After a pair of victories that not many people expected them to get, the Buffalo Bills suffered a loss to a team that many thought they should have been able to beat. The Bills lost by a score of 20-16 to the Cincinnati Bengals — in an infuriating fashion for both players and fans alike.
Now the Bills are 3-2 on the season and in a three-way tie for the lead in the AFC East with the New England Patriots and New York Jets. How did the Bills fall short in Cincinnati?
Seven observations from the game on Sunday:
1) Losing Clay was a game changer
- The Bills didn’t have a lot of playmakers to begin with in the 2017 season. Losing Jordan Matthews was certainly a blow because they were without their most dynamic and successful wide receiver heading into the contest. That means the Bills had to lean on two players predominantly: running back LeSean McCoy, and tight end Charles Clay. In regards to the tight end, he has been so important to the offense in keeping them afloat and with the ability to move the sticks. Even in the early stages of the Bengals game, the Bills were targeting Clay with some success — until he took a hit on his final reception. That hit cost him the rest of the game, and with having to be carted off the field, it could end up costing Clay even more time, too. When he went out of the game, the field felt a lot smaller than it was. It really felt like the entire complexion of the game had changed for them on offense. With Clay in the game, the Bills racked up 61 of their 221 total net yards on the 13 plays that Clay was in the game — to which he accounted for 31 of them. The Bills just could never find another true answer to get things going, even though they had one of the best offensive playmakers in the game in LeSean McCoy. Because the offensive line has performed so poorly (more on that in a bit), the running game hasn’t gotten off to the start that everyone expected, and Taylor is left to bail them out in the passing game. Clay has been his top target and has exploited mismatches almost every week. Without him, this offense has become that much more predictable, and they’ll certainly have trouble establishing an identity in the passing attack.
2) Tyrod should not shoulder all the blame
- When the Bills win, Tyrod Taylor passes by for some fans. When he loses, some absolutely tear into him — which can be expected, considering he’s the starting quarterback of the team. However, once Clay went down with an injury, Taylor might have had one of the worst collection of pass catchers in the entire league surrounding him on Sunday. Zay Jones was a non-factor yet again, and somehow Brandon Tate rose from the inactive list in Week Four to lead the Bills receivers in yards. Nick O’Leary was a solid target that can catch the ball, but offers little to none of the yards after catch ability that Clay is so good with. Did Taylor miss some throws? He most certainly did. Did he hang in the pocket a bit too long? Again, yes, he most certainly did. However, the collection of receivers and tight ends that the Bills had working for them is one that is usually seen in the bottom half of the roster, if not on the outside looking in on a roster. He needs some help if the Bills are going to get this thing back on the tracks. I think we all well know that he’s not a franchise guy, but he’s good enough — with a good supporting cast — to get you into the win column. The supporting cast is what failed the Bills more often than not on Sunday.
3) What to do with this rushing attack?
- The failures of the passing offense, and without the presence of Charles Clay, it allowed the Cincinnati Bengals to focus in and thwart LeSean McCoy and the rushing attack. For obvious reasons, McCoy was frustrated after the game. This is now the fourth straight week in which McCoy has not been able to have an overwhelming impact on a game, because of how little respect opposing teams are giving the downfield passing attack. And before this week, that was with the likes of Jordan Matthews and Charles Clay. Making matters worse, the run blocking has been horrid this season, making for a tough job against an eight-man box even tougher on McCoy. The Bills have tried everything: play action, stretch plays, runs up the middle, stretching the ball down the field on incomplete passes — and nothing has taken. Part of the problem is, in fact, the offensive line — especially on the right side. On Sunday the Bills gave the start at right guard to Vladimir Ducasse, who predictably struggled throughout the game. He’s only a part of the problem, though. The push up front just hasn’t been good enough, and they haven’t been able to spring McCoy well enough outside on stretch runs — which is a staple of this offense. If the Bills want to get better offensively, they need to get No. 25 going — and the only way that happens is if they make some changes along the offensive line with either who plays, or, the blocking scheme.
4) Defense played well enough for the Bills to win
- Most times, when you see a team win the turnover battle 3-to-1, the rushing attack was basically neutralized, and the opponents get held to 20 points, you would think that is a good enough job by the defense to help them get the win. Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer once again showed how valuable they are to this defense and the team, capitalizing on two more plays that turned the field in the Bills favor and gave the offense another chop at the tree. The defense certainly had their pitfalls in the game (more on that in a bit), but the defensive line held up their end of the bargain against a bad Bengals offensive line. Jerry Hughes and Shaq Lawson both played well, and Marcell Dareus even made a couple of flash plays in his time on the field. The linebackers, while beaten over the middle of the field in coverage (as has been the case through the first four games), filled in against the run well enough to make the Bengals have to throw the ball more often than not. For as much as that went wrong for the Bills, all they needed was the offense to make one play in the second half. That play never came.
5) 12 yards
- Along with the play of the defense, even special teams put the Bills offense on the doorstep of making a potential game-winning play — and they failed to take advantage of an opportunity that you really couldn’t ask for more with. Brandon Tate, in his #RevengeGame versus his former team in Cincinnati, returned a punt down to the Bengals 24-yard line — and along with a penalty, help set the Bills up with a 1st-and-10 from the Cincinnati 12. The play calling sequence — specifically on second down — was a bit head-scratching. The Bills offensive line was getting torched on stretch runs all game, so on a 2nd-and-10, offensive coordinator Rick Dennison dialed up a stretch run to the left side and lost a total of four yards. With how the offense was performing that took away most, if not all hope that they’d be able to convert on a 3rd-and-14, and instead had to settle for a field goal. The Bills could have taken the lead by gaining only 12 yards, and the most maddening part, they had eight downs to do it if they wanted. Instead, they settled for a field goal, and never sniffed the red zone again.
6) White showing signs of brilliance, and signs of novice
- There really is only one way to describe the day of rookie cornerback Tre’Davious White: a tutorial. White has been fantastic thus far in the 2017 season, playing way above the level expected of a rookie and turning into one of the early stars of the defense this season. On Sunday in Cincinnati, he was challenged even more by A.J. Green — a long and wiry monster of a receiver that has the quickness that most other players his size only dream of having. Green got him early because White seemed to squat on a comeback route — a move that has brought him success in the early stages of the season. Dalton sent the deep ball down the left sideline, and Green was off to the races. From there, White got back into it by breaking up a few passes and just showing the poise beyond his years that we saw through the first four weeks. Late in the game, Green got him again for a big gain that helped set the Bengals up for their final touchdown of the game, and really the final point that they needed to put the Bills away. Perhaps most impressive, the Bills made the decision to have White shadow Green everywhere he went on the field — the first time we’ve seen the Bills do anything other than have White play left cornerback and either E.J. Gaines, Shareece Wright, or Greg Mabin play the right side. The Bills are trusting him more and more and for good reason. He’ll look back at this game against A.J. Green and learn a lot about himself as a player — and where to get better for next time. After all, that’s been one of the most impressive parts about the rookie: not making the same mistake twice. He’ll be back in a big way. The Bills seemed to have found a good cornerback with the potential for greatness late in the first round — an outright steal.
7) Injuries at CB loomed largely
- Even with White struggling on those two plays, the Bengals had a lot of success through the air while targeting players other than the rookie — and that was mainly due to the huge injury to starter E.J. Gaines. A groin injury caused him to miss the contest, and in turn, neither Shareece Wright or Greg Mabin could pick up the slack when called upon. It was mostly Wright playing in the game, and then a hamstring injury to nickel corner Leonard Johnson forced the former practice squad player Mabin into the contest, which signaled to Cincinnati to attack through the air at all costs. They did, and they were successful in doing so as Andy Dalton threw for 328 yards. As it was originally feared, the Bills are thin at a lot of different positions and injuries to those positions can help shape a game. The Cincinnati outcome is the best example of this argument, seeing as how this is the first time the Bills had to deal with injuries to a large degree.
Bills MVP: WR Brandon Tate
- He roped in the touchdown in the first half and set the Bills up only 12 yards out from the end zone to take the lead in the fourth quarter.
Bills LVP: CB Greg Mabin
- He was a liability, both in run support and in pass coverage, when he was on the field. The Bengals attacked his side of the field, and if he has to spend more time on defense, I’d expect future opponents to do the same.
Up Next: Bye Week
- Through all the penalties, injuries, lack of offensive production, and whatever else faced the Bills on Sunday… they were still just one big offensive play away in the fourth quarter from winning the game — which must be kept in perspective. The Bills will be up against some tougher opponents in the coming weeks that will challenge the Bills deficiencies even more than the Bengals did today. However, the Bills have to find a way to start moving the ball on offense, and preferably, to get LeSean McCoy back on track. Whether it’s through moving around pieces on the offensive line, signing some players to the active roster, or maybe even calling plays a bit differently — the Bills have to do something to get the offense in gear. The defense showed, once again, that they are good enough to get the job done and needed the offense to step up one time in the second half. The bye week, considering all the injuries and the lack of offensive success on Sunday seems to be coming at a great time for the team to do some self-analysis and figure out some different things they can do. They must make adjustments, otherwise, they’ll continue to have more of the same outcomes happen without a full-fledged healthy roster suiting up every Sunday.
Want some more analysis from the Bills loss to the Bengals? 7ABC's Joe Buscaglia and Matthew Fairburn of NYUpstate.com bring you their thoughts from Cincinnati in the latest edition of the Bills Beat. Click play below, or you can subscribe on iTunes here.