For the better part of the last two NFL seasons, the Buffalo Bills were consistently one of the worst-coached teams in the league. This showed through a general lack of awareness on the field, a lack of adjustments made during games, and a continual mismanagement of game situations. Additionally, they had a kicker with a serious case of the “yips” when attempting extra points, and they had one of the worst punt coverage units in the league.
What a difference a year makes.
This year, with rookie head coach Sean McDermott at the helm, the team looks poised and prepared. Swapping out Dan Carpenter for Stephen Hauschka has already resulted in a victory, as the latter’s 56- and 55-yard field goals against the Atlanta Falcons proved to be the difference in a 23-17 win. Colton Schmidt won what turned out to be a nonexistent training camp battle with undrafted free agent Austin Rehkow in order to keep his job as Buffalo’s punter, and he is off to a phenomenal start. As a result, the special teams unit and the coaching staff earns high marks in the first quarter of the 2017 NFL season.
Kicking Unit: A
How could it be anything else? Hauschka is 8-for-9 on field goal attempts, and four of his makes have come from 50 yards out or more. According to Football Outsiders, Buffalo’s average defensive starting field position is down by an entire yard-per-drive, as well. Last year, the Bills’ opponents started each drive at the 29-yard line; this year, it’s down to the 28 on average (and that includes one large return by Atlanta on Sunday as an outlier in a small sample size). With special teams coordinator Danny Crossman remaining on staff through a third head coaching regime, it’s nice to see the formerly-maligned coordinator’s group performing at a high level.
Punting Unit: B
Small sample size and all, this is a marked improvement for Colton Schmidt over his dismal 2016 season; however, there is still plenty of room for improvement with this group. Schmidt averages a solid 46.1 yards-per-punt, good for 14th in the league; however, his net average of 40.4 is third-worst among qualifying punters. His 11 returned punts is the fifth-most in the league, and the 81 yards Buffalo has allowed on punt returns is ninth-most. As bad as Schmidt was in 2016, he only kicked 3 touchbacks in 75 attempts; this season, he already has 2 in 21 punts. It’s an area where Buffalo could certainly be better.
Return Units: C+
With Brandon Tate serving as the team’s primary return man, not much happens on either kick or punt returns. This is partially how the modern NFL is structured, especially as it relates to kickoff returns, but Tate gives the team stability rather than electrifying ability out of the return position. On 3 kickoff returns, he has totaled 64 yards on the season. Taiwan Jones has the other 2 returns for Buffalo, gaining 50 yards in the process. Tate has had a bit more action as a punt returner, gaining 55 yards on 6 returns. Kaelin Clay gained 2 yards on 2 punt returns. Overall, neither unit has done much to provide the Bills with a great field position advantage, but they haven’t done anything to adversely affect it, either.
The only thing keeping me from giving them a solid “A” in this section is some questionable clock management at the end of halves and games. Calling timeouts is one of the most important things a coach can do, and Sean McDermott’s clock management against the Carolina Panthers in Week two, then again against the Denver Broncos in Week three, was interesting. Rich Gannon noted that Buffalo’s decision to eschew a timeout on the final drive against the Panthers led to a good chunk of the clock running off prior to the third down play immediately preceding the Tyrod Taylor-Zay Jones failed hookup on 4th and 11. In terms of in-game adjustments and overall preparedness, the team looks to be light-years ahead of where it was during the Rex Ryan era.
Buoyed by strong scores for McDermott and Hauschka, these units receive an above-average first quarter grade overall. The team could certainly improve in the return game and in punting efficiency, but overall, they look solid. I’d like to see a bit more of Taiwan Jones returning kicks; even though it’s a small sample size, he seems to have an explosive decisiveness that Brandon Tate lacks. With injuries to starters Jordan Matthews and Ramon Humber, it will interesting to see how the coverage units fare with backups stepping into starting roles and new faces replacing those who were on the coverage teams.