– Evan Sally
For the third week in a row the Bills played a weird game, but this time they were the beneficiaries.
It’s such a great feeling to watch the Bills win. More importantly it’s a relief to not feel terrible in the days after another bad Bills loss. Especially when you’re considering the expectations the team had, those first two losses felt especially sour. Something else that made those first two losses feel a little worse than usual was the bizarre manner by which they came. It was by no means crazy that the Bills could lose to the Ravens and Jets, but it was pretty wild that they could only score 7 points in one game and give up almost 400 yards passing to Ryan Fitzpatrick in the other. They weren’t just losses, they were “what the hell is going on?” losses. In the same vein in which a bizarre loss can feel a tad bit worse than a loss of the more traditional fashion, a bizarre win can feel that much better. And boy was this a bizarre win.
This was one of those games where the stat sheet doesn’t match at all what you saw on the field. The Bills were out-gained by almost 200 yards through the air. The Cardinals got 9 more first downs and held the ball for 8 more minutes than the Bills did despite the Bills running for over 200 yards, which is particularly odd when you consider that big running games are typically synonymous with ball control and grinding out first downs. Tyrod Taylor’s numbers look pretty ghastly, and if Bruce Arians would’ve been a bit quicker with his challenge flag they would have looked even worse. Add in the fact that they were without Watkins and Darby, and any rational fan would assume a Bills loss. And yet the Bills dominated. As I was watching the game with a friend, we were commenting on how much fun it must’ve been to be in the stadium watching that live, and we noticed how much louder the stadium seems to get when the Bills are not only playing well but when there’s an air of disbelief to what the fans are seeing. Sunday at New Era Field certainly fell into that category.
Establishing a Formula for Success
A wise man once said “You can win in the NFL if you can do two of three things very well. Run the ball, throw the ball and get a pass rush.” Well two out of three ain’t bad. The Bills rushing attack was masterful on Sunday, and Shady McCoy was the key cog. He may have looked more like the MVP candidate type player he was in 2013 than at any other point during his time in Buffalo. It appeared to me that in the two previous games, McCoy’s struggles stemmed from: A) an inconsistent offensive line and B) a lack of patience on his part to take advantage of what was there when the line did do their job. McCoy spoke before the year about how he felt like he was in the best shape he’s been in quite a while and he was ready to explode. His excitement may have turned into being a tad too eager, which is why I believe he was so quick to go east and west on runs the first two weeks instead of staying patient. He’s a runner that craves space to be able to set up his moves. I always get the vibe from him that while he’ll take the guaranteed three or four yard gain, he’d rather take the lower percentage chance of bouncing it outside to get into space and create a big play. McCoy seemed more willing to let plays develop this week and allow the big gains come from the play’s framework. The Bills also found an artificial fix to this problem as well, starting McCoy further back in the back field to give him more time to judge how he wants to attack the line. An adjustment, along with getting the plays in faster and being more creative in play calling, that has the appointment of Anthony Lynn as new offensive coordinator already paying dividends.
Speaking of adjustments, where did that triple option come from? I’ve often thought the Bills had ideal personnel to run some option and it was delightful to see it pulled out of the bag of tricks and have it work so effectively on Tyrod’s long run. Tyrod’s legs are weapons that must be used regardless of if the defense is expecting him to scramble. Creative designed runs as opposed to simple QB sweeps are a good way to do that. I also can’t give enough credit to the way the offensive line played as well, which allowed for all of these offensive adjustments to bear fruit. They spent most of the day mauling Calais Campbell and Chandler Jones. The success of the running game is made even more impressive when you consider that Cardinals were giving up only 3.7 yards per rush over the first two weeks, and after the Bills were done with them, that number ballooned to 4.8 yards per rush. Not every game will be as magical as Sunday for the running game, but considering the adjustments that were made and the opponent, the revitalized running game should be a foundational piece for the Bills success this season.
The second part of that winning formula was a marauding Bills defense. Although the Bills had some pretty good performances defensively last season, this was the first time since Week 1 against the Colts that this genuinely felt like a Rex Ryan defense. Arizona had no idea where pressure was coming from. The quintessential example of this to me was one play where the Bills only had one down lineman with the other 10 players roaming. The offensive line was so rattled they ended up having a false start. Carson Palmer spent the day running for his life, and even when he was able to sit in the pocket, he was so noticeably bothered by the possibility of pressure that his passes were still way off. And most impressively, the bulk of the Bills’ damage defensively was done before Palmer threw a single one of his 4 interceptions. Jerry Hughes was a menace and Kyle Williams had a vintage performance. The secondary was aggressive and recovered very nicely from the disastrous game against the Jets. It was reassuring to see that Gilmore’s game last week was a one off and not the start of a trend. Considering that reinforcements are on the way in the form of Marcell Dareus and Shaq Lawson, there’s a lot to be excited about on the defensive side of the ball.
Tyrod’s Work in Progress
There’s less to be excited about in terms of the passing game. Tyrod wasn’t effective through the air again, and was intercepted on a badly thrown deep ball again, something that rarely happened last season. It’s hard to be too critical of Tyrod the player when you consider his contributions with his legs, but Tyrod the passer’s performance has been wanting. But as I spoke of before you need two of three things working to be able to win in the NFL, running, passing or a pass rush and a good passing game is the most reliable of those three on a game to game basis. There’s been so much talk about him throwing over the middle or more specifically, the lack of those throws. While I want that to improve, I’m done focusing on that. All I need from Tyrod Taylor is to be able to pick up 3rd and long at a reliable clip, hit deep passes and don’t turn the ball over and we can figure out the rest from there. However I do think there may be better days for Tyrod ahead for one simple reason: the 3 defenses he’s played so far may end being 3 of the league’s best. Although the season is young, both Arizona and Baltimore rank in the top 10 in yards per play allowed and we all know how fearsome the Jets defensive line can be. Perhaps when he plays softer defenses he can become more comfortable he’ll be able to attack defenses more effectively. But at this point I don’t care about Tyrod’s raw numbers, I’ll take some 3rd down efficiency for now.
On the topic of the Bills facing softer defenses, that doesn’t start this week. New England has had 10 days rest after embarrassing Brock Osweiler and the Texans. At this point, the Bills will not only be facing New England the team, but their mystique as well. The Patriots being able to play this well without Brady has done something I didn’t think was possible: we’ve found even more compliments and praise to heap upon Bill Belichick. If the Bills end up playing Jimmy Garoppolo with the way he has been playing, I think their task will be tall. If it’s Jacoby Brissett, I think Rex Ryan can create a game plan that will make it very hard for New England to score. The question is how will the Bills offense do against the stout New England defense. I really don’t know what to expect from week to week from the Bills, but I do know this will be a fun test for Tyrod. If the win over Arizona breathed life into a Bills season on life support, then a win against New England would be a defibrillator to the chest of their playoff chances. Get it done Bills.
– Evan Sally (Twitter)