In the middle of the week on the most recent edition of the Bills Beat podcast (to which you can subscribe right here), we sat and asked ourselves if we should be thinking about the playoffs for the 2017 version of the Buffalo Bills. It came after a really impressive victory over the Denver Broncos, in which there was some hesitation shared.
Some listened nervously, and others said it was insanity to be thinking about it that early in the season. Just a few days later, the Bills came away with one of the biggest upsets of the young NFL season, sit at 3-1 through the first quarter of the season, and are firmly in the discussion as a surprise team that no one saw coming.
The Bills upset the Atlanta Falcons 23-17 on Sunday, giving them their first loss ever on the field at the brand new Mercedes Benz Stadium, and will sit atop the AFC East for the second week in a row, and for three out of the first four weeks.
How did they do it? Seven observations from the Bills surprising victory:
1) The defense is for real, folks
- After one week, the explanation for the defensive effort was “it’s just the Jets.” After Week Two against Cam Newton, it was, “well, he was hurt.” Following a Week Three standout performance, “it was only Trevor Siemian.” Now, four weeks into the season and with four outstanding defensive performances to their name — one of which against one of the best offenses in the entire league, it’s time to say it out loud: The Bills defense is for real. They forced turnovers when they needed to down the stretch of the game, they bent but didn’t break when it came to allowing points, and they kept putting pressure on the quarterback all game long. Coming into the game, you knew the Falcons were going to get their points — to which they did. They had a pair of touchdowns and tied the game up late, which led to the Bills needed to get yardage and some points on the board. However, when push came to shove and the Bills needed a stop at the end of the game, the pass rush was on fire and they made Matt Ryan throw an errant pass, ending the Falcons hopes to head to Week Five with a perfect record. The individual play from Jerry Hughes, Kyle Williams, Eddie Yarbrough, Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde, and Jordan Poyer have made it into an overwhelmingly collective effort that has masked some of the deficiencies that exist in the middle of the field. Heck, the Bills suffered two injuries to starters on defense, they started the game without another, and they were still holding the Falcons in check on offense for the most part. This is an effort that is worthy of all the recognition possible, and now, they have been identified as one of the top defensive units in the league — and for good reason.
2) Tyrod deserves credit again, and Charles Clay, too
- The Bills didn’t ask Tyrod Taylor to do a whole heck of a lot, but when they needed a play — just like the defensive effort — Taylor made it happen. He made two gorgeous passes — both of which fell into the arms of Charles Clay — and set the Bills up for points in both scenarios. The first led to the team’s first touchdown of the game and it came on a rollout play in which Taylor kept his eyes down the field. The second, a drop in the bucket late in the game once again to Clay, who had just an outright phenomenal game. His 112 receiving yards accounted for 182 of the total yards gained through the air on Sunday and continued an incredibly strong start to the season. Clay looks fully healthy, and he’s been targeted early and often by this offense — and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon. As for Taylor, the Bills have been putting him in spots where he is much more comfortable than not. They’ve reformatted what they’ve wanted to do on offense a bit to suit Taylor, and it’s been working. He’s looked comfortable in a mostly shotgun look, and heck, they even mixed in a three-step drop or two during the game just to keep the defense honest. Over the last two weeks, Taylor has done enough for the Bills to win and the defense has done the rest, which really, was the formula of what they’ve been wanting to do both seasons with Rex Ryan as head coach. They just never had the defense to pair Taylor with. Now they do, and it’s been impressive to watch so far.
3) Hauschka has been a revelation
- Doesn’t 2016 seem like a lifetime ago at this point? The Bills were struggling on defense, the team was beating themselves, and the kicker was far from dependable. All three have completely been flipped on their heads — and especially the last of the bunch. Stephen Hauschka has instilled confidence back into the kicking game — confidence that’s been missing since the early stages of Dan Carpenter’s tenure with the team. Hauschka has been put in three really tough spots over the past two weeks that required 50-plus-yard field goals to bail the Bills out, and he’s done so in some clutch spots. Any lingering thoughts (after the initial trio of the compensatory pick formula) of trying to gain an additional fourth by cutting Hauschka is certainly out the window. They have a consistent player that’s just knocking them through, and someone that stays level-headed throughout the game enough to where no moment (so far) is too big for him.
4) The 4th-and-1 decision
- Following the game, head coach Sean McDermott said that he felt the team was being aggressive by heading to the line of scrimmage on a 4th-and-goal from the one-yard line, and to eventually take a delay of game penalty to set up a field goal and a seven-point lead. His point was that teams don’t always have to snap the ball in situations like that in order to be aggressive and that they were going for a certain look from the defense. The trouble is, a touchdown would have put them up by two scores, and the offensive line was punishing the Falcons’ defensive line that entire drive. Surely, they could have gained one more yard, or at worst, the Falcons would have had to take it down the field 99 yards for a touchdown to take the lead. I think McDermott is still trying to figure out how aggressive he wants to be and who he is in those specific situations because none of them have really come back to bite him. This time, the Falcons followed up that field goal decision by marching down and tying the game up with a touchdown. The Bills struck with a field goal, an interception, and another field goal — while the Falcons still had another pretty good shot to get the go-ahead score with under two minutes to play. It worked out in the Bills favor this time, but I think they could have been sweating a lot less had they gone for the end zone on that 4th-and-goal play. Hindsight is always 20-20, but that situation screamed for the Bills to get aggressive and help finish off the game right then and there. Had they lost, it’s that decision we’re talking about all week long of what could have been.
5) Hughes is having fun again
- The Atlanta Falcons offensive line is no joke, which makes the performance by the Bills’ pass rush that much better. While they didn’t have more than Jerry Hughes’ called strip-sack for that stat category, the pressure was there all game long and Matt Ryan was unable to fully get comfortable. Between Hughes, Eddie Yarbrough, Kyle Williams, and even Marcell Dareus on one key play down the stretch of the game, the pressure was there to mess with the Atlanta quarterback. It also is further indication that Hughes is back home in this defense. It looks like he isn’t overthinking things, the Bills are putting him in a position to be successful, and he’s making offensive linemen look silly in the process. The Bills getting heat on the Falcons was a great sign, because of that offensive line — by far — was the best one they’ve been up against so far in 2017.
6) Leonard Johnson struggles
- There were a few times where it certainly seemed like the presence of Leonard Johnson on the field was going to harm the Bills. In the first half before his injury, the Falcons noticed that the Bills were not going matchup specific against Julio Jones, so they lined him up in the slot hoping to take advantage of the mismatch. It worked. Johnson was beaten in coverage by Jones and the Falcons were getting into a rhythm. Lucky for the Bills, Jones suffered a hip injury and couldn’t come back in the game — which led to them shutting down the Falcons receivers for the most part after that. However, late in the game, Johnson basically tackled a player — which led to an automatic first down for Atlanta on their drive to pull ahead with under two minutes left — and could have ended up being a major reason they lost the game. However, the rest of the defense — to their credit — picked up his mistakes and made sure they left Atlanta with a victory. He’s been a bit of a problem area for the first quarter of the season, and the Bills have to be feeling a little lucky that the Falcons couldn’t use Julio Jones to exploit it further.
7) Injuries starting to mount for Bills
- Through the first three weeks, the Bills were fairly healthy and didn’t have any concerns on that front. Then Shaq Lawson got injured on Thursday to the point where he couldn’t play on Sunday. And then while in the game, they suffered even more injuries to starting players. Starting wide receiver Jordan Matthews injured his thumb, didn’t return, and I spotted him in a large wrap over his right hand and wrist area. On defense, starting linebacker Ramon Humber also injured his thumb, tried to come back in before being shut down the rest of the way, which led to rookie Matt Milano getting some serious playing time with the Bills. I also spotted Humber with a large wrap on his thumb. Late in the game, cornerback E.J. Gaines suffered an injury and couldn’t return, leaving the Bills with the oft-beaten Shareece Wright to take meaningful snaps in the biggest defensive series of the game. We’ll see how these situations shake out, but the adversity of injuries is finally starting to hit the Bills. Now is another test through a season to see how they react with replacement players in the starting lineup — if it comes to that.
Bills MVP: K Stephen Hauschka
- With the offense stalling and in need of two huge kicks, Hauschka nailed back-to-back 55-plus-yard kicks with under five minutes to go in the game. Charles Clay also got some consideration here, but the kicker was the story on Sunday.
Bills LVP: CB Leonard Johnson
- He was the weak link on defense and the Falcons were picking on him. The Bills were fortunate he didn’t ultimately cost them the game.
Up Next: Week Five on the road against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, October 8 at 1:00 pm.
- I’m not big on hyperbole, but this game, for so many reasons, is an incredible win for the 2017 version of the Buffalo Bills. They have faced numerous tests throughout the first four games of the season, and they’ve passed nearly all of them with flying colors. Win a game against a much-less talented team that you’re supposed to win at home? Check. Go toe-to-toe with two dynamic defensive teams in back-to-back weeks? Check. Beat a team with one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and with one of the best offenses, too? Check and check. It goes to show the job that Sean McDermott has done in very short order in Buffalo. He took a team that constantly beat themselves, underperformed, and had to play from behind all too often and has turned it all around. Now, they hold themselves accountable, they’re overperforming based on some of the talents they have on the roster, they’re in every single game right to the bitter end — and they’ve done so while basically revamping half of the active roster. If you weren’t thinking that there should be at least some reasonable thought about the playoffs after the Denver Broncos victory, you should now. This team has shown they’re a tough out for every team they’re up against, and there is no reason to believe that will change as the season goes on. Are the Bills good? Yes, they are. Do they have what it takes to make the playoffs? To be determined, but, it sure is a promising start with a brand new head coach.
On the latest episode of the Bills Beat, Joe B. and Matthew Fairburn of NYUpstate.com wonder how good this Bills team can be. Plus, a full breakdown of the game. You can click play below, or subscribe on iTunes here.