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What Worked and What Didn’t: Week 9

Buffalo’s last-second comeback bid falls short as they drop to 4-5 on the season.

In a game that many forecasted as a low-scoring defensive struggle, the Seattle Seahawks held on to beat the Buffalo Bills 31-25 in a thrilling Monday Night Football matchup. Although the loss further obscured their path to the postseason, the Bills performed admirably in one of the toughest environments in the NFL against one of the NFC’s strongest team. With the disappointing defeat, the Bills drop to 4-5 as they head into their bye week.

Here is what went right and what went wrong for the Bills in Week 9.

What Didn’t Work

1. A Struggling Secondary

The performance of Buffalo’s secondary continues to be the most frustrating development of the 2016 season. Within a defense that is reliant upon cornerbacks that can excel in man-to-man coverage, Ronald Darby and Stephon Gilmore were expected to provide Bills head coach Rex Ryan with peace of mind on the backend. However, things have trended in the opposite direction.

Following a strong rookie campaign that drew significant praise, Darby has regressed from where he was a season ago. Likewise, after being the talk of training camp due to his consistently dominant performances, Stephon Gilmore has struggled more often than not in the final year of his rookie contract. Unfortunately for the Bills, their cornerbacks didn’t shake their respective slumps against Seattle. After surrendering three big plays (two catches for 62 yards and an obvious defensive pass interference penalty that placed the ball at Buffalo’s one-yard line), Darby was benched in favor of Corey White. Although Gilmore managed to remain on the field, he didn’t fare much better. The Bills’ cornerback was hurdled by Jimmy Graham at one point, and more importantly, the 26-year-old continues to be successfully targeted by opposing quarterbacks and secondary receiving options.

In addition to the starting cornerbacks, other members of Buffalo’s secondary played poorly. Nickell Robey-Coleman has fallen off after a strong start to the season. Although some may credit him with saving a touchdown after he very clearly interfered with Doug Baldwin on a downfield throw in the fourth quarter, Robey-Coleman’s blunder allowed Seattle to extend it’s lead by three points with just under ten minutes left. Since taking over for the injured Aaron Williams, safety Robert Blanton has also failed to impress. Blanton featured prominently in Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham’s big first-half performance (six catches for 94 yards and two touchdowns). One touchdown even came in spite of an obvious hold from Blanton in the right corner of the end zone.

Although the Bills did a better job of limiting Seattle’s passing attack in the second half, the secondary’s poor performance in the first half ultimately doomed the team’s efforts against Seattle. As the team collects itself during the bye week, the defensive players and coaching staff need to put their heads together in an effort to prevent similar let downs in the future. Whether that’s featuring players like White and Kevon Seymour a bit more, or perhaps it’s Ryan providing his cornerbacks with more help in coverage than he has thus far, the Bills collectively need to find fixes for their flailing efforts against the pass.

2. The Officiating

Though I led off with the leaky Buffalo pass defense, the terrible performance of Walt Anderson and his fellow referees played just as much of a role in Seattle’s triumph. The debacle at the end of the first half was a mess. Between failing to penalize a very clear unnecessary roughness infraction on Richard Sherman, and the official standing over the football and directly causing Buffalo’s delay of game penalty, the Bills were robbed of three points by the officials. Though it’s possible that Dan Carpenter would’ve failed to convert a shorter field goal attempt, the likely three points that would’ve resulted from better officiating could’ve changed the complexion of the second half.

The final drive also featured poor officiating. Following LeSean McCoy’s first-down run, the Seahawks got away with a clear late hit on Tyrod Taylor as he scrambled and fell to the ground on his second-down scramble. On third down, the officials missed a false start penalty on Bills guard John Miller that could have played a role in Jordan Mills’ slow reaction to the snap. Lastly, on the game-deciding fourth-down play, Sherman laid out Walter Powell as Taylor was scrambling to find an open receiver. Although Sherman’s actions have since been labeled as fair due to the NFL’s rulebook, I still don’t understand how Seattle’s All-Pro cornerback wasn’t penalized. Even if Taylor was out of the pocket, which is very debatable, Sherman certainly hit a defenseless receiver.

Imagine for a second if Russell Wilson was driving the Seahawks for a game-winning touchdown in the same circumstances. If Stephon Gilmore laid out Doug Baldwin in the identical way that Sherman eliminated Powell from the play, would there have been a flag? I say yes.

3. Another Inopportune Injury

Although for many fans the jury remains out on the merits of Buffalo’s head coach and quarterback, it’s becoming increasingly fair to wonder if the Bills’ 2016 season has been doomed by bad injury luck.

On defense, while Shaq Lawson has played well the past three weeks, shoulder surgery had him miss the entire preseason and the first six weeks of the regular season. Lawson’s fellow rookie Reggie Ragland was quickly becoming a favorite of the coaching staff before a partially torn ACL ended his season during training camp. Marcell Dareus, who missed the first four games of the season due to suspension, has missed an additional four games due to hamstring and groin injuries. Aaron Williams, who missed all but one game in 2015 because of a neck injury, suffered another season-ending neck injury that could leave his career in jeopardy.

On the offensive side of the ball, Taylor has been without his best receiving option for most of the year. Following an offseason foot injury that resulted in surgery, Sammy Watkins was shut down after Buffalo’s Week 2 loss to the Jets. Cordy Glenn missed two games early in the season after re-aggravating an ankle injury that he suffered during training camp. McCoy, who was generating deserved MVP buzz for his central role in Buffalo’s four-game winning streak, suffered a hamstring injury that prevented him from playing an impactful role in losses to Miami and New England. The luck on offense worsened after center Eric Wood suffered a fractured fibula that will end his 2016 season prematurely. Though Wood has struggled a bit more this year than he did in 2015, the Bills will greatly miss his presence at the heart of the offensive line.

What Worked

1. Tyrod’s Best Game as a Pro

Although it came in a losing effort, Taylor’s best performance as a starting quarterback was certainly an encouraging bright spot for the Bills. Taylor led the Bills offense to 425 yards, 30 first downs (16 coming through the air), and helped Buffalo convert 12 out of 17 third downs. He was efficient (71.1 completion percentage on 38 attempts), used the entire field, and consistently pushed the ball downfield. Although he turned the ball over early in the second half due to a miscommunication with Robert Woods, Taylor was just as dangerous through the air (289 yards and one touchdown) as he was on the ground (43 yards and one touchdown). While he came up just short of leading a memorable comeback victory against one of the NFL’s toughest teams, Taylor very much looked the part of an effective NFL quarterback. With help on the way in the form of a healthy Sammy Watkins and an increasingly integrated Percy Harvin, Taylor should build on this performance and finish the 2016 season with a string of strong performances down the stretch.

2. Robert Woods’ Career Day

The main beneficiary of Taylor’s outstanding performance was Buffalo’s fourth-year receiver out of USC. On 13 targets, Woods reeled in 10 passes for 162 yards against Seattle’s dominant secondary. On what might have been Taylor’s best throw of the night (and the best throw by a Bills quarterback in recent memory), Woods shrugged off Sherman and made a beautiful catch to convert a crucial 3rd and 21 play.

Although he was limited by a foot injury the last two weeks, Woods has displayed far more chemistry with Taylor than he did in 2015. Even with the likely return of Watkins and an increased role for Harvin, Bills offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn would be wise to keep Woods as a focal point of the Bills passing attack.

Woods is in the final year of his rookie contract. Despite missing the trip to Miami and being limited against New England, the 24-year-old receiver is on pace to set career highs in receptions (69), yards (804), and first downs (44).

3. The Pass Rush

While Buffalo’s defense struggled to slow down Russell Wilson in the first half, it wasn’t because of a poor effort from the Bills’ front seven. Though Seattle successfully negated Buffalo’s pass rush at times with quick throws, the Bills were able to take advantage of Seattle’s shoddy offensive line. Lorenzo Alexander shrugged off the hamstring injury he suffered last week to put forth yet another strong performance. The 33-year-old veteran reclaimed his spot atop the NFL’s leaders with his 10th sack, and he also added two hits and three quarterback hurries. Jerry Hughes added his fifth sack of the season and also blocked a first-quarter punt that led to Buffalo’s first touchdown. Lawson also recorded his second sack of the season, and Kyle Williams had a crucial takedown of Wilson late in the game that gave the ball back to the offense with just under three minutes to play.