After two disheartening losses to begin the season, the Buffalo Bills breathed life into their 2016 campaign with a dominating 33-18 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.
The result was certainly a surprising one. Although the team is still littered with talented players on both sides of the ball, the team’s performance both offensively and defensively through two weeks failed to inspire much hope against a Cardinals team that went 13-3 and came within a win of a Super Bowl appearance in 2015. However, a complete team effort and an inspired game plan by the coaching staff earned the Bills their first win of the 2016 season.
Here is what went right and what went wrong for the Bills in Week 3, as well as a look at how those successes and failures might affect Buffalo in Week 4 and beyond.
1. The Pass Defense
Following a poor performance against Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Jets in Week 2, the Bills defense rebounded against Carson Palmer and Arizona’s passing game in Week 3. The front seven consistently beat Arizona’s offensive line (particularly on the right side) to pressure Palmer. According to Pro Football Focus, the Arizona quarterback dropped back 55 times against Buffalo’s pass rush, and the Bills produced 19 total pressures, 10 hits, and five sacks. That pressure also aided an exemplary afternoon for Buffalo’s secondary, which intercepted Palmer four times, and held the veteran to no touchdowns on 50 attempts. Stephon Gilmore bounced back with a pair of interceptions after a career-worst performance against New York. Corey Graham and Corey White, who was filling in for the injured Ronald Darby, produced acrobatic interceptions late in the fourth quarter to close things out. In addition to his 53-yard scoop and score that broke the game open in the third quarter, Aaron Williams fared well when he was frequently called upon to cover Larry Fitzgerald in the slot.
While Bill Belichick will continue to keep his injury report and plans under wraps, I believe the Bills will likely match up against Jacoby Brissett on Sunday. Brissett has limitations as a passer this early in his career, and those limitations may be further exacerbated by a thumb injury on his throwing hand. However, the rookie third-round pick does have ability as a runner. If the coaching staff can find ways to fluster New England’s young quarterback (unique coverages and pressures), Buffalo’s passing defense could have another strong afternoon.
2. The Running Game
After seeing the Bills’ run offense rank among the NFL’s best in 2015, the team struggled in that regard during the first two weeks. That changed in Week 3 as Buffalo rolled up 208 yards and three touchdowns against an Arizona defense that ranked in the top ten in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and yards per rushing attempt allowed in 2015. LeSean McCoy ‘s big day (17 carries for 110 yards and two touchdowns) spearheaded the offensive output as the veteran running back benefited from great blocking up front and creative play calling from new offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn. Tyrod Taylor also tied a career-high with 76 yards on 9 carries, which included a 49-yard scamper that is now the longest run by a quarterback in Bills history.
If the Bills can jump on New England early much like they did Arizona, the team could control the game with another strong performance on the ground. While much was made of the need for Lynn to involve Sammy Watkins far more than Greg Roman did, it was arguably just as important to better utilize McCoy. If Lynn can continue to find creative sets and plays to maximize the former Eagle’s talents, the Bills offense will be in better shape moving forward.
3. The Coaching Staff
Following a tumultuous start to the season, the Bills coaching staff was under pressure. The offense, which was expected to take a step forward, instead regressed. The defense, which played fairly well on the road in Baltimore Week 1, looked lost against the Jets in the home opener. With a surprising change made at offensive coordinator, the organization seemed to be shifting toward a chaotic mess. However, at least for one week, the coaching staff appeased concerns. The offense looked creative and well prepared. The defense was at its best since Ryan’s arrival to Buffalo. The special teams units even turned in several big plays of their own.
Ryan and his fellow coaches will have their work cut out for them on Sunday. Despite New England’s injuries and their big question mark at quarterback, the Patriots sit atop the AFC East with a perfect 3-0 record. If the Bills are able to pull off the upset, they’ll need their coaches to be at their best once again.
1. Consistency in Passing Attack
Although Taylor did effectively keep Arizona’s defense off balance by using his legs, his performance as a passer still left something to be desired. Taylor’s final stat line (14 for 25 for 119 yards and one interception) was uninspiring, and the quarterback struggled to find open receivers and manipulate the pocket from time to time. However, there are reasons for encouragement. For one, Lynn called for many quick reads and throws, and Taylor was consistently accurate and on time with those deliveries.
The Bills quarterback struggled for large portions of his two matchups with the Patriots in 2015, and this year Belichick will likely continue having his defense work to keep Taylor within the pocket. If Lynn and Taylor can effectively put the Bills offense in ideal situations (both pre-snap and post-snap), and if Watkins returns to the lineup, the Bills quarterback should put up improved numbers in Week 4.
2. Ill-timed Penalties
While they didn’t have too much of an impact on Sunday’s proceedings, the Bills still are plagued by penalties. Buffalo was penalized nine times for 75 yards, and the biggest offender was once again linebacker Jerry Hughes.
Facing a 3-and-14 in the second quarter, Lorenzo Alexander dropped Palmer for a sack, but toward the end of the play Hughes joined in on the takedown of the Arizona quarterback and was flagged for unnecessary roughness. The Cardinals then went on to score a touchdown on that drive to breathe life into their hopes heading into the second half.
While the penalty still remains debatable to me, Hughes’ reputation is a troubling one for the Bills. Though other players are considered to “play hard to the whistle” or “play the game on the edge,” Hughes is regularly whistled for behavior that might be deemed allowable by his peers. Although that is unfair, Hughes has to understand his reputation among NFL referees.
Bills fans certainly won’t forget the utter lack of discipline the team displayed against New England in Week 2 last season (14 penalties for 140 yards), and Buffalo can’t have a repeat performance if they’re to even their record at 2-2 on Sunday.
3. Colton Schmidt’s Efforts
In 2015, Schmidt was one of the NFL’s best punters. He ranked 10th in the NFL with a gross average of 46.3 yards per punt and 7th in the NFL with a net average of 41.6 yards. Through three games this season, Schmidt’s numbers and his place among the NFL’s best at his position have dropped considerably. After a disappointing day against the Cardinals (a gross average of 35.6 yards per punt), Schmidt has a gross average of 40.6 yards per punt and a net average of 38.4 yards. Those numbers place him 27th and 24th in the NFL respectively. While Schmidt hasn’t necessarily hurt Buffalo much so far, continued struggles could prove costly to the Bills in the future.