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What Worked and What Didn’t: Week 7

After a four-game winning streak put the Buffalo Bills’ 2016 playoff aspirations back in view, a disappointing 28-25 road defeat to the Miami Dolphins has put a damper on the enthusiasm that resulted from the club’s winning ways. With the defeat, Buffalo drops to 4-3 on the year, and with a matchup against the 6-1 New England Patriots looming in Week 8, things could get worse before they get better.

Here is what went right and what went wrong for the Bills in Week 7, and how their performance against the Dolphins could impact their game against the Patriots.

What Didn’t Work

1. Run Defense

One week after his 204-yard, two-touchdown performance led the Dolphins to an upset victory over the Steelers, second-year running back Jay Ajayi proved that his Week 6 performance was no fluke. Ajayi ran like a man possessed against the Bills, racking up 214 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries. Ajayi’s big day put him in elite company as he joined OJ Simpson, Earl Campbell, and Ricky Williams as the fourth player in NFL history to post back-to-back 200-yard rush games. Ajayi’s combination of strength and speed, and his ability to read his blocks (particularly on cut-backs) was impressive. However, Buffalo’s defense did little to prevent Ajayi’s performance.

According to Pro Football Focus, 10 different defenders combined to miss a total of 16 tackles. In particular, despite their standout play this season, Zach Brown and Preston Brown struggled to shed blocks and prevent Ajayi from consistently ripping off big runs. Much like the defense’s performance against the Jets in Week 2, Rex Ryan and the defensive coaching staff shouldn’t be held entirely accountable for the defensive struggles. While Ryan could’ve opted to play more “46” defense against Miami, the defense, which came into the game having allowed just one other 100-yard rusher through six games (Matt Forte in Week 2), struggled to do it’s part in slowing down Miami’s rushing attack.

The run defense will certainly need a bounce back effort against the Patriots. Although Tom Brady’s return from suspension has rejuvenated New England’s passing game, LeGarrette Blount has continued to give the Patriots a reliable threat on the ground. Against the Steelers, Blount ran for 127 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries. The bruising back currently ranks sixth in the league in rushing yards (566) and is tied for first in rushing touchdowns (8).

2. The Offensive Line

For the first time since the opening week of the season, Buffalo’s offensive line struggled against the opposition’s front seven. Though there remains doubt as to how healthy LeSean McCoy was coming into Sunday, the offensive line did little in the way of helping Buffalo’s star running back against the Dolphins. During the club’s four-game winning streak, McCoy was often afforded sizable holes to sprint through. However, there was no such luck against Miami. More often than not, McCoy was met in the backfield by defensive lineman or ushered into areas of the field that were heavily populated by Dolphins defenders. After running for a combined 290 yards against the Rams and 49ers, McCoy managed a paltry 11 yards on eight carries.

The offensive line wasn’t much better in pass protection. Buoyed by the efforts of Ndamokung Suh, Cameron Wake and former Bill Mario Williams, Miami pressured Tyrod Taylor on 19 of his 38 dropbacks. Although the struggles were shared among all five players, right tackle Jordan Mills’ poor performance was the most apparent on Sunday. Mills surrendered two of Miami’s four sacks, and four additional quarterback hurries. Although his job doesn’t appear to be in imminent danger, the pending return of Seantrel Henderson and the strong early-season play of Cyrus Kouandjio certainly give the Bills alternatives if Mills’ struggles continue.

The offensive line, much like the defense’s efforts against the run, will need to rediscover the form that it displayed during the team’s winning streak. While New England’s rush defense ranks 12th in the league in rushing yards surrendered (646), the Patriots have only managed 11 sacks, which ranks tied for 24th in the league. If New England stacks the box to limit Buffalo’s league-best rushing attack, Taylor should have time to take advantage of New England’s mediocre secondary.

3. The Offensive Game Plan

Although the offensive performance was certainly hindered by the absences of Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods, and the mid-week injury to McCoy, Buffalo’s game plan on offense failed to maximize the talents of two contributors that should have been at the forefront of the team’s efforts in Week 7.

After two consecutive weeks of making it a point to feature Charles Clay, the offense reverted back to the norm when targeting their talented tight end. In victories over the Rams and 49ers, Clay hauled in 10 passes on 12 targets for 125 yards. While I’d like to see Clay utilized even more than that, it seemed a like a definitive step in the right direction. Against the Dolphins, Clay caught just two passes on five targets for 29 yards. With Miami losing star safety Reshad Jones for the season due to a rotator cuff injury, and considering the aforementioned absences of Watkins and Woods, Clay should have been the focal point of the passing game. However, the offense’s most opportune mismatch continues to largely go to waste.

In addition to Clay, I continue to be baffled by the coaching staff’s relative indifference toward Mike Gillislee. While I already spoke to my confusion regarding Gillislee’s workload after Week 5, the Bills would benefit from featuring the third-year back more. Even with McCoy being limited, Gillislee carried the ball only five times for 20 yards against the Dolphins. Even more alarming, after McCoy left the game with tightness in his injured hamstring, the Bills almost entirely abandoned the running game despite operating with a lead for most of the game. Though it’s possible that offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn hesitated to call running plays due to the offensive line’s struggles, Gillislee should have been afforded the opportunity to help the Bills close the game out.

If the Bills are to beat the Patriots on Sunday, the offense needs to help the defense by sustaining drives. Even if McCoy and Woods are available to play, the Bills offense should implement a plan that features Clay and Gillislee far more than it has thus far in 2016.

What Worked

1. Special Teams Play

Although Danny Crossman’s tenure with the Bills got off to inauspicious start in 2013, Buffalo’s special teams units have been steady over the last few seasons. According to Football Outsiders, the Bills’ special teams ranked 7th and 12th in 2014 and 2015, and through seven weeks this season, Buffalo ranks 6th in the NFL in special teams DVOA.

That ranking surely received a boost after another strong performance on Sunday. Brandon Tate, who was signed by Buffalo just five days before Week 1, had two big plays that placed the Bills in advantageous field position. In the first quarter, Tate had a 30-yard punt return that led to a Dan Carpenter field goal. In the fourth quarter, with the Bills still clinging to a 17-14 lead, Tate downed a beautiful Colton Schmidt punt at Miami’s one-yard line. In addition to Tate’s efforts, Lerentee McCray partially blocked a Dolphins punt in the second quarter. McCray’s big play placed the ball at Miami’s 40-yard-line and led to Taylor’s 10-yard touchdown run.

The Bills would greatly benefit from another strong special teams performance against the Patriots. With the Bills defense having their hands full against the greatest quarterback of all time, and the offense potentially playing without McCoy, Buffalo needs more big plays from all four special teams units.

While New England currently sits 16th in Football Outsiders’ special teams DVOA rankings, kicker Stephen Gostkowski has been unusually erratic so far this season. The normally reliable Gostkowksi has already missed three field goals and two extra points through seven weeks.

2. Lorenzo Alexander’s Dominance

The 33-year-old Alexander was the best player on the field for the Bills on Sunday. Although the rest of his teammates struggled throughout most of the afternoon, Alexander had four tackles, two quarterback hurries, two tackles for loss, and his NFL-leading ninth sack of the season. With the sack, Alexander has now registered a quarterback takedown in seven straight games. That streak is the first of its kind in franchise history since Bruce Smith had a nine-game streak spanning from 1996 to 1997.

The Bills will need Alexander to keep up the pace against New England. If the Bills secondary can delay the quick-hitting nature of the Patriots passing attack, Alexander, Jerry Hughes, Shaq Lawson, and the interior defensive linemen need to pressure Brady in order to disrupt the timing of New England’s offense.

3. Tyrod Carries His Supporting Cast

Although Taylor’s abilities as a franchise quarterback continue to be a divisive talking point amongst Bills fans, unlike some of my coworkers, I thought Taylor fared well against Miami despite some dire circumstances. I completely understand Taylor’s struggles against the Dolphins. Much like virtually every other starting quarterback, there were occasions where Taylor missed open receivers and prematurely abandoned the pocket. However, the shortcomings of the offense against Miami shouldn’t be placed at the feet of the Bills quarterback.

Taylor’s supporting cast, which includes his coaches, struggled mightily against the Dolphins. His offensive line was consistently beaten by Miami’s front seven, most notably on three consecutive plays when the Bills fell behind in the fourth quarter. Taylor’s inability to lead fourth-quarter comebacks thus far in his career is certainly continued cause for concern. However, Taylor is given an incredibly slim opportunity to lead comebacks if he’s scrambling for his life due to shoddy pass protection. Likewise, his receiving core, which was missing its top two options going into the game, struggled to help Taylor.

Justin Hunter, who was playing in just his third game as a Bill after being plucked off of waivers, led the Bills wide outs in playing time by receiving 93% of the offensive snaps. That probably isn’t a good sign. Marquise Goodwin, who left the game in the fourth quarter with a concussion, has caught just 12 of his 32 targets (37.5%) in 2016. Though his speed continues to make him a dangerous downfield target, as evidenced by his 67-yard touchdown, his ability as a receiver in every other facet is lacking.

Taylor was not responsible for Sunday’s loss. If anything, along with the play of the special teams, Taylor compensated for his teammates’ poor play and kept the Bills close. While some continue to yearn for the pocket-passing, elite signal caller that regularly churns out 300-yard performances through the air, even the best quarterbacks in the league are dependent on their teammates and coaches.

Matt Ryan, who was forgotten by many over the last few years due to poor coaching, poor offensive line play, and a lack of secondary options beyond Julio Jones, now leads the league in nearly every passing category due to improvement from his supporting cast. On the flip side, Aaron Rodgers, who arguably remains the NFL’s most talented quarterback, has struggled in 2016. Between Mike McCarthy’s stagnant and uninventive play calling and Rodgers’ declining collection of skill players (injured running backs, limited talent at tight end, Jordy Nelson working his way back from a season-ending injury in 2015, regression of Randall Cobb), Rodgers ranks in the bottom third of several passing categories through seven games.

Bills fans are understandably impatient due to the team’s lengthy playoff drought. However, when evaluating Taylor, it’s important to not be let the drought discard a quarterback that is a capable starter. Is he on the level of Rodgers, Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck and Ryan as a passer? Absolutely not. However, Taylor’s mobility, and his ability to both throw deep and protect the football are among the games best. As he makes strides in the other facets of his game, Taylor would certainly stand to benefit from healthy skill players (particularly McCoy and Watkins), consistency from his offensive line, and an increased understanding with current offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn.

Barring sudden regression during the season’s remaining nine games, Taylor’s potential cap hit of $15.9 million in 2017 (would currently rank 20th among quarterbacks) appears very reasonable as of now.