Through just five weeks, the Buffalo Bills 2016 season has already been quite the roller-coaster ride.
After a disappointing pair of losses to the open season, the Bills seemed destined to extend its playoff drought to 17 years. The offense had sputtered and failed to display any resemblance of growth following its encouraging performance in 2015. The defense had surrendered 37 points, 493 total yards, and 374 passing yards to former Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick on national television. Bills head coach Rex Ryan fired offensive coordinator Greg Roman amidst rumors of pressure and meddling from ownership. The organization as a whole was in disarray.
Then something clicked.
The Bills dismantled a preseason Super Bowl favorite and intercepted 2015 NFL Comeback Player of the Year Carson Palmer four times in Week 3. They took advantage of a banged up rookie quarterback en route to a history-defying shutout win over New England in Gillette Stadium in Week 4. And now, with a 30-19 road victory over the Los Angeles Rams, the Bills have their first three-game winning streak since 2011.
While the prospect of going 5-2 looks extremely promising considering the struggles of the San Francisco 49ers and the Miami Dolphins, the Bills need to adopt the most clichéd mindset in sports. They need to take it one game at a time.
Here is what went right and what went wrong for the Bills in Week 5, and how that might impact their chances of knocking off San Francisco and extending their win streak to four in Week 6.
1. Shady Being Shady
There is a theme that seems to be developing in 2016. When the Bills feature LeSean McCoy, the Bills stand a far better chance at winning football games.
In Week 3, McCoy had two touchdowns and 116 yards on 20 touches and the Bills won. In Week 4, McCoy had a touchdown and 108 yards on 25 touches and the Bills won. In Week 5, despite behind held scoreless, McCoy had his best game of the season with 158 yards on 20 touches. Unsurprisingly, the Bills won.
McCoy was on fire against the Rams. When he was benefiting from the blocking of his teammates, McCoy was accelerating through holes and ripping off big runs. When he was met in the hole by opposing linebackers or defensive linemen, McCoy was leaving defenders utterly helpless with his quick feet and decisive movement. During this three-game winning streak, McCoy has been at his best. Though some may wonder whether handing any running back a rich, five-year, $40 million contract extension was a sound business decision, there is little debate regarding McCoy’s incredible value and importance to this current Bills team.
Through five games, McCoy ranks near the top of virtually every rushing category, and he will have a great opportunity to push himself even higher up the rankings against San Francisco. The 49ers rank 31st in rush defense thus far in 2016, and they have allowed four-straight 100-yard games from opposing ball carriers (Fozzy Whittaker, Christine Michael, Ezekiel Elliott, and David Johnson) during their losing streak. Those numbers likely won’t improve considering San Francisco lost its best defender (NaVorro Bowman) to a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 4.
Run Shady Run.
2. Role Players Step Up
While McCoy’s big day represents the most noteworthy performance in Week 5, Buffalo’s contributions from its role players were just as vital in allowing the Bills to depart sunny Los Angeles with a win.
On offense, waiver-wire pickup Justin Hunter reeled in a touchdown in his first action as a Buffalo Bill. Marquise Goodwin, who continues to remain healthy and carry over the improvement that he made during the offseason, put the game out of reach with a late touchdown reception of his own. Likewise, on defense, rookie third-round pick Adolphus Washington had the best game of his young career with a sack and multiple run stops. Jerel Worthy blew up a Rams attempt at the wildcat with a tackle four yards behind the line of scrimmage. Lerentee McCray stripped Todd Gurley late in the first quarter to put a screeching halt to a promising Los Angeles drive.
While all of the aforementioned efforts were plenty important, two players stood out among the rest.
What a find Lorenzo Alexander has been. After being signed in April, Alexander was expected to be a core special teams member for Danny Crossman. However, he’s played a far more important part for the Bills through five weeks. With a three-sack performance against the Rams, Alexander now leads the NFL with 7.0 sacks. In doing so, Alexander has given the Bills an effective pass rusher opposite Jerry Hughes, which was certainly a concern heading into the season. Although the return of first-round pick Shaq Lawson may cut into Alexander’s playing time in Week 7 and beyond, the 10-year veteran has carved out a legitimate role in the front seven. It’ll be interesting to see if opposing offenses begin accounting for Alexander with more than a single blocker in the weeks to come.
In addition to Alexander, Nickell Robey-Coleman had quite the return to his old collegiate stomping grounds. The diminutive slot corner’s pick-six of Case Keenum late in the third quarter was a game-changing play. He also wrestled away a second interception from Tavon Austin to put the game away for good late in the fourth quarter. While Robey-Coleman endured some struggles in 2015, he’s been a consistent performer on the Bills defense in 2016.
3. Finding a Way to Win
As a Bills fan, you can’t help but wait for the other shoe to drop. With each positive play, you’re concerned that a soul-crushing moment is just around the corner. However, the Bills have managed (during this three-game winning streak) to avoid the letdowns that have defined this team for the majority of the past two decades. Though it’s surely premature to believe that this team is any different from the Bills teams of years past that have inspired hope with early-season success only to stamp it out with late-season collapses, it’s encouraging to see the Bills win games that we’re all too familiar seeing them lose. The Bills weren’t perfect against the Rams, and they were certainly helped by a pair of terrible coaching decisions from Los Angeles head coach Jeff Fisher, but they made enough plays to win. And that is all that matters.
What Didn’t Work
1. Misconnections Through the Air
Much like his performance against Arizona, Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor didn’t have an impressive day passing against the Rams. While he started and finished his day with a pair of touchdown throws to Hunter and Goodwin, Taylor left productive plays on the field against Los Angeles. Most notably, with the game still hanging in the balance in the third quarter, his overthrow of Robert Woods on what would have been a 56-yard touchdown connection was disheartening. Taylor had consistently demonstrated an ability to throw deep with touch and accuracy in his first year as a starter. Unfortunately, that consistency has evaded Taylor this season. Despite his team’s recent successes, Taylor’s longest completed pass over the last three games went for 29 yards. Though I’m still willing to believe that Taylor may simply be going through growing pains in his development as a quarterback, one of his perceived strengths has turned into a weakness in 2016, and that is cause for concern.
Despite those concerns, Taylor demonstrates qualities that continue to make him valuable even on days where he only throws for 124 yards. His 22-yard scramble on third-and-19 in the first quarter was a play that few, if any, quarterbacks in the NFL could make. Likewise, his ability to avoid rushers and buy time on Hunter’s touchdown reception was remarkable.
Through five weeks, Taylor has struggled to display the consistency that one would ideally like to see from a sure-fire starting quarterback. Against the Rams, he certainly had his ups. His mobility continues to be elite, he protected the football, and he continued to establish a connection with Charles Clay (five catches on five targets for 73 yards). However, he also played a prominent role in the team’s third-down struggles (4 for 12) and inability to sustain drives. Hopefully a matchup against a poor San Francisco defense will enable Taylor to put forth a complete performance.
2. Struggles in the Secondary
Although it wasn’t nearly as bad as their collective efforts against the Jets, Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby didn’t have the type of displays that one might expect against a quarterback of Keenum’s caliber. Gilmore surrendered four catches on six targets for 55 yards, and Darby allowed seven catches on eight targets for 87 yards.
Going into the season, Buffalo’s cornerback tandem was expected to be a strength of the Bills defense. However, the play of the Bills front seven has proved far more instrumental to the defense’s strong start to the season. With that said, Gilmore and Darby have 11 more games to re-establish themselves as two of the better players at their position within the NFL. The Bills, and particularly Gilmore due to his looming free agency come season’s end, would greatly benefit from a return to form in the weeks to come.
3. The Overlooking of Mike Gillislee
After seeing the Bills explore re-signing Karlos Williams, and following offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn’s declaration that the Bills were still lacking the ideal complimentary back to McCoy, I’d really like to see the entire organization begin to properly appreciate the abilities of Gillislee.
The 25-year-old running back shined down the stretch for the Bills in 2015. In five games, Gillislee average 5.7 yards per carry and scored three touchdowns. Perhaps most impressive was Gillislee’s ability to produce big plays. This year, despite seeing the team draft Jonathan Williams in the fifth round, sign Reggie Bush, and afford Karlos Williams multiple opportunities to appease the doubts that came with his questionable work ethic, Gillislee has become the backup to McCoy.
Through five weeks, Gillislee has 83 yards and two touchdowns on just 14 touches. While those aren’t staggering numbers by any means, they are numbers that would seem to indicate Gillislee is deserving of more opportunities on a weekly basis. Although the third-year back doesn’t possess the size of Karlos Williams, or the pedigree of Bush, the front office and the coaching staff should stop searching for a complement to McCoy when they already have an effective option at their disposal.