The Buffalo Bills had an incredible opportunity to claim their fifth victory of the season, and to assure themselves a winning record at the halfway point of the season. Instead, the Bills fell flat against the Miami Dolphins, and were run off the field in the second half on the way to a 28-25 loss.
The Bills, in one day, brought on a bevy of new questions about their team that will likely challenge them as they march forward into Week Eight of the 2016 regular season and beyond.
How did it all happen on Sunday? Seven observations from the loss:
1) The great Shady debate
- From the moment that Rex Ryan hurried over to the podium on Wednesday after practice to give his second injury update of the day — and the big one being LeSean McCoy having been unable to finish practice — you got the sense that a different sort of week was on the way. McCoy had been so dynamic through the first six games of the season and was a big reason for the team’s success. McCoy didn’t practice Thursday, barely participated on Friday, and was declared a game-time decision. The Bills not only activated him, but they decided to ride him all through the first half and early on in the third quarter. The Bills weren’t treating him as a man that just suffered a hamstring injury, they were operating — almost stubbornly at times — as if McCoy was his normal self and nothing had happened earlier in the week. It was clear to you, to me, and to anyone in attendance that McCoy was not playing anywhere near the level he had been. There was no speed to his moves, no confidence in his cuts. He looked like a player that was playing below full health, and his stats proved it: 11 yards on eight carries. Meanwhile the Bills had a fully healthy Mike Gillislee riding the pine for the better part of three quarters, and they basically abandoned the run in the process. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, hamstrings are a difficult injury to deal with, and they need the proper amount of time to fully heal, otherwise it will be an injury that lingers until given the time to get better. The Bills clearly didn’t do that, and that was evidenced by McCoy having to leave the game with a sore hamstring in the third quarter. This is exactly what Anthony Lynn, the team’s offensive coordinator, was hoping to avoid.
— Joe Buscaglia (@JoeBuscaglia) October 23, 2016
The concerning part about all this is that now there’s a stark pattern of behavior for the Bills with injuries. When key pieces to their team have injuries, the perception exists that they allow these players to push the envelope and get back to action prematurely, causing a bigger risk for re-injury down the line. In 2015 at the beginning of the season, just look at the hamstring injury McCoy had that kept bugging him for months. The same goes for the Aaron Williams neck injury, allowing him to come back far too soon. This year, Sammy Watkins never seemed right in the regular season, which could lead one to think that the wide receiver came back to camp too soon. Now, add McCoy’s hamstring injury to the list. After the game, McCoy said this hamstring injury wasn’t like last year’s because there isn’t “deep, deep pain.” The thing is, though, there doesn’t need to be. If it’s going to have a significant impact on how well he’s able to perform — which it did — it’s better to stay away and let it heal than to force the issue, convince the team he’s fine, risk re-injury, and don’t have anywhere near the production that they could had he been fully healthy or they used someone else that was. Rest was needed for McCoy, and rest was not given. Now, they’ll have to hope this doesn’t linger into next week and beyond.
2) Run defense was run over
- After watching how Miami was able to run all over Pittsburgh last week, I’ll be honest: I didn’t believe the Dolphins and running back Jay Ajayi would have anywhere near that type of production on Sunday. Not only was he near it, he eclipsed it to the tune of 214 yards on 28 carries. Ajayi was making multiple Bills players miss tackles, and used great vision to get up the field in a hurry against a normally stout Buffalo run defense. There was a few issues here for the Bills on defense. First, which I already outlined, was the missed tackle factor.. and there were plenty from the Bills. Second, the Bills were just losing the battle up front. The Miami offensive line, like the Bills offensive line had been doing in the three weeks before this one (more on that shortly), dominated the point of attack and allowed Ajayi the cutback lanes to get upfield. Third, and this likely contributed mightily to the first two reasons, was the fact that the defense was on the field 37 minutes, and many times, without a long break in between series. They were getting worn out in a humid environment. Is this a bad run defense that the Bills have? No, it’s not… and it’s probably going to get much better once Marcell Dareus can finally return to full health. They had an extremely bad day against a running back and an offensive line that was full of confidence from the previous week, and they were just outplayed all game long.
3) OL was overpowered
- Over the course of the four-game winning streak, the Bills were often the team imposing their will at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, but most notably, with their offensive line. From left to right, the Bills starting five had been clearing out tons of space on a weekly basis, and really made it easy for the offense to get things going. While the injury to McCoy certainly didn’t help things at all, the offensive line wasn’t getting nearly as much of a push against the Dolphins than they had been. And it was a bit perplexing, seeing as how that unit was operating as well as any offensive line in the league in run blocking, and defensively, the Dolphins were the second-worst run defense in the league. Somehow, Miami was able to flip the script and dominated that line of scrimmage as well. Even though the Bills still had chances to win the game — and even held a lead into the fourth quarter — the way the Dolphins offensive and defensive line both played showed that they were the team that deserved to win.
4) The two third downs that sunk the Bills
- Often times in these close games, it’s just a play or two in the dying moments that stick out like a sore thumb, and in the case of this contest, it was Miami’s two clutch third-down conversions in the fourth quarter that sealed the Bills’ fate. The Bills still had the lead with six minutes to go in the game, anryd they forced the Dolphins into a third-and-long after two big stops of Jay Ajayi on the ground. I don’t know if anyone heard me say it, but out loud in the press box, I murmured: “Biggest play of the game right here.” At that moment, the Dolphins faced a 3rd-and-7 from their own 46-yard line — just far away that a stop would force Miami to punt and the Bills could waste some clock. The play comes, and Ryan Tannehill gets flushed out of the pocket and the Bills had him on the ropes. Tannehill relied on his speed, athleticism, and talent to not just evade the rush, but to fire a perfect 18-yard throw into Jarvis Landry’s breadbasket which extended the drive. Three plays later, the Dolphins are in the end zone to take the lead and never looked back. Then again, only down four points — even after the Bills had their initial offensive possession foiled (more on that shortly), they had the Dolphins in a 3rd-and-6 with 2:35 to go, and still a timeout in their pocket. The result? Tannehill finds Kenny Stills, the oncoming safety collides with Ronald Darby while trying to get over in time, and Stills runs all the way for a 66-yard touchdown. Despite all that went wrong, the Bills still had chances to turn their luck — they just never could.
5) Three-and-out with a chance to win the game
- Offensively, the Bills did absolutely nothing with one of those chances. This was just after the Bills had surrendered the go-ahead score to Miami on the previous drive, but Tyrod Taylor and company took the ball down only four points, still with under four minutes to play in the game. Taylor hasn’t been forced to play from behind a great deal during the team’s four-game winning streak, which made this part of the matchup especially interesting if nothing more than to just see how he reacts to the situation. The Bills, on that ensuing possession, were unnerved. The offensive line was surrendering pressure from both the outside and the interior, and Taylor just wasn’t accurate with his throws. After missing his first two attempts, Taylor actually had Marquise Goodwin on the area of the zone between the cornerback and the deep safety in coverage, and it required a throw that didn’t allow the route to extend too much more vertically. Instead, the quarterback threw the ball into the safety’s area, Marquise Goodwin rises up to try and make a play on the ball, and ends up getting hurt in the process. The Bills brought out their punt team, and they never got a legitimate sniff at winning the game again. It just seemed like all the key moments in the contest went the Dolphins’ way, which is why the Bills are now 4-3 on the season.
6) Without Woods, the WRs failed to separate
- The Bills had their work cut out for them in the passing game. Sammy Watkins has been gone for the last five weeks, and now Robert Woods was unavailable to play because of a foot injury. That left the Bills Marquise Goodwin, Justin Hunter, Walt Powell, and Brandon Tate to take all the wide receiver reps in Miami. Watkins is clearly extremely talented, but not having Woods on the field showed just how much farther ahead he is as opposed to the rest of the receivers on the team. Woods is an extremely good route runner, and that helps him gain separation from defenders. Goodwin mostly focuses on speed, while Hunter relies on his frame to help secure catches — but neither were getting nearly the type of separation that either Watkins or Woods did, which made the passing game pretty tough to get started. The Dolphins also did a nice job on tight end Charles Clay, who they must have pointed to ahead of the game as the key player to stop if the Bills were going to be without Woods. It worked, and Clay’s impact was minimal.
7) Special teams did all it could
- While there were a lot of negatives from the game, I thought the special teams units on all phases were outstanding on Sunday. Brandon Tate brought back one huge punt return that completely flipped the field on the Dolphins, and he also pinned the Dolphins deep on their one-yard line later in the game in punt coverage by catching the ball clean just shy of the end zone. Punter Colton Schmidt also chipped in, helping change the course of a potentially treacherous situation for the Bills by punting from their own 15-yard line, and booming it 57 yards to put the Dolphins on their side of the field. Plus, even Lerentee McCray chipped in with a blocked punt, and Lorenzo Alexander continued his dominance on special teams coverage units, too. It ultimately couldn’t help them pull out a victory, but special teams won the battle against the Dolphins on Sunday.
Bills MVP: S Corey Graham
- He made three huge pass breakups in the game, but obviously, they weren’t enough to help the Bills to a victory on Sunday.
Bills LVP: RB LeSean McCoy
- Whether it was his decision or the choice of the coaching staff, putting McCoy on the field for as much as they did early on never allowed the offense to get in rhythm, and the running back was clearly not himself. It all led to the league’s top rushing attack to be anything but that.
Up Next: Sunday, October 30 vs. New England (6-1), 1:00 p.m. at New Era Field
GIF of the Week:
— Joe Buscaglia (@JoeBuscaglia) October 23, 2016
- From a big picture perspective, this was the week that many that follow the Bills looked to and said ‘they need to get that victory to have a shot at the playoffs.’ It would have helped them secure at least a 5-3 record at the halfway point, and kept them firmly in the conversation to be one of the two AFC Wild Card teams. Now? Many — on Twitter, anyway — feel as though that great opportunity against a beatable opponent was extinguished, and now comes an two-week onslaught of Super Bowl contenders in New England (with a scorned Tom Brady), and out west in Seattle for Monday Night Football. Making matters worse, the LeSean McCoy injury isn’t going away at this point, and with a sore hamstring in the second half, you’d have to believe it will continue to be an issue leading up to the New England game, too. There wasn’t a lot of good to take away from Sunday. However, the Bills are still 4-3 on the season, in an AFC Wild Card race that is completely wide open, and still have a bevy of winnable matchups (Cincinnati, Jacksonville, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Miami, New York Jets) in the second half of the season. Plus, Marcell Dareus is likely coming back soon, and maybe even Robert Woods, too. While the Sunday loss was by no means a good thing in any capacity, I would urge fans to not start to read the eulogy of the 2016 Bills just yet. This is still a talented team with a good defense, and one that must find their way offensively once again. But they’re also a team that must find that formula again in a hurry, because they can’t go playing .500 football for too much longer.