The Buffalo Bills’ season is very much alive.
After two weeks, hope had all but vanished. The offense and defense took turns in putting forth incompetent efforts, and the Bills quickly slipped to 0-2. With matchups against two preseason Super Bowl favorites looming in Week 3 and Week 4, fans were already readying themselves for a 17th consecutive season of playoff-less football. However, that preparation for disappointment has become unnecessary. At least for now.
With Sunday’s historic 16-0 win over the Patriots, the Bills have saved their season after it looked to be slipping away. The defense has been at its best since head coach Rex Ryan’s arrival, and the offense has improved despite an early-season change at offensive coordinator, and the continued absence of star wide receiver Sammy Watkins.
Before we turn our attention to what looks like a very winnable upcoming three-game stretch (@ LA, vs. SF, @ MIA), here’s what went right and what went wrong for the Bills in Week 4.
Zach Brown and his Defensive Bandmates
18 tackles. Two tackles for loss. Two forced fumbles. Two quarterback hurries. One sack.
After signing a one-year contract with Buffalo in early April, Brown was expected to start alongside Preston Brown in Ryan’s 3-4 alignment. However, following the Bills’ selection of standout linebacker Reggie Ragland in the second round of this year’s draft, Brown looked set to slide into a depth role. Unfortunately for Ragland, the rookie suffered a season-ending ACL injury during an August practice, and Brown reassumed his starting role. He hasn’t looked back.
Through four games, the 26-year-old leads the NFL with 52 tackles. While time will tell if Brown’s incredible start to the season is an outlier to his true abilities or not, his undeniable athleticism has made you wonder if he was simply miscast in Tennessee. Though he was billed upon arrival as a third-down linebacker who excelled in pass coverage but struggled in run support, Brown sure has looked plenty capable in every facet of the game. Ragland certainly remains a part of the team’s future plans, especially considering how quickly he endeared himself to the coaching staff, but Brown’s start to the season has made him an important contributor. If he keeps it up, the Bills and Brown’s bank statement will both be better off.
As the scoreboard would indicate, Brown was not alone in his strong performance. While his play has been overshadowed a bit by his teammate, Preston Brown continues to put his 2015 struggles further in the rearview mirror with a fourth-straight strong performance. Jerry Hughes has been a dominant force as a pass-rusher and added a fourth sack to his total for the season. Lorenzo Alexander, who was initially signed to be a core member of Buffalo’s special teams units, added a fourth sack to his season total. Without their best player, the Bills defensive line limited the NFL’s leading rusher (LeGarrette Blount) to just 54 yards on the ground. Lastly, although Jacoby Brissett didn’t exactly challenge them, the Bills secondary played well for a second consecutive week. In particular, Aaron Williams’ versatility in coverage shined through as the safety had three pass breakups.
The Bills defense has been dominant in three of four games this season, and it only stands to get better with the returns of Marcell Dareus this week, and Shaq Lawson in Week 7. With matchups against Case Keenum, Blaine Gabbert, and Ryan Tannehill over the next three weeks, the defensive players and staff should give the Bills an opportunity to win all three games.
An Efficient Offense
For the second consecutive week, Bills offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn put the offense in a position to succeed. Lynn figured that New England was likely going to try and limit the running game and downfield throws, and force Taylor to operate within the pocket, and he responded with a gameplan that had the Bills quarterback throw quick-hitting, high-percentage throws to his skill players. While Greg Roman was guilty of having players conform to his sets and ideals, Lynn has seemingly conformed his offense to best utilize the talents of his players.
The modernity of Buffalo’s offense was also encouraging. Although the Bills had a big day on the ground against Arizona last week, Lynn flipped the script and had Taylor throw the ball 39 times against New England. Lynn’s trust in his quarterback was emboldened as Taylor completed 69.2 percent of his throws (to eight different receivers), used his feet effectively to run and pass on the move, and played mistake-free football. Better yet, Lynn designed a gameplan that frequently got the ball in the hands of his best players. LeSean McCoy had 25 touches for 108 total yards and a touchdown. Robert Woods was targeted 10 times, and caught seven passes for 89 yards. Even Charles Clay, who has long been underutilized as a receiver, saw seven targets and caught five of them for 47 yards.
Through two weeks, Ryan’s decision to dismiss Roman in favor of Lynn has been justified. Gone are blocking tight ends and extra offensive linemen. Gone are plays designed to fool the opposition. And gone are gameplans that seem to leave out key contributors. Lynn has placed the responsibility of playing well in the hands of his best players, and that has paid off.
One last note: According to Pro Football Focus, the Bills targeted Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan 16 times on Sunday, and that resulted in 12 receptions for 111 yards. While Ryan didn’t get beat deep, the Bills continued to look his way for steady pickups through the air. It’s encouraging to see the Bills attacking specific matchups.
Basking in the Misery of Patriots Fans
Just one for week, it was incredibly satisfying to see the Patriots suffer. While Tom Brady’s return will likely place the Patriots firmly in contention to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LI, Sunday was a glimpse at what New England could look like without the best quarterback in NFL history. For all the talk about how Bill Belichick could win with anyone behind center, the Patriots were outcoached and outplayed in every facet of the game.
As WGR SportsRadio 550’s Jeremy White spoke to, New England’s performance had so many of the staples that have long been featured by the Bills during their run of uninspiring quarterbacks. There were the give-up play calls on third-and-long. There was a conservative gameplan that failed to involve the team’s playmakers. There was officiating that wasn’t wildly in their favor (watching Brissett and Julian Edelman try to buy calls with unsuccessful flops was very enjoyable). There were undisciplined penalties, sometimes in succession. There was poor clock management and opting for field goals instead of more courageous decisions. There was even a quarterback getting hit with a snap in the face.
For one day, Bills fans were given a hopeful glimpse as to what New England might look like from time to time without the most important player in their organization. If that glimpse features more laughably premature booing from a wildly unappreciative fan base, I can’t wait until that time comes again.
Penalties From the Offensive Line
Although the offensive line did a great job protecting Taylor throughout the game, they were penalized six times during Sunday’s proceedings. In his return from an ankle injury that had him miss almost all of the first three weeks, Cordy Glenn was penalized twice. Eric Wood was called for a holding penalty, and Richie Incognito was also whistled for three infractions. Though it’s weirdly encouraging that the more unproven commodities along the offensive line went unnoticed (for good reasons), the Bills will need all five members working cohesively in the second quarter of the season.
Big Play Conversion
While the offense’s ability to sustain drives is a welcome development, the Bills offense often misfired when given the opportunity to put the game beyond doubt. Taylor and the offense drove the ball inside New England’s 30-yard line five times, which is certainly encouraging. Unfortunately, after the first foray deep into Patriots territory resulted in LeSean McCoy’s seven-yard touchdown reception, the Bills settled for four field goal attempts and Dan Carpenter converted three of those opportunities.
In addition to the missed chances, Taylor also just missed on a pair of deep throws to Marquise Goodwin and Walter Powell. Though some of that may be related to his undersized targets, the Bills quarterback hasn’t connected on a big play through the air since Week 2. However, Taylor has exhibited an exceptional ability to throw deep in his 18 starts, and you’d expect him to reconnect with one of his downfield targets in the very near future.
Carpenter’s Missed FG
The fact that the Bills kicker’s misfire on a 47-yard, third-quarter field goal is on this list is a testament to how well the team played on Sunday. Carpenter’s miss breathed momentary life into Gillette Stadium and Bills fans’ worst nightmares. However, the defense surrendered just two yards and forced a three-and-out on the ensuing series. The veteran kicker also redeemed himself just minutes later when he converted a 44-yard attempt with 28 seconds left in the third quarter.