In 2017, when the Buffalo Bills snapped their 17-year playoff drought, strong and consistent play on special teams played a major role in Buffalo posting a 9-7 record. On Sunday, in a 20-13 loss to the Houston Texans, in a game the Bills had every right to win, the Bills were done in by bad performances on special teams.
Danny Crossman, Buffalo’s special teams coach since 2013, is going to have a lot of explaining to do for a unit that gift-wrapped 10 points to a Texans squad that struggled to move the ball against a stout Bills defense.
The special teams started off slowly and only got progressively worse as the game moved along. Rookie Ray-Ray McCloud III botched the opening kickoff before the Bills fell on the loose ball, setting the stage for an ominous performance by the special teams. It wouldn’t be McCloud’s last blunder, either, and his next miscue cost the Bills dearly.
After the Buffalo defense forced a punt, the Bills appeared set to take over with decent field position. But McCloud — who signaled for a fair catch — muffed the punt and Houston recovered at the Buffalo 29-yard line. Five plays later, the Texans had a 7-0 lead. Instead of Buffalo being set up with good field position, the defense was forced back onto the field, and Deshaun Watson made the Bills pay for their mistake with a 13-yard TD strike to DeAndre Hopkins.
The Buffalo offense continued to stall early in the second quarter, bringing out Corey Bojorquez for a punt at the Buffalo 47-yard line, But the Texans bull-rushed from the left side of the line, allowing Tyrell Adams to get a hand on the punt and once again set up a Houston score off of the turnover.
On the fateful blocked punt, the Texans lined up five rushers on the left side of the line, leaving the Bills four men plus long snapper Reid Ferguson to block the rush. Tight end Logan Thomas failed to block Adams, who got good penetration up the middle, resulting in the blocked punt and a huge momentum swing.
The Texans capitalized on good field position (they returned the blocked punt to the Buffalo 21-yard line) and seized a 10-0 lead on Ka’imi Fairbairn’s 33-yard field goal.
The Bills battled back and eventually took a 13-10 lead on a 16-yard TD pass from Nathan Peterman to Zay Jones, but the lead would be short-lived. Houston knotted the score at 13 on a 27-yard field goal from Fairbairn, and on the ensuing possession, Peterman woefully underthrew Kelvin Benjamin on a curl route, and Johnathan Joseph was there for the 28-yard pick-six, putting the Texans ahead 20-13 with 1:23 remaining.
The Bills did have one last chance to force overtime, but again, the special teams unit committed a costly blunder.
The Texans had been penalized 15 yards and forced to kickoff from their own 20 following an unsportsmanlike penalty, but on the ensuing kickoff, Taiwan Jones muffed the kick at the 9-yard line and never had a chance to set Peterman up with a long return. Instead, Buffalo took over at its own 13 before Peterman tossed his second interception to seal Buffalo’s fate.
As if the miscues fielding kickoffs and punts weren’t enough, the special teams unit also committed two holding penalties (on Deon Lacey and Siran Neal) and an offsides penalty on Andre Holmes at the start of the second half.
Last year, Buffalo’s special teams improved 17 spots from 2016 and finished seventh in columnist Rick Gosselin’s annual NFL special teams rankings. The Bills were one of nine teams to not allow a kick to be blocked.
This year, the unit has taken significant steps backwards and is on pace for the worst season by efficiency score since the statistic was first tracked in 2006.
The Bills’ special teams efficiency score of 21.49 this season would be the worst for an entire season by any team since @ESPNStatsInfo began tracking that metric in 2006.— Mike Rodak (@mikerodak) October 15, 2018
The Bills, featuring a stagnant offense that has struggled scoring points all season long, rode another great performance by the defense on Sunday and had a chance to even their record at .500 and get back to 2-2 in AFC play in Houston.
Instead, while the back-breaking interceptions from Peterman will draw much of the ire from Bills fans for this frustrating loss, don’t let the special teams off the hook for the role they played in the setback. Outside of strong performances from kicker Stephen Hauschka and (more often than not) solid punting from Bojorquez, this unit has disappointed more often than not in 2018.