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What Worked and What Didn’t: Week 1

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While Tyrod Taylor’s struggles are reason for concern, the Bills’ linebackers exceeded expectations against Baltimore.

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Well, that was disheartening.

If you had told the majority of fans on Sunday morning that the Bills would sack Joe Flacco four times and hold him to 258 yards passing, limit Baltimore’s ground game to 3.0 yards per carry on 28 attempts, and allow a mere 13 points to the Ravens, there’s a good chance you would’ve expected a much happier fan base come Monday morning.

However, in a cruel plot twist, the offensive side of the ball put forth a league-worst effort and sent Buffalo back home searching for their first win of the 2016 season on short rest.

Each week, this regularly scheduled series will examine what went right and what went wrong for the Bills during their weekly matchup. After Sunday’s troubling performance, it’s only fitting that we begin with what wrong for the Bills in Week 1.

What Didn’t Work

1. The Passing Game

After signing a contract that could potentially reach $93 million over the course of the next six seasons, it was clear that the Bills hoped Tyrod Taylor was the franchise quarterback that the organization had longed for since Jim Kelly retired 20 years ago. Unfortunately, after Taylor’s performance against the team that drafted him in 2011, fans are already pondering whether to commit to the 27-year-old quarterback beyond 2016.

While it’s premature to think Taylor’s performance is an indication of how he’ll play the rest of the season, it was unsettling to see how, and how much he struggled. Whether it was his obliviousness to his receivers on what could have been a touchdown on the offense’s first play of the game, his impatience and subsequent eagerness to check the ball down despite open receivers down the field, or his general inaccuracy in the pocket and on the run, Taylor put forth his worst performance as a Bill.

Although Taylor is by no means at fault for the entirety of the offense’s struggles against a fairly mediocre Baltimore defense (Greg Roman’s quizzical play-calling and the line’s inability to deal with blitz pressure certainly contributed), he is the player that needs to dramatically raise his game if the Bills are to fare well this season. Perhaps it’s good that Taylor has little time to dwell on his dismal start to the new season.

2. Reggie Bush and Dan Carpenter’s Momentum-Killing Efforts

During the first three offensive possessions, the Bills ran 12 plays and gained 2 total yards. However, the fourth possession saw the offense begin to find answers. After several nice runs from LeSean McCoy and a highlight-reel effort by Taylor to find Charles Clay, a McCoy one-yard, fourth-down plunge punctuated a 12-play, 75-yard drive.

Following the halftime break, the offense appeared to pick up where they left off. Unfortunately, after a fourth-down conversion placed the ball at the Baltimore 26, things took a sharp turn for the worse. After Taylor misfired to Robert Woods on first down, Bush lost six yards on his second down carry. Then, following a one-yard pickup on third down, Carpenter came on and missed a 49-yard field goal that would’ve tied the game at 10-10.

Although a 49-yard field goal is by no means a gimme, Carpenter’s miss was a deflating one. However, Carpenter would’ve had a far easier try, or perhaps wouldn’t have been on the field at all, if Bush wouldn’t have sucked the life out of the Bills drive moments earlier.

Bush’s deployment in Week 1 seems to indicate that he’s now the backup to McCoy on offense. After three, extremely uninspiring carries, it’ll be interesting to see if the coaching staff instead turns to Mike Gillislee as the change-of-pace back against the Jets. While it might be unfair to pull the plug on the veteran, Gillislee certainly looked competent down the stretch in 2015. Plus, he can’t look much worse than Bush did against the Ravens.

3. Duke Williams in Coverage

In what was likely the only mistake the defense made schematically in Week 1, Mike Wallace made Buffalo pay for their bizarre decision to cover him 1-on-1 with the Bills’ backup safety. After a preseason that seemed to indicate Williams had taken a step forward following three below-average seasons to begin his career, the safety was beaten badly by Wallace.

Moving forward, as Aaron Williams is eased back into regular playing time, the Bills will benefit from Duke sliding back into a more suitable role (third safety, primarily in run support). Otherwise, he might continue to be a liability in coverage against passing attacks that can expose his shortcomings in that area.

What Worked

1. The Linebackers’ Performance

After injuries to rookies Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland, and the cutting of Manny Lawson as the club trimmed its roster to 53, the team’s linebackers looked to be an area of concern. However, that proved far from the case in Week 1. Thanks to strong efforts from Preston Brown, Jerry Hughes, and Lorenzo Alexander, the Bills defense kept the team very much in the game until just under two minutes remaining in the fourth.

Pro Football Focus recognized Brown’s play in Week 1 as he was awarded their weekly game ball for his performance against the Ravens. Here’s what they had to say:

We were very impressed with what we saw from linebacker Preston Brown as a rookie in 2014, but much less so with how he performed in his second season in the NFL. This game saw him back at the level we saw from him as a rookie, something which should please Bills fans. He graded well in coverage, against the run, and as a pass-rusher, earning the highest grade of any player on the field. As a pass-rusher, he picked up two hurries on just eight pass-rushing attempts, and finished the game with two tackles resulting in a defensive stop.

Likewise Hughes (2.0 sacks) and Alexander played well on the edge, which certainly bodes well for the continued execution of Ryan’s defense. After Mario Williams publicly denounced his head coach’s interest in having versatile linebackers, Hughes and Alexander’s utilization confused Flacco and made life difficult for the veteran quarterback.

2. The Cornerback Tandem

Much like the linebackers, Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby also performed well against the Ravens. Steve Smith Sr., who admittedly is 37 and coming back from a season-ending Achilles injury in 2015, was limited to 19 yards on five catches. Likewise, Baltimore’s leading receiver from a season ago (Kamar Aiken) was held to 14 yards on 2 catches. The top producers from Sunday’s game (Wallace and Dennis Pitta) did almost the entirety of their damage away from Buffalo’s dynamic duo on the outside.

While both Gilmore and Darby left plays on the field they’d probably like to have back, particularly Darby’s inability to haul in an errant third-quarter throw from Flacco that would’ve resulted in a pick-six, the cornerbacks will give the defense confidence that they could limit opposing passing attacks on a regular basis.

3. It’s Early!

While Taylor’s regression and the ongoing uncertainty surrounding Sammy Watkins’ foot are concerning, it’s early in the 2016 season. Although it’s difficult to see after such a dismal Week 1 performance, there are legitimate reasons to believe that the Bills are better off than a season ago.

Despite missing their most talented player (Marcell Dareus) and two impact rookies who were projected to start, the defense looked far better than it did in 2015. If you believe that Taylor, McCoy, Watkins, and the offensive line can regroup to match or exceed the strides it made a season ago, then it’s entirely too early to shut the door on Buffalo’s playoff aspirations.