In a game in which they were heavily favored and expected to win, the Buffalo Bills answered the call with a dominant performance against the San Francisco 49ers. Buffalo’s 45-16 victory over their lowly NFC West foes gave the Bills their first four-game winning streak since the 2008 season, and temporarily placed them among the AFC’s top six teams heading into Week 7.
Here is what went right and what went wrong for the Bills in Week 6.
Ground and Pound
Although some may understandably bristle at the phrase “ground and pound” considering the modernity of NFL offenses has placed far more of an emphasis on passing than running, the Bills beat the life out of the 49ers defense with their running attack. The 312 yards that the Bills accumulated on Sunday were the most that the franchise has witnessed since November 22, 1992. On that day, 181 yards from Kenneth Davis and 103 yards from Thurman Thomas spearheaded a 315-yard effort on the ground in a 41-14 win over the Atlanta Falcons. On Sunday, another MVP-caliber performance from LeSean McCoy led the way against the hapless 49ers.
As The Ringer’s Danny Kelly spoke to on Monday, since Anthony Lynn took over as offensive coordinator in Week 3, Buffalo’s ground game has been a core reason for the team’s turnaround. Although the Bills led the league in rushing in 2015 under Greg Roman, the team averaged just 75.5 rush yards over its first two games. Since Rex Ryan decided to make a change at coordinator, the Bills have averaged 211.8 yards rushing per game. That rapid improvement has been the product of improved play, both from its star players and role players, and creative play calling and design from Lynn.
Starting with Lynn, the first-time coordinator has done a great job at keeping defenses off balance through the utilization of different styles, formations, and looks. On Sunday, Lynn frequently used unbalanced lines and ran both toward and away from the extra tackles. The Bills ran the triple option and brought EJ Manuel into the game to run the read option with Tyrod Taylor split out wide. They ran effective inside and outside zone plays. They ran an end around, and basic power plays behind pulling guards and fullback Jerome Felton, and they continue to use the wildcat formation productively with McCoy (more often than not) taking direct snaps. Though it’s fair to say that Roman laid the foundation for the team’s recent successes, Lynn has done two things far better (so far) than his predecessor. He’s eliminated some of the predictability that plagued the offense early this season and at times in 2015. More importantly, he’s allowed his players to take ownership of the offense by playing to their strengths.
McCoy continued his hot stretch (and managed to shake off an injury scare) by rushing 19 times for 140 yards and three touchdowns. Much like his day against Los Angeles, McCoy was elusive and explosive all day long as he routinely made San Francisco defenders miss. He was also helped by the collective blocking efforts of his teammates. Cordy Glenn and Richie Incognito have justified the big-money contracts they signed during the season. Eric Wood continues to be a leader at the heart of the offense, and John Miller and Jordan Mills have both made great strides from where they were in 2015. The aforementioned Felton, who was initially cut before the season but re-signed after Week 2, has been instrumental during this four-game stretch as he leads the way for McCoy. The tight ends and receivers are all willing blockers, and that was exemplified best by Nick O’Leary, Walter Powell, and Robert Woods’ blocks on McCoy’s 22-yard conversion on third-and-20 late in the second quarter.
With a matchup against the Dolphins in Week 7, the Bills rushing attack has a great opportunity to pace the Bills to a fifth-straight win. Despite limiting Le’Veon Bell to 53 yards in their Week 6 home victory over the Steelers, Miami still ranks 31st (second worst to San Francisco) in rushing yards surrendered per game. If Lynn can continue keeping defenses on their heels, and if McCoy, Taylor, and Mike Gillislee can exploit the shortcomings of Miami’s defensive front, Buffalo could run wild again in Hard Rock Stadium.
A Dominant Defense
As discussed by Bills Insider Chris Brown, Buffalo’s defense has had quite the turnaround from it’s poor display against Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Jets in Week 2.
Through six weeks, the Bills are the best in the league on defense when it comes to keeping opponents out of the end zone when they get inside the red zone. Even when opposing offenses manage to move the ball, much like San Francisco did during the first half on Sunday; the defense has consistently shut the door when backed up against their own goal line. After seeing the 49ers go 0-for-2 (in terms of scoring touchdowns) in the red zone this week, the Bills have now surrendered just six touchdowns on 18 red zone possessions allowed. That statistic has also translated to a league-best mark when it comes to surrendering touchdowns through the air. The Bills passing defense has allowed just three passing touchdowns thus far in 2016.
In addition to those two statistics, the Bills defense ranks among the league’s best in other categories as well. Buffalo’s defense is tied for second in the league in takeaways (12) and sacks (20). Lorenzo Alexander added another sack to his league-leading total (8.0) and will continue to be featured prominently for the Bills defense despite the pending return of first-round pick Shaq Lawson. Lastly, the Bills are getting off the field better than they did in 2015. Buffalo is limiting opposing offenses to a 33.8 percent third down conversion rate, which ranks fifth in the league. They are also forcing opposing offenses into a three-and-out on 26.5 percent of their possessions, which also currently ranks fifth in the NFL.
Much like Buffalo’s rushing offense, the Bills defense will have an opportunity to continue its strong play against Ryan Tannehill and Miami’s offense. The Dolphins rank tied for 30th in first downs (97) and third down conversion rate (32.9 percent), and they are tied for the fifth-most giveaways (11). Lastly, although Miami’s offensive line helped pave the way for a big day from running back Jay Ajayi against the Steelers, Tannehill has been sacked 17 times through six weeks, which is tied for fourth-worst in the league.
Tyrod’s Big Day
Yesterday morning, Buffalo Rumblings Editor-in-Chief Chris Trapasso suggested that Taylor’s play against the 49ers was his “quintessential performance.” Simply put, I would wholeheartedly agree with him.
Despite failing to top 200 yards through the air for the fourth time in six games, Taylor played well by anyone’s standards on Sunday. Though his accuracy on shorter and intermediate routes has waned at times this season, Taylor was consistently on point against San Francisco. While one of the main concerns with Taylor, and the Bills offense as whole, was their over-reliance on the big play and their inability to sustain drives, Buffalo had no such issues against the 49ers. The Bills racked up 29 first downs, 10 of which came through the air, and they converted on eight of their 13 third downs. Taylor’s accuracy and decisiveness, to receivers both outside and inside the hash marks, played a vital role in that success.
In addition to his always-amazing mobility (Taylor carried eight times for 68 yards), perhaps the most impressive part of Taylor’s day was his ability to scan the entire field and his re-connection on the deep ball. Those qualities were illustrated in quick succession late in the third quarter.
After a rare negative play from McCoy backed the Bills up for a second-and-15 at their own 47 yard line, Taylor scanned the entire field from left to right, all while remaining patient in the pocket, and found Nick O’Leary wide open along the sideline for a 23-yard gain. The very next play, Taylor faked out a pair of 49ers defenders with a well-timed pump fake, and then threw a perfect downfield pass to hit Justin Hunter in stride for a 30-yard touchdown. With the score, the Bills took a 24-13 lead and never looked back.
Although Taylor’s performance came at home against a terrible defense, it remains encouraging nonetheless. While his physical traits will continue to make him a solid starting quarterback, his growth and development mentally, and as a pocket passer will make him a nightmare for opposing defenses.
Not a Whole Lot
On a day in which the Bills won by 29 points, there really isn’t much worth discussing when it comes to “What Didn’t Work.” Though there are always momentary lapses even in lopsided wins (the offense’s struggles early in the second half, the miscommunication that led to Taylor’s fumble on the first drive, Jonathan Williams’ fumble), it certainly didn’t hinder the Bills from blowing out a far inferior team.
On to Miami.