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Buffalo Bills 23, Atlanta Falcons 17: A heads-up coaching decision on special teams

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The Bills almost made another impact play to take advantage of a penalty call.

The turning point of Buffalo’s 23-17 win over the Atlanta Falcons came on a controversial referee decision for a fumble recovery touchdown by Tre’davious White. In the third quarter of the game, Matt Ryan’s arm was hit by Jerry Hughes, sending the ball forward in a way that looked more like an incomplete pass, but no whistle was blown, and the Buffalo Bills found themselves back in the lead. Furthermore, the Falcons were flagged on the return for a personal foul penalty, pushing the kickoff point forward fifteen yards. The Falcons were reeling, and with a 14-10 lead, it was a perfect opportunity for the Bills to go for the throat.

Two years ago, I wrote about a pair of questionable coaching decisions in a matchup between the Buffalo Bills and the New England Patriots. In that game, the Patriots had a kickoff from the 50 yard line with a 14-7 lead, and the Bills later kicked off from the 50 yard line trailing 21-13. Both times, the teams made low-reward decisions, kicking touchbacks.

My argument at the time boiled down to this: If you kick a touchback when you start from the 50 yard line, you’ve only moved the ball 25 yards downfield. If a team were to try an onside kick from that point, they’d only push the ball around 13 yards downfield on average. At the risk of essentially the length of a first down, the kicking team would have a chance to recover the ball for a consecutive scoring drive - AND they’d practically start their drive in field goal range.

Let’s set the stage for Sunday’s win. The Bills had just claimed the lead on a lucky call. On the road against an undefeated team, Sean McDermott had an opportunity to take a risk and open up a bigger lead. He did just that.

Steven Hauschka went with a pooch kick, popping the ball up to the 17 yard line. Andre Roberts, not prepared for the short kick, was quickly swarmed by Bills defenders, and he coughed up the ball. Had the Bills come away with it, they would’ve already been in the red zone with a chance to go ahead 21-10. The Falcons recovered the ball, but they started their drive at the 18 yard line, seven yards behind where a touchback would’ve started them.

The Buffalo Bills coaching staff under Sean McDermott has shown a tendency to adapt and adopt new ideas in each game. Credit should be given to Danny Crossman for trying a higher-upside strategy on Sunday than he used two years ago. By breaking with tradition, he kept the Falcons on their heels, and the players nearly came away with a huge result.