bills fans are staying cautious about the team's prospects. Caution is a great thing to have - in fact, caution is the preferable route at this point when laying out expectations for this team - but we're a lot closer to having a great game offensively than many realize.
Miscues and brand new schemes
Much of the early-game lack of success that the Bills have displayed stems from what defenses are doing. The Rams - who got absolutely blitzed by the Eagles, Giants and Seahawks in their first three games - came out and did a lot of overloading and stunting in their blitz packages defensively, something they hadn't done in their first three losses. The result was some blown assignments in pass protection, which was largely responsible for the Bills' offensive woes early in this particular game.
The other culprit? Mistakes - and those likely stemmed from a couple of factors. First, I thought that offensive coordinator Turk Schonert was a bit too urgent in this game. The Bills didn't really try to establish their rushing game - not until the third quarter, at least - and most of the passes they threw were throws down the field. That's uncharacteristic of a Schonert offense (at least the one we've seen to date), and it kept the Bills in several third-and-unmanageable situations. Stemming from that sense of urgency on Schonert's part was offensive personnel that seemed to be pushing - in fact, borderline desperate - as well. That led to some of the penalties (though the early holding call on Jason Peters, which negated a long Marshawn Lynch run, was, in fact, garbage).
Buffalo needs to tighten up the screws early in the game, there's no doubt about it. They're seeing exotic looks and they're shooting themselves in the foot. They're going to have to deal with the looks, because those will keep coming. If they eliminate the mistakes, however, and remain true to their offensive identity, they can be much more effective in the first half. In particular, they need to deal with the early blitz better, because Trent Edwards took too many big hits in this one. Better play-calling will take care of it.
Blocking scheme changes
While the Bills were struggling to run the ball in the first half, the team spent a lot of time running in-tackle, and Peters pulled to the right on a lot of those plays. The results, as you all are aware, were less than impressive - though if there aren't two penalties negating long runs (I said the Peters hold was garbage, which it was, but the trip on Melvin Fowler was a good call), we're not complaining about Buffalo's rushing effort in this game.
Buffalo clearly made a concerted effort to re-establish their running game in the third quarter, and they did it with a slightly adjusted blocking scheme. They mixed in plenty of off-tackle runs, which led to some of Marshawn Lynch's longer runs of the game. Fred Jackson had success off the edge as well. Rather than pulling Peters in the second half, it was Langston Walker doing most of the pulling. Man, is it fun to watch that guy sprint full-out. Walker wasn't laying a lot of lumber on these plays, but a man that size doesn't have to - he creates space because he's so big. The Bills' diversity in their run game play-calling, with a dash of determination, was what led to success - and it's what created a hole straight up the middle for Jackson on his first career touchdown rush.
Lee Evans: key to Buffalo's offense
The Bills did a smart thing getting Lee Evans involved early - his 49-yard reception on the first play of the game was a thing of beauty - but they need to find ways to spread his production out through an entire game. Evans' second and final reception came in the fourth quarter, the 39-yard touchdown grab that put the game on ice. He needs to be more of a factor in the middle quarters; I'm confident he would have been had Edwards had more time to throw.
Some fun stats for any stragglers out there who think Evans doesn't deserve a lucrative contract extension from the Bills: over two seasons, Trent Edwards is 9-4 as an NFL starting quarterback. In those thirteen games, Evans has had at least 50 receiving yards nine times - all wins. He's had less than 50 receiving yards four times - all losses. Take that further - in the 20 games the Bills have played since the start of the 2007 season, Evans has notched at least 50 receiving yards in 11 of those games. That's right, folks - over the past two years, the Bills are 11-0 in games where Evans nabs 50 receiving yards, and 0-9 when he doesn't. Getting him involved is quite obviously the key to success for Buffalo's offense, and it's a pretty inarguable point.
Reviews of the defense and special teams are coming your way later today. Stay tuned...