Joe B: 7 observations from Buffalo Bills - New York Jets (11/3/17)

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ (WKBW) - The Buffalo Bills, following a huge win on Sunday, had a chance to put their stamp on the burgeoning playoff race — and on a national stage to boot. And rather than taking advantage of an opponent they’ve already beaten in the season and claiming their sixth win of the year, the Bills just couldn’t seem to get off the mat and lost to the New York Jets 34-21 on Thursday.

With the loss, the Bills now drop to 5-3 at the halfway point of the season — still with a winning record at the middle point, but with a lot of the air in the balloon being let out amongst the fan base.

In what seemed to be a winnable game, how did the Bills wind up losing so soundly to the Jets? Seven observations from the loss:

1) The Jets won the line of scrimmage
- On both the offensive and defensive side of the ball, it really was no contest throughout the game: the New York Jets were dominant and it helped them to an overwhelmingly easy victory over the Bills on Thursday. The Jets stacked the box against the Bills offense, forcing a lot of one-on-one matchups, which disallowed the linemen to help one another and freed up yet another run stuffer or would-be tackler to get to either LeSean McCoy or Tyrod Taylor in the backfield. It brought about way too many drives that resulted in minimal or low yardage on first downs, which put more pressure on the offense in 2nd-and-long and 3rd-and-long situations -- and also allowed the defense to pin their ears back and get after the quarterback when they dropped back to pass. Taylor was consistently pressured by the Jets all night long as several of the guys up front lost the same one-on-ones they had been winning over the past two weeks. On the defensive side of the ball, there was little to no pass rush for the majority of the game, and that allowed Jets quarterback Josh McCown to sit back in the pocket comfortably and find his target. Teams have mostly been getting the ball out quickly enough to nullify the Bills pass rush, but that wasn’t always the case in this game. The Bills just got beat up front early on, it snowballed on them, and they never recovered. It’s really that simple — and it set the tone for what the outcome of the game would be. In most of the Bills games this season, that really hasn’t been the case. The Bills had one of those two units working well enough to try and pick up the other to keep the game close, but on Thursday, we saw what happens when both sides of the ball are playing at an equally poor level.

2) Unusually poor tackling 
- One of the most promising changes from the 2016 season to 2017 — on the defensive side of the ball specifically — is how much better they’ve gotten in securing a tackle. Through seven games, missed tackles were not a large issue, and many times, sound tackling helped put the Bills in advantageous positions to either force a turnover or to force a punt. When they watch the film on Friday and over the weekend, there are going to be a lot of defenders who get really uncomfortable in their chairs as they see all the yardage and opportunity quite literally slip through their fingertips. Defensive linemen were guilty, linebackers were guilty, cornerbacks were guilty, even the superb starting safety duo was guilty of it. The tackling, for whatever reason, was the poorest we’ve seen from this Bills team so far in 2017. McDermott admitted that as well, saying that on the surface (and before he watched the tape back) it was an issue:

“Our tackling — and fundamentals, overall — can be better. We’ve played better with better fundamentals before, and that’s why you drill them over and over and over again, because you have to continue to polish and refine your fundamentals, and we have to do that going forward.”

Certainly, with a much more high-powered New Orleans Saints offense coming through New Era Field in a little over a week, that normally sterling part of their game has to return to what it was — and they have to hope the one-night performance doesn’t start to become a trend.

3) The three plays that could have swung the game
- The Bills continued to shoot themselves in the foot all game long, no matter if it was with a crushing penalty when it seemed like they had them stopped, or one guy missing his block on a run play that otherwise could have gone for a big gain. However, three big missed opportunities for the Bills stick out like a sore thumb. The first: Leonard Johnson’s dropped interception. It was the first quarter, with the Bills down 7-0 and the Jets were pinned back deep in their own zone which led to a 3rd-and-6 where McCown panicked and threw the ball way short of receiver Jermaine Kearse. Johnson had a gift-wrapped opportunity to intercept the pass and put the Bills on the doorstep of either a touchdown or a field goal but bobbled the ball until it ultimately hit the turf. To the team’s credit, they did take the ball down on the ensuing drive for a touchdown, but, Johnson could have either gotten up and ran it back for a touchdown, saved some time on the clock for future drives, or to even have helped put soil on some of the Jets confidence on offense. That was a rare instance this season of a chance to force a turnover that slipped right through their hands. The second swing play came at the end of the first half with the Bills down 10-7, while driving down the field. They were finally starting to get a bit of a flow on offense, and got it all the way into Jets territory — even to the 37-yard line. That is until wide receiver Jordan Matthews couldn’t quite hold on to the ball as he was plunging to the turf, fumbled it, and the Jets hopped on it for possession. Still, with a minute left in the half and one timeout, the Bills had plenty of time and opportunity to try and march down for either a touchdown — or at worst, settle for a field goal. That’s at least three points the Bills missed out on, which could have either tied the game or given them the lead going into halftime. The last game-flipping play was the Nick O’Leary fumble, which was just a complete mental gaffe on the tight end’s part. Now at this point, the Bills were down 17 points in the third quarter and things were looking bleak, but the offense was actually starting to move the ball again. They gained 39 yards on four plays including that one, but then O’Leary committed a grave error: he wasn’t touched upon landing on the ground, got up nonchalantly, and was stripped of the ball which allowed the Jets to pounce and re-take possession. O’Leary was in Jets territory and it could have led to a score to help them get back into it a bit more. Instead, the Jets got the ball and wasted nearly six minutes of precious time left on the clock. If two of those plays go the Bills way — especially the first two, we could be looking at a different outcome in the game as the offense and defense likely would have been playing with a lot more confidence than they showed to have down the stretch.

4) Jets targeted a pair of defensive tackles
- It hasn’t always been an issue for the Bills in games this season, but in spots, teams have had success against them on the ground when running it straight up the middle. The Jets really seemed to go after two players in particular in the middle of that defensive line: starter Adolphus Washington and Cedric Thornton. Both players had trouble holding up at the point of attack — even in one-on-one matchups — and it allowed for the Jets to open up a running line -- and for helping offensive linemen to get to the second-level to take out the free-range linebacker. While Washington will give you a flash play usually once a game, his consistency at holding up against the run has been massively inconsistent and it’s led to multiple big runs this season on his watch. Thornton has been getting picked on a bit as well. However, don’t even think about being forlorn about trading away Marcell Dareus. In the games he played this season, the only time he really stood out for good reasons was in his final game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, while the rest of the time he was really just another average player out there and had some of the same struggles as Washington and Thornton. Defensive tackle is a very sneaky need for the Bills as they get closer to the offseason, and with how Sean McDermott likes to rotate those guys, you’d have to think they’ll be pretty substantially in the market for one come March and April.

5) Tre’Davious White has a down night
- Last week against Oakland, Tre’Davious White was one of the key reasons the Bills won the game. His ability to cancel out wide receiver Amari Cooper was a welcomed sight for the Bills, as they gave the rookie another chance to show he could shadow one receiver and still produce. The Bills liked the results so much that they asked him to do it again — this time against the super quick and shifty Robby Anderson. It mostly worked in the first half for White, but in the second half is when it all unraveled. On a carbon copy play from the one the Jets used to have Anderson beat Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant for a touchdown, Anderson did the same shake and route on White to give him the separation he needed in order to catch a touchdown pass in the end zone. It seemed to unnerve him a bit, because later on in the second half, White’s tackling became an issue, and he even got flagged for a face mask penalty — a mistake that he normally doesn’t make. White deserves the benefit of the doubt as this was probably just a bad night, but his bad night happened in unison with the rest of the defense, too.

6) Zay Jones has his breakthrough
- Besides maybe the play of Tyrod Taylor despite constantly running for his life in the pocket, the brightest spot from the Jets game for the Bills was the breakout performance from rookie Zay Jones. The rookie was in a battle with his own mind through the first month-and-a-half of the season, dropping catchable passes that he normally makes without even thinking. From everything we saw through the summer, it was really only a matter of time before the sure-handed and solid route running Jones would get himself started this season. It seemed Thursday night was that time for him. He caught almost everything that came his way, having six receptions on seven targets — and the lone target being an uncatchable pass. Furthermore, the degree of difficulty on several of the catches was much higher than a ball thrown right to the numbers. He had some defenders draped over him, he had to extend his arms way up in the air while running at full speed to secure the catch, and it really showed off his dependability. His route running was superb on two plays in particular, as well. The route on his touchdown was a thing of beauty, but then the play that he got hurt on was his best of the night. Jones faked the commitment to the out route so well that he got the cornerback Buster Skrine to turn his hips in that direction, only for Jones to cut up the field for a potentially wide open look. It would have been a touchdown had it not been for Skrine intentionally sticking his leg out to trip Jones in hopes to save the humongous play. The wide receiver's development, especially now in a low-pressure third receiver role in this offense (if healthy), is a big thing for this offense moving forward.

7) Uncharacteristically undisciplined
- The Bills couldn’t seem to get out of their own way against the New York Jets — and penalties played a big role in the outcome of the game. Whether it was ill-timed facemask penalties, holding calls, or even pre-snap offenses, the Bills didn’t carry the same discipline they’ve had for the majority of the games. Two plays were especially egregious and both were made by Bills defenders. Shaq Lawson really showed his frustration in not being able to get to the quarterback quickly enough by giving a hearty two-handed shove to Josh McCown well after the ball had been released, that resulted in the quarterback tumbling to the ground. The 3rd-and-6 play had already gone for 18 yards, but the additional 15 on top of it made it an outright certainty that the Jets would score on that drive. They ended up kicking a field goal from 45 yards out. That 15-yard penalty could have been the difference between a field goal, and a punt and three additional points for the Jets. The other penalty was the real backbreaker. It occurred with the Jets up only 10-7 in the third quarter, but they were marching down the field and in the Bills territory. Buffalo did a nice job on a first down to get a one-yard loss, and then on 2nd-and-11 from the Bills 35-yard line, defensive tackle Cedric Thornton brought down McCown for a sack and a nine-yard loss. The loss would have given the Jets a 3rd-and-20 from the Bills 44-yard line, and no guarantee at a sure field goal attempt, bringing a potential punt back to the table. At worst for Buffalo, it probably would have resulted in a field goal attempt and three points. However, Thornton, while bringing down McCown, grabbed the facemask and immediately drew the penalty marker. With a new lease on the drive, the Jets scored a touchdown two plays later and essentially never looked back in the contest from there. Sean McDermott and his staff have their work cut out for them this week to instill all the positive habits they’ve been trying to reinforce throughout training camp and the season because they can only do so much on the field if they continue to take undisciplined penalties like the ones they did in New Jersey.

Bills MVP: WR Zay Jones
- It was a really encouraging step for the rookie wide receiver, and to top it off, he had a pretty great touchdown celebration to go along with it.

Bills LVP: G Vlad Ducasse
- After three solid performances, the Vlad Ducasse of the preseason showed up against the New York Jets. They’ll need him to return to his form from the previous three games as they continue to try and fortify the offensive line.

Up Next: The Bills have the weekend off, and then take on the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, November 12 at 1:00 pm at New Era Field.

Final Thoughts
- This game was an incredible disappointment for the Bills and their fans for so many different reasons. They had a beatable opponent (in which they’ve already beaten) and one that they have more talent than throughout the roster, it was a nationally televised game, they were coming off their most dominant win of the season, and the playoffs were being talked about in Western New York in a serious fashion for the first time in a long time. As each moment passed, and the Bills’ errors continued to mount, you could feel the air in the balloon start to leak out. They were just outplayed by an inferior opponent, and that is not the 2017 Bills team we’ve seen through the first seven weeks of the season. Now as they enter the second half of the year, they have to make sure that this game against the Jets was merely an anomaly -- the exception to the rule if you will -- and not the standard performance as they continue through the season. They’ll have their hands full next week against the New Orleans Saints, but it will be at home and it’s still a winnable game for this team. In the grand scheme of it all, the Bills have a 5-3 record through the first half of the season, which is still far ahead of most people’s expectations of this team heading into the season. If they match their first-half record in the second half, that will get them to 10 wins, and what likely will be a spot in the postseason. It certainly doesn’t feel good right now for Bills fans, and that’s to be expected after a performance like the one they had on Thursday. However, there is still a lot to like about this team through the first half of the season — and they’ll have a chance to prove that the first eight games weren't a fluke. It’s how they respond to a game like this one that will truly teach us the mettle of the 2017 Buffalo Bills.

Twitter: @JoeBuscaglia

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