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Joe B: 7 observations from Buffalo Bills - Detroit Lions (12/16/18)

Posted at 6:09 PM, Dec 16, 2018

(WKBW) — After two straight weeks of knocking on the door, the Buffalo Bills battled back from a six-point deficit in the second half to steal a win against the Detroit Lions, while simultaneously putting a stake in their opponents' playoff hopes. With the 14-13 victory, the Bills improved to 5-9 on the season in yet another chapter for a team that seemingly gets younger by the week.

Josh Allen bounced back from a three-turnover performance last week against the New York Jets to lead his team to a victory while accounting for a high percentage of his team's offense along the way. And even though Allen had some more moments to learn from, at the end of the day, he helped the Bills to a win.

How did it all happen? Seven observations from the Bills' victory over the Lions:

1) Allen learned from mistakes, but must also improve in some areas still
- In his ninth start with the Buffalo Bills, rookie quarterback Josh Allen continued his education while engineering his team to their fifth victory of the season -- four of which that came with him as the starter. That's right, the Bills record with Josh Allen is 4-5, while without him the Bills are a woeful 1-4. While there were certainly other contributing factors to the victory, having that big of a disparity with only one individual is alarming, and goes to show how important he has been to the team in the 2018 season. You'd have to be living under a rock not to know what the true intent of the Bills has been all along. It's the development of Josh Allen in a non-pressurized situation while having a secondary impact of the young players around him learning how to play in those situations as well. But make no mistake, the season has always been about fostering an environment that encourages growth and adaptability for their young quarterback, and to his credit, that's been one of his biggest strong points since taking over as the starter. While Allen is prone to mistakes, he learns from his lesson from one week to the next, immediately implementing changes in his next outing. There are plenty of examples of this as the season has progressed. The Bills saw him leaving the pocket too early, and since he's come back from his injury, that hasn't been as much of a problem and usually rushes when he's about to get taken down in the backfield. His throws to the left sideline have improved dramatically from the time they got their hands on him, and his days of opening up his hip while sacrificing his accuracy seem to be behind him for the most part. On short throws, he's improved his focus on his footwork and is hitting his targets in stride as opposed to being scattershot and taking away any likelihood of yards due to his throw. And today against the Lions, Allen learned to throw the ball away if nothing is there rather than forcing the issue as he did against the New York Jets last week. Now, the one thing that begs some improvement is his placement on the intermediate-to-deep passes, because twice the Bills had an open receiver for a big gain that fell to the turf. The plays, to Deonte Thompson and Zay Jones, were partially the fault of the receivers, but those are also tough catches to make, and it's fair to consider the entire situation. However, Allen continues to show signs that there are brighter days ahead especially when the Bills surround him with more talent on offense, and that has to have the Bills front office, coaching staff, and fans feeling good about him in his rookie season. Plus, he brought on a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter at home with his arm -- not his legs. He has his faults, but to ignore the signs of growth and potential that exist with Allen in his rookie season reek of trying too hard to find the bad.

2) What to make of Robert Foster
- Over the last several weeks, since undrafted rookie wide receiver Robert Foster got his "wake up call" from the Bills coaching staff, he has returned to be the team's top receiver -- and it hasn't even been close. In his five appearances since being promoted from the practice squad, Foster has had three separate 100-yard performances including against the Lions, and one 94-yard performance to along with it. More importantly, he is showing incredible chemistry with Josh Allen, to the point where the rookie quarterback is looking for Foster. Gone is the young wideout that struggled with his hands during training camp, and with complacency in his first stint on the active roster to begin the season. Now, we did see Foster double-clutch a reception that had to be reviewed, but to his credit, they ruled it a reception. Then in the second half, on virtually the same play they ran against Jacksonville that went for a 75-yard touchdown, Allen and Foster hit the repeat button by connecting for the game-winning 42-yard touchdown. The bigger question about Robert Foster is relatively simple. What is he to the Bills past this season? As he has continued to grow, there is little doubt that he has carved out a role heading into the 2019 offseason. However, what I think will be essential for him based on what happened early in the 2018 season is showing the same fire and work ethic as he is right now. In human nature, it's easy for a stark event -- such as getting cut -- to motivate them for the short-term to change their ways. For Foster, he needs to prove that he's the same guy when he gets back from a long layoff in the offseason, and after achieving success as an undrafted rookie. If he passes those tests, there is no reason to ignore the obvious chemistry between Allen and Foster -- but he must continue to earn that time on the field. There is little doubt that the Bills are going to address the wide receiver position in hopes of finding something closer to a number-one wide receiver than what they presently have on the team. But, just as the Bills have hoped for when they put so many young players on the field late in the year, Foster is taking the opportunity and running with it. They really couldn't have asked for much more and has helped assist them in their offseason planning.

3) Poyer, defense shines down the stretch
- Considering how the game started for the defense of the Buffalo Bills, you have to give all the credit to the Bills for making the adjustments and finishing plays in the second half that ultimately led them to victory. After Matthew Stafford and Kenny Golladay crushed the Bills in the first half for 115 yards, the Bills only allowed 21 yards to the talented wideout the rest of the way and then stacked up big stops in the fourth quarter that ultimately led them to a victory. There were single moments from certain players down the stretch, such as a Shaq Lawson batted pass, or Lorenzo Alexander making an acrobatic almost-interception in zone coverage, and even to backup Julian Stanford coming in cold for an injured Tremaine Edmunds to break up what looked to be an easy out route to the sidelines. However, the one player that deserves a ton of praise is Jordan Poyer. The past few weeks, Poyer has returned to the player that we saw for the majority of the 2017 season and has been one of their best -- and he showed up in a big way on the Lions' final offensive drive. On consecutive plays, Poyer made solo tackles to drop the Lions for a loss on second down, and to chop down tight end Levine Toilolo in the open field that made the Lions feel as though they needed to punt. Especially since the Lions only required 30 or so yards at the start of the drive to attempt a potential game-winning field goal, Poyer stepping up in that clutch moment was as big of a moment for the Bills as you'll find in the game.

4) The Tre'Davious White conundrum
- The issue of Tre'Davious White is less of a conundrum and more of a conversation that's going on about him following a couple of big plays. In the first half, Kenny Golladay got the better of White on a pair of huge gains and it led to points for the Detroit Lions. Especially coming after White was the cornerback on the long Robby Anderson gain to set up the Jets game-winning touchdown, White has come under fire recently. However, while it's fair to criticize him for those two plays, context is necessary as compared to his entire season. Those are three plays throughout two games where he is taking at least 50 snaps -- which is a small percentage of the time. And while those certainly can't be ignored in the enormity of the moment, his performance the vast majority of time in coverage cannot be overlooked, either. Cornerback is one of those positions where you can fall victim to the game on broadcast television, and for what it's worth before I started watching the film four or five years ago, I found myself falling into similar traps. Of all the positions, there isn't a bigger 'prisoner of the moment' position than cornerback. It's easy to form opinions over big plays because they're, well, big plays. But for White, he has been fantastic all season long. He is easily my top-graded player over the entirety of the season, and he makes so many plays in coverage that go unnoticed because they never see the light of day on the broadcast. Admittedly, this has probably been his most difficult stretch over the last three weeks, but he's still making quality plays for the Bills even through it all. For those that might be thinking they have a problem in White based on these last two weeks -- think again. Tre'Davious White is a good, bordering on a great player -- and the Bills aren't worrying about White. They know what they have in him.

5) The shift at tight end continues
- The Monday after the Jets game, I noted that the Bills had dropped the snap count of Charles Clay to around 55-percent while giving Logan Thomas near 47-percent of time on the field. It felt like a significant drop off considering how much he seemed to be on the field, even though his snap counts in games played was slightly under 59-percent. However, there was a game that skewed that figure. When Charles Clay suffered his injury against the Chicago Bears, it was early in the first quarter, and Clay only had eight snaps to his name -- whereas the Bills went on to have a whopping 91 offensive snaps, which completely skews the snap percentages when healthy. So, without that game factored in or the snaps he took part in, Clay's snap percentage in games played was close to 75-percent. Why am I telling you all of this? Well, in the NFL, when a starting player like Clay goes from a 75-percent participant to a 55-percent participant, it's significant, and should it continue, it leads to the conclusion that the team is re-thinking things. So, entering the game, I tracked Clay's snaps in comparison to the only other tight end active, Jason Croom. As the fourth quarter arrived, and some big moments that required attention came about, I lost track. But to that point, unofficially of course, Croom and Clay were at a near-even split in snaps which suggests the Bills have soured on the massively underperforming Clay. When I asked McDermott about it after the game, he acknowledged the switch and said they want to see Croom in more situations -- including the one where he made a huge 50-50 catch to extend the final drive and secure the victory, all while building up the trust of both the coaching staff and Josh Allen. I would expect this trend to continue with the super-athletic Croom, as the Bills are likely to enter the next chapter at tight end in the 2019 offseason without Charles Clay.

6) The running game won't be fixed until 2019
- Early on for the Bills, the play of the running game and the offensive line looked much improved from what it had been recently, which is somewhat of a surprise given that the Bills were without the top two running backs on their depth chart. As the game wore on, the Bills slowly started to lose the line of scrimmage with the ground game, and it eventually evolved into the equivalent of banging their heads against the wall yet again. By the end of it all, Marcus Murphy and Keith Ford combined for merely 81 yards on 25 carries, which earned a pedestrian yards per carry average of 3.24. At this point, the Bills will continue to try and establish the ground game in the final two games of the season, but you can't reasonably expect anything to change for them. The Bills have a bad offensive line that fails to open up holes consistently, and they just haven't had the talent at the running back position to always take advantage of the running lanes when they're there. Injection of both youth and talent will be necessary at both spots to give some help to rookie quarterback Josh Allen in his quest to become the quarterback they hope he can. They don't need the running game to lead the way anymore like they used to with Tyrod Taylor -- or at least, that's what the Bills hope will be the case with Allen -- but they need it to at least be a threat to keep the defenses honest. As for 2018, it would be a stretch to expect anything to change. Through 14 games, they are what they are at this point.

7) Boettger (finally!) gets in
- While he didn't get a ton of time in the game the Bills, at long last, gave undrafted rookie Ike Boettger a chance at right guard on at least two separate offensive series. Now, the last time the Bills did this in the middle of a game, it led to varying results. They did so with Wyatt Teller at left guard in two or three series for Vladimir Ducasse, and he took the starting job the following week and hasn't let go of it. That same week, the Bills also used Jeremiah Sirles at right tackle on a pair of series in place of Jordan Mills, but that didn't stick, and Mills remained the starter the following week and hadn't given up any healthy snaps since. From what I saw, Boettger looked pretty strong in his one-on-one situations, and at the very least, piqued my interest enough to see how he fared on film when you can take a more concentrated look at him. However, the precedent has been set that if a player along the line looks good enough in those series, they can take the starting job the following week, so we'll have to see if Boettger can do the same on the right side as Teller did on the left. Conor McDermott didn't see any time at right tackle to my knowledge, but that could be on the way in Weeks 16 and 17 given their commitment to the youth movement.

Bills MVP: S Jordan Poyer
- Two huge tackles on the final drive of the game helped cinch the win for the Bills. This award also could have gone to Josh Allen or Robert Foster, but Poyer came up huge in a big spot and was great all game.

Bills LVP: LT Dion Dawkins
- The left tackle is taking penalties and is losing some reps, and you have to wonder what his future is at left tackle is -- or if they consider a position switch in the offseason. He needs a solid response over the next two weeks.

Up Next: The Bills will take on the New England Patriots in their final road game of the season, on Sunday, December 23 at 1:00 pm.

Draft Order Update: Through 14 games, the Bills currently hold the 10th overall selection. With the victory, they dropped down four spots. Had they lost to Detroit, they would have held the 5th overall pick through 14 games.

Final Thoughts:
- As the Bills collected their first victory in three tries, there is a more significant point at play when it comes to their young quarterback Josh Allen. The Bills are indeed 4-5 with their rookie quarterback as the starter, but the manner in which he has played over the last four weeks is what stands out. Since his injury, the growth of Allen is easy to see -- and perhaps above all else, he's making the team around him better, which is as much of a feather in the cap as you'll find for a quarterback. Allen's offensive line has struggled all year, the running game has rarely had success, and the receivers haven't stepped up until Allen returned to the lineup following the bye week. Robert Foster used to be an afterthought, and all of a sudden, he's been close to three 100-yard games in four weeks with Allen. That's only possible with quarterback play that allows for good things to happen even if there is a discrepancy in talent. Now, there are still areas that Allen needs to improve on, but the more weeks that go by, the more he shows that he can change what ailed him even the week prior. He's malleable to coaching and isn't too stubborn to change, which is vital. Allen has steadily improved, and his response after a performance with three turnovers was a good sign. And given the talent around him, it makes you wonder what Allen could be with any semblance of an offensive line, a running game, and perhaps a more suitable top wide receiver and tight end. He's not quite there and needs to work on the precision of his throws, but the signs continue to be there even through the good and bad -- and he has two games remaining to build the base of an already solid rookie season.

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