– Evan Sally
At no point during Sunday’s game against Miami did it feel like the Bills were playing well. The offensive line was getting whipped by Ndamukong Suh, Cameron Wake and Mario Williams. The defensive line was being caved in by the left side of Miami’s offensive line, and Jay Ajayi was getting into the second level of the Bills defense and running over defenders with ease. Combine all of this with Ryan Tannehill not making any mistakes and the fact the Bills were outgained by almost 200 yards and it’s a recipe for a Bills blowout loss. And yet with 20 minutes of game time left, the Bills led 17-6. To make the playoffs in the NFL, you have to acknowledge you’re not going to play well all the time; sometimes you’re even going to be outplayed badly; but you still have to be able to find ways to win. That’s what the good teams do, win when they’re not supposed to. For a while it appeared that the Bills would be able to escape with a win but Jay Ajayi and a bad day from the offense was too much too overcome. However there was a way the Bills could’ve won this game, by paying attention to detail in the margins. The reason they weren’t able to pull it off was due to a couple of troubling trends.
Bad Injury Management
Twice this season Bills star offensive players have had injuries that they could’ve played through and because the players are gamers and competitors they chose to do so. Twice the choice of those players to play ended up hurting the team. Rex Ryan is a player’s coach, and I admire his willingness to trust his players, like Sammy Watkins and LeSean McCoy. But in both scenarios, both injuries each player had (Watkins’ foot and Shady’s hamstring) were reported to be the types of injuries that could be benefit from being treated with caution. In the case of Watkins’s foot, Jones fracture surgery has a massive risk of not healing correctly and requiring as much as rest as is feasible before playing on it. In Shady’s case, hamstring strains have a much higher chance of reaggravation in the first 7 to 10 days after the injury, with the Miami game squarely in that window. Not only did a lack of caution cause each player’s injury to perhaps be extended further than it needed to be (especially in the case of Watkins) but it hurt them in the games they played as well.
Focusing on Shady, his 8 carries and 11 yards before he left the game Sunday were 8 wasted plays in a game where a few more first downs could’ve significantly changed the outcome. This was the perfect opportunity to shut down McCoy and get him ready for the massive Patriots game and trust Mike Gillislee who’s looked good in every opportunity he’s received. Instead they chose to shoehorn McCoy into the gameplan, who didn’t look right from his first carry, and didn’t let Gillislee get those 8 carries to get into a rhythm. The Bills offense that was lacking so much in weapons on the outside they badly needed someone who could rip off a big gain for them, something Gillislee has shown a proclivity to do. Those 8 carries were 8 opportunities to make a big play that could’ve changed the game. I like that Rex Ryan trusts his players and listens to his medical staff that must’ve said McCoy was ready to go. But he needs to have better foresight and see the big picture. By forcing McCoy into this Dolphins game, Rex not only hindered the Bills offense against Miami, but he compounded that mistake by potentially taking McCoy out of the Patriots game as well. Oddly enough the Bills have been far more cautious about playing Marcell Dareus; it would be nice to see that approach applied to the other stars on the team as well.
Tyrod is Frustratingly Consistent
In this very column during the Bills 4 game winning streak I sang Tyrod’s praises as a guy who didn’t take his team out of games by turning the ball over and was able to make the occasional big play to take the Bills over the top. As the Bills were going for their 5th straight win Tyrod was the same guy he always is: no turnovers, inconsistent with his accuracy and making the occasional big play, this time the long touchdown to Goodwin. However that formula doesn’t work when the defense gives up 200 yards to Jay Ajayi, LeSean McCoy is ineffective, the offense has no weapons on the outside and the offensive line is having a no good, very bad day. There is value in consistency, and as I’ve pointed out in other columns when you look around the league at how many bad quarterbacks there are. But sometimes you can be consistent to a fault. Quarterbacks around the NFL are looked to elevate their teammates and Tyrod appears to struggle to do this, as a 1-9 record in games where Tyrod Taylor trails by 4+ points reveals. Despite all of the mess around him and obstacles the Bills had to overcome in Miami, if Tyrod puts together one drive when the Bills were up 17-14 or when they trailed 21-17, the outcome is different. Tyrod as piece of a cohesive unit is effective, Tyrod when he has to play the role of savior quarterback is not and it’s frustrating.
The Surprisingly Bad Defense
While part of the Bills downfall Sunday was the extension of the two trends mentioned above another part was far more surprising. Jay Ajayi running for over 200 yards for consecutive weeks and doing it against this defense was stunning. A few things to note about this:
- Jay Ajayi is very good. Last week when he went off against Pittsburgh it was easy dismiss him as a random guy you probably dropped from your fantasy team a few weeks ago demolishing a bad Steelers defense. And then you watch this guy play and you wonder how this guy is just breaking out now. He’s an extremely powerful runner with fantastic feet to help maneuver through traffic and get him to the hole and to the second level of the defense, and once he’s there he’s very difficult for any one player to tackle. His 9 runs of over 10+ yards were an example of his ability to get the absolute most out of what’s blocked for him and carry out punishment at the end of his runs.
- The healthy Miami offensive line is good. A stat emerged in the lead up to the game that when the Dolphins offensive line is healthy, they have an excellent record and average 150 yards rushing per game. Well that came to pass. An offensive line full of 1st round picks finally played like it and were able to open up massive holes for Ajayi to get up to speed. What was supposed to be an advantage going into the game, Bills D-Line vs Dolphins O-Line quickly became a rout.
- The Bills bad tackling compounded the problem. The Bills have been poor tackling in space especially when it comes to the secondary and anyone not named Aaron Williams. Gilmore has looked timid and wanting to avoid contact several times this season and looked even worse Sunday. Most embarrassing of all was Robert Blanton, Williams’ fill in at safety getting completely run over on Ajayi’s longest run of the day.
If I had to apply percentages to explain what happened to the Bills defense, I’d say it was about 75% Miami playing very well and 25% the Bills helping. I don’t see this as an omen for what is to come but more of acknowledgment that Miami’s running game is very good.
If the Bills defense wants to rebuild it’s confidence they’re playing the worst team in the league to do so. Tom Brady comes into Orchard Park after going 3-0 for over 1000 yards and 8 touchdowns and no interceptions since coming back from suspension. Their two tight end set is as devastating to be expected. One of the most underrated parts of being able to play two tight ends that are as good at running routes and blocking that Martellus Bennett and Rob Gronkowski are is what it does for the running game. By being able to run as well as they can pass with those two on the field, the Patriots don’t offer any tips as to what they’re going to do offensively which gives them an advantage. The overall point is this Patriots offense is as great as one could expect and it will be Rex’s greatest test so far. The Bills defense will have to prove they are special for the Bills to have a chance. As for the Bills offense, that’s a complete wild card. The Patriots rank 27th in the league in sack percentage so Tyrod will have time to throw, the question is will Tyrod be able to do something with it. Also how healthy will Shady be come game time? If he’s close to full strength, he offers the threat the Bills need to open up the offense. But let’s not get it twisted folks, it’s always an uphill battle to beat Brady and this game will be no different. The Patriots have looked like a machine since Brady has returned. But the Bills did physically dominate the Patriots in their 16-0 win in Week 4. It’s up to them to translate that against a Patriots team that is very different with Tom Brady under center.
– Evan Sally (Twitter)