– Evan Sally
8 games down, 8 games to go. We’ve reached the halfway point of the Bills season and at 4-4 the Bills haven’t eliminated themselves quite yet from the playoffs. However they can only lose two more times to reasonably expect to make the postseason, a very small margin of error. A 6-2 record down the stretch would be the Bills best run of play since 2004. Is this the Bills team that finally gets hot and makes history? Let’s take a look at where each side of the ball stands and where the Bills sit in the AFC playoff picture at this point of the season.
The Bills offense is a tale of two styles. The running game, specifically with LeSean McCoy healthy and playing, is spectacular. The passing game is dire. The stark differences are visible every time you watch the teams and are confirmed in the statistics too:
LeSean McCoy is really really good. That’s about all the Bills offense has when Sammy Watkins isn’t available. Every other playmaker on this team isn’t a game changer and that’s when they’re healthy. The offense we saw Sunday featuring Walt Powell, Brandon Tate and Justin Hunter reminded me of the worst Bills offenses of recent years, basically unwatchable. McCoy’s recent injury has shown the perils of your running back being your best offensive player and being overly reliant on him. Mike Gillislee, while he’s actually a pretty good fill in for McCoy, doesn’t have the superstar quality that allows an offense to run through him. And when you lose that quality and the offense has to shift more towards the passing game the Bills can’t compete. The margin of error for the rushing attack is too small, in a league where the Bills #1 ranked 5.5 yards per rush is still dwarfed by the average passing attack averaging 7 to 7.5 yards per pass. They have to be stellar running the ball or they have no shot.
All of which brings me to Tyrod Taylor and the passing game. Taylor continues to be just OK, with the occasional moment of brilliance, and the stats bare that out.The Bills rank in the bottom 5 of the league in every relevant passing statistic except interceptions thrown, which is Tyrod’s only real strength at this point. He’s not excelling at any part of being a quarterback except the part where you don’t mess up. If the Bills simply had a league average passing game, and could bump their 3rd down percentage from 26th to 16th, their offense would be pretty good. But therein lies the frustrations with Tyrod. Entering this season every Bills fan was looking for him to improve from last season. It became clear early that wasn’t happening. We then craved for him to just play like he did last year, and he’s even struggling to do that. His inaccuracy is a problem, he can’t keep the team on the field on 3rd down and one of his biggest strengths, being able to stretch the field, has dried up. While a lot of the woes of the passing game can be pinned on having subpar receivers, a large portion falls on Tyrod, because that’s what we ask of quarterbacks. They need to be able to elevate their teammates, no matter who they’re throwing the ball to. If the Bills offense is a ship we need him to be the captain of the offense and he’s merely a passenger right now. He pitches in and does his part with an explosive running play or deep pass from time to time but more often than not his greatest value is just in not messing up. If you’ll allow me to extend this silly analogy further, if the waters are smooth and the ship’s crew is functioning well, Tyrod’s contributions are extremely helpful; if things become stormy and difficult, simply not screwing up isn’t enough.
Tyrod Taylor is good enough to be the quarterback of a team with talent and not screw it up, something that shouldn’t be taken for granted in the NFL. But we all dreamed of him becoming the leader of the Bills and the reason why they win, and that hasn’t been the case. As we move forward, even if he doesn’t improve I highly doubt the Bills will find a replacement that will merit not picking up his option for next season so it’s safe to expect the Bills to bring him back next year.. However, it appears that unfortunately the Bills quarterback search is definitely still on. I so badly want the Bills to have a stud at quarterback who can make all the throws, and while the smart move is to keep Tyrod around next year at a reasonably affordable price (20th ranked cap hit for a quarterback in 2017), I still want them to make a big swing. I would love for them to pull a Philly and trade a ton to go get their Carson Wentz, or even maneuver a way to get a Jay Cutler. Yes these are high risk moves that people will question or maybe outright hate. But the Bills need to be done playing it safe. Tyrod has 8 games to figure this out, and adding Percy Harvin from retirement and Sammy Watkins late in the year should help, but the Bills need to be ready to be bold.
Through 8 weeks it’s safe to say the Bills defense is above average. Not the top 5, potentially special unit we thought the Bills might have during their 4 game winning streak, but also not the mess that the Bills fielded last year, and that’s accounting for rough games in their last two outings. The Bills defense is good at the things you want a modern defense to excel at and importantly their strengths can cover for a lot of their flaws.
The Bills are just ok against the run, although a lot the rushing stats against them stem from getting run over by Jay Ajayi a few weeks ago. They’re in the middle of the league when it comes to total yardage and yards per play allowed as well. However, they neutralize these potential weaknesses by being the 3rd best in the league at preventing touchdowns in the red zone, a trait further confirmed by being 9th in the NFL in touchdowns allowed per game. They bend but they don’t break. Their sack percentage has returned to being the best in the NFL as it was a few years ago lead by breakout player of the year Lorenzo Alexander’s league leading 9 sacks, which also helps them make big plays and get off of the field when they need to. Put all of this together and it paints a picture of a Bills defense that perhaps isn’t as stout on a play to play basis as it needs to be. Maybe they give up 35 yards and 3 first downs to an offense. But that drive will eventually come to a screeching halt in the red zone or earlier because made a Bills big play.
The past two weeks have been demoralizing from a Bills defensive aspect. A better defensive performance against Miami and the Bills may win; and Tom Brady performed his annual ritual sacrifice of the Bills as usual. It’s made you question this defense. I’m willing to dismiss their defensive failings if they’re able to perform against a poor Seattle offense this week. And if I were to make a bet I think they will especially with Marcell Dareus and Shaq Lawson continuing to settle in. But the Bills defense is a bit of a highwire act right now and bending but not breaking can be a little more dangerous than it needs to at times. With the state of the offense at the moment the Bills need something to count on.
And perhaps more than anything else defensively, Stephon Gilmore needs to get his shit together. His piss poor effort on Chris Hogan’s long touchdown catch will be the defining moment as he makes his exit from Buffalo after this season or maybe next if they decide to franchise him. But as frustrated as fans are with him, we still need him to play like a top corner. Whatever’s going on with him, whether he’s looking ahead to free agency or just going through a bad stretch of play, he has to figure this out for the Bills to have a chance of putting 6 wins together out of their next 8 games.
Despite a 4 game winning streak and some very satisfying wins this year, the Bills playoff hopes are in bigger trouble than they may seem. Being 4-4 at this point of the year isn’t the problem, even with 3 2-loss teams in the AFC West. The biggest issues is the Bills 1-4 record in the AFC, the main tiebreaker for the Wild Card spots. The Bills rank 2nd to last in conference record with only Jacksonville tied with them and the lowly Browns below them. Every team ahead of them has at least 3 AFC wins with the Broncos and Raiders having only 1 AFC loss. The Bills are in a position where they can only lose two more games, but probably only 1 more AFC game if they want to make the playoffs and not worry about missing out because of tiebreakers. That’s what makes this week’s game in Seattle so interesting.
While you can never say a 4-4 team is playing with house money, the Bills kind of are this week. Not only is this a game that not a single Bills fan expected them to win, but the Bills have to make hay in the AFC to make the playoffs. A win in Seattle would just be a nice bonus. I believe this sets up the Bills well this week to play a big Monday Night road game against the Seahawks. Seattle’s offense is putrid. They’ve scored only 131 points all season in their 7 games with 64 of those coming in two games against San Francisco and the Jets. Russell Wilson who’s typically so dynamic only has 44 yards rushing this season. He’s not killing teams by taking chunks of yardage on broken plays anymore due to an injury and a crap offensive line. The Bills offense has been up and down this season, and they have to play a stellar as usual Seattle defense, but the return of Shady McCoy to practice this past Thursday and a extra day to get ready should buoy the hopes of Bills fans. If the defense can keep Seattle in check as they should, this will turn into a high variance game that can swing on only a few plays, a situation that always benefits the underdog. And there’s a chance if he resembles anything like the player we saw a few weeks ago, McCoy could be the best offensive player on the field. This game isn’t as daunting as it seemed when the schedule came out. Plus it’s just going to be really cool to see the Bills play in that environment at night, in a big game for both teams. It’s going to fun, just handle the pressure Bills.
– Evan Sally (Twitter)