As the Bills limp into the bye week with a disappointing 20-16 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, it might be time to curb your enthusiasm. Yes, Buffalo has a surprisingly good 3-2 record and remains tied for the AFC East lead with the New England Patriots and a Jets team that was supposed to go 0-16. But through roughly a third of the season, we’ve been reminded that the Bills have some huge flaws and are going to have a tough time snapping their playoff drought if their offense can’t carry more of the load. And that may not be possible, given the dearth of playmakers on that side of the ball.
The Bills defense bent a lot Sunday and was torched by wide receiver A.J. Green for seven receptions for 189 yards. Two of his catches resulted in 124 yards, including an early 77-yard touchdown. But Green also was hectored into committing three turnovers as passes slipped off his fingers and into the hands of Bills safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer. Green also coughed up a fumble to Poyer after being leveled by linebacker Lorenzo Alexander.
In addition to the takeaways, the Bills benefitted from a 40-yard punt return by Brandon Tate. Unfortunately, Buffalo’s offense didn’t take full advantage of those sterling plays, settling for 13 points, when they easily could have had more.
The formula has been established. Ride your opportunistic defense, make some big plays on special teams and hope your offense can be efficient and error-free. But as we learned in a 9-3 loss to the Carolina Panthers and again on Sunday, there are going to be times when that formula isn’t going to be enough; when you’re going to need your quarterback and your offense to win you a game.
Tyrod Taylor wasn’t up to the task against the Bengals. With 3:34 remaining and a drive starting on the Buffalo 25, there was plenty of time to pull this one out. But on the first play, Taylor was reluctant to pull the trigger on a throw and took a terrible sack – his sixth of the game. A dump-off pass to LeSean McCoy on second down resulted in no gain. Then Taylor iced the defeat with a throw way over Zay Jones’ head that was picked off by George Iloka.
It was the Bills first turnover in 18 quarters, and capped a dismal performance that saw Tyrod throw for just 166 yards and record a 63.6 passer rating, the third worst of his career. It also dropped his record to 1-11 in games in which he’s thrown 30 or more passes.
In his defense, he spent most of the soggy afternoon throwing to receivers who aren’t NFL-caliber starters, let alone playmakers. Even Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers might have some problems making connections with this crew. When Taylor’s favorite target, tight end Charles Clay, departed for good with a knee injury in the first quarter, the third-year starting quarterback had very few passing options. So, this is hardly all on him.
The Bills running game continues to be stuck in neutral. McCoy, by far their best offensive player, continues to be bottled up. He finished with 63 yards on 19 carries a week after mustering 73 yards on 20 totes. His 3.2-yards-per-carry average this season is 2.2 yards below his career best from a year ago. I think McCoy is still a premier back, but he’s been hamstrung by a struggling offensive line and a non-existent passing attack. Buffalo led the NFL in rushing the past two seasons. Last year, everybody knew ground-and-pound was their modus operandi, and they still averaged 164 yards per game and 5.3
yards per carry. You can’t tell me that backup running back Mike Gillislee made that much of a difference.
Coach Sean McDermott attempted to shake things up a bit vs. Cincinnati by starting Vlad Ducasse at right guard in place of John Miller. The results were mixed. Rookie Dino Dawkins continued to struggle at left tackle in place of the still injured Cordy Glenn. Dawkins was flagged for a drive-killing penalty and also yielded two sacks.
The early bye comes at a good time for this banged-up team. The Bills have to hope that Clay’s injury isn’t serious and that third-year wide receiver Jordan Matthews’ surgically repaired thumb heals quickly. They also need Jones, their 2017 second-round pick, to become more consistent. He’s dropped way too many balls.
The good news is that McDermott has fixed the defense and has it playing at a high level. Sunday marked the first time the Bills have yielded 20 points this season. The totally revamped secondary has exceeded expectations. Rookie cornerback Tre’Davious White was burned twice by Green, but that’s no sin because Green is an exceptional talent who toasts even the most experienced cornerbacks. White keeps battling. He had at least three pass breakups, boosting his NFL-leading total to 11.
In Stephen Hauschka, the Bills have discovered a kicker they can count on. He had three more field goals Sunday, and is eight-of-nine this season, including a perfect four-for-four on attempts from 53 yards and beyond.
The other thing working in Buffalo’s favor is the topsy-turvy nature of this year’s NFL. Who had the Jets winning three games? Who had the Giants opening the season 0-5?
The Bills will used the next two weeks to heal and regroup. Three of their first four games after the break will be at New Era Stadium. On Oct. 22, they’ll host Tampa Bay, then an Oakland Raiders squad that probably will be starting former Bill E.J. Manuel, who’s filling in for the injured Derek Carr. Buffalo’s schedule also includes a tough road game in Kansas City and two December meetings with the Patriots.
The Bills have a defense that should keep them in virtually every game. And a reliable kicker who can win the close ones. But whether they can continue to win more than they lose and finally snap this playoff drought will depend on their offense, which has been just good enough in three games, and not nearly good enough in two others.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is in his seventh season as a Bills analyst for WROC-TV and in his 33rd season covering the team.