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Joe B: 7 observations from Buffalo Bills - New England Patriots (12/23/18)

Posted at 8:59 PM, Dec 23, 2018

(WKBW) — The Buffalo Bills came into their matchup with the New England Patriots with a head of steam. Over their past four games the Bills nearly came away with a victory in all of them, and considering the Patriots recent two-game losing streak, there was a slight hope for some competitiveness on the road.

In the end, the Bills found their efforts sink with the lack of overall talent and depth that has plagued them for much of the season. When a play was needed, not a single player stepped up when the game mattered.

All in all, it was a frustrating loss 24-12 loss for the Bills, as their record for the season drops to 5-10. How did it all happen?

Seven observations from the loss:

1) Allen had a shaky start but settled in
- Heading into the matchup, I considered the game with the New England to be somewhat of a barometer for the progress of Josh Allen. We'd seen him improve every week after he came back from his injury, but those were against four teams that enter Week 17 with a losing record. This game and this opponent was a different beast entirely, and you could almost sense it from the young quarterback. Perhaps it was nerves about going up against a Tom Brady team for the first time in his career, or if the moment was too big for him at the start of the game, but for a while there in the first half, Allen was not the same player that we had seen in the previous two games. Some of his throws were sailing on him, he didn't see the whole field like he had been doing and then capped it off with a lousy interception where he didn't see the defender that floated right in front of the pass. That version of Allen is not what we have grown accustomed to, and his teammates certainly didn't help matters (more on that shortly), but once the Bills were able to get to the locker room for halftime, I thought Allen came back and had a much stronger and concise performance than his start. It seemed as though his confidence had returned little by little, and he was hitting the passes that he had been in the prior weeks while putting the Bills on the doorstep of getting some points. The trouble is, they didn't take advantage of nearly enough opportunities, and that ultimately led them to a lopsided loss -- even if the teams didn't seem like they were two touchdowns apart for much of the day. The Bills needed that version of Allen to be the one that came out in the first quarter to give the team enough chances to get through and potentially win a game over a tough team. Part of it is Allen, and part of it is his surrounding talent. So while you can't pin all the blame on Allen for their disappointing performance on offense, he needed to be much better than he was at the start of the game, too. He is not a terrible quarterback as some might suggest, and he's not a finished product like some may hope for at this point. However, what he is, is a rookie quarterback trying to figure out how to consistently win in the NFL without a great supporting cast around him. Anyone assuming anything more or anything less is jumping to conclusions too prematurely, in my opinion.

2) The skill players let the Bills down repeatedly
- For Allen, it seems like he's consistently one of those players where context is needed, and it's once again the case in the loss to the Patriots in Week 16. Allen, despite his faults through the first half, had multiple receivers let him down in key moments of the game. Robert Foster lost a deep route, that was on the money, in the sun after burning past both the cornerback and safety. Later in the game, Foster didn't adjust to the ball well enough and only got one hand on a catchable, would-be touchdown. Logan Thomas allowed a throw in the end zone to go through his hands, and while the degree of difficulty was heightened a bit with a defender was there with him, that was a play that he needed to make to get the Bills back in the game. Isaiah McKenzie was also at fault on a couple of crucial, early plays that could have kept the drive going for the Bills when it was clear there wasn't a massive gap between the sides. Instead, Allen was let down on seven different occasions in total by my count, and it just goes to show that the Bills have to surround him with more in the upcoming season and beyond. At this point it's been well documented, the Bills elected to take their medicine in 2018 to get their salary cap into a healthy place and in doing so, didn't have a lot left over to address the offense outside of Josh Allen. Over the last several weeks, the lack of talent around him has been masked well enough to have a salvageable offense. However, when you have that many young pieces around, a game like this one is the result every now and again. It's just further proof of how important the offseason will be for the Bills to use some of their resources on skill position players.

3) How the Patriots dominated on the ground
- After the Bills thwarted the Patriots early on through the air, Bill Belichick went into their secondary plan to attack the banged up Bills defense on the ground -- and it worked. Their plan was a relatively simple one, with the Patriots intent on turning one player into the liability of the run defense. In his first start as the weakside linebacker in place of Matt Milano, undrafted rookie Corey Thompson showed on three or four separate plays that he was a bit too reactive, and took the bait on some misdirection which opened up massive holes. After seeing that, the Patriots made it a point to run right at the smaller Thompson, and it worked to a pretty substantial degree. Now, the undrafted rookie did make a couple of solid plays with all the time on the field, and it wasn't his fault alone. I felt the play of the defensive tackles was a particular disappointment, as the Patriots won the point of attack routinely on the way to dominating the ground game. If it weren't for the rushing attack, the Patriots didn't have much else working -- and it was the difference between the Bills keeping it close and losing in the manner that they did. The Bills missed the presence of Milano quite a bit, but the defensive tackles all needed to be much better than they were, especially considering that the team invested heavily in that group in the offseason.

4) Charles Clay being inactive was stark, but not out of nowhere
- Over the last two weeks, the Bills have made it clear through their snap counts that Charles Clay's hold on the job was not what it once was. Over the past several weeks, the Bills showed that they're content with dressing only two tight ends on game day. The trouble is -- and this is my fault for not picking up on it -- that even when Clay's snaps were decreased to 55-percent in Week 14 and 60-percent in Week 15, he was one of two tight ends that were healthy and available. Jason Croom was too injured to play against the Jets, and the same goes for Logan Thomas against the Lions. Had all three been healthy enough to play in either of those games, you'd have to wonder if Clay being inactive would have happened sooner. Regardless, Clay was the odd man out against the Patriots on Sunday -- and it wasn't health related. After the game, Sean McDermott explained it by saying it was a coach's decision, and not only to get Jason Croom and Logan Thomas more time on the field, but due to a lack of production at the position. In the grand scheme of things, you might as well consider Charles Clay to be gone ahead of the start of the new league year in March. After stomaching a lousy contract for years, the Bills can finally get out from it in the offseason while saving an additional $4.5 million on next year's cap. In 2018, Clay's production and blocking have fallen off a cliff and hasn't done anything to change the Bills minds to keep him around after the conclusion of the season. Unless an injury occurs during practice this week, the Week 15 win over Detroit might have been the last time we've seen Clay in a Bills uniform, and it seems the final straw for coaches was after his drop in the end zone against the Miami Dolphins with the game on the line. That was the last play before this wave started, and Clay is likely to be looking for a new team in the offseason.

5) Is LeSean McCoy worth the trouble in 2019?
- Speaking of cap savings, the Bills need to have a frank discussion in the offseason about what to do with running back LeSean McCoy. A team captain as voted by his peers, McCoy has been a no-show in 2018 as well. While some of it is the fault of the blocking up front, he certainly hasn't taken advantage of the opportunities that he's had with solid blocking in front of him, either. You have to look at the situation in totality, not just the fact that he's been successful in the past. This season has easily been McCoy's worst year of his career, and weak offensive line or not, he hasn't made the life of the quarterback any more comfortable outside of one random game against the New York Jets. McCoy will be entering the final year of his contract and will be 31 before the season begins, and if the Bills decided to move on from him, he would clear an additional $6.425 million on the 2019 salary cap -- which is enough to pay for a middle-tier free agent or two, or even be the cap number for the Bills' first-round pick. That would be enough evidence for his potential removal from the roster in itself, but you have to factor in what is still an ongoing lawsuit against him that accuses him of some pretty heinous, and frankly, reprehensible behavior. The trouble is, as an organization, they hope it doesn't go the way that would paint the franchise in a bad light for keeping him on the roster amidst all of those allegations, but the possibility still exists. And if they decided to keep him through the final year of his deal, that gives them one more full year where this could be hanging over their heads. When you calculate all of it, you have to wonder if it's worth the potential trouble, and lack of production of keeping him on the team in 2019. Not to mention, McCoy getting benched for the first play of the game as disciplinary action from Sean McDermott is a bit of a statement in itself. If it were me, it wouldn't be worth the hassle, and I'd probably move on to start fresh at the position.

6) Why the Bills benched Wyatt Teller for two series
- In the middle of the game, undrafted rookie guard Ike Boettger trotted on to the field not in place of right guard John Miller as he did in the Week 15 win over the Lions, but for rookie left guard Wyatt Teller. Since inserting him into the starting lineup, the Bills have seen up and down play from Teller. One some plays and in some games he flashes some major ability, while on some other reps he was the catalyst for a negative play. The Bills have been wanting him to find consistency with all these reps for one, and more prominently, trying to figure out if he can be a starter for the team in 2019 before they go out and start in free agency and the draft in March and April. After the game, Sean McDermott told 7ABC that they took Teller out of the game for those two series to not only get Boettger some time on the field, but he wanted Teller to watch the game from the sidelines and to remove himself from the quickness of the game, just to broaden his perspective a bit. If you'll recall, it's the same reasoning McDermott gave as to why the team kept giving Ramon Humber some time on the field in place of the superior, and younger, Matt Milano. As opposed to the Humber decision, I agree with McDermott's tactics for Teller because he hasn't been as big of an impact player as Milano had been for the team. I'll reserve my judgment on Teller in the Patriots game for when the coaches film comes out on Tuesday, but in the previous starts, the Bills just needed to see a bit more from the rookie. No matter what, he has one start remaining to convince the Bills that they don't need to replace four offensive linemen in the offseason.

7) Kudos to the pass defense
- There wasn't a lot of positive points for the Bills in an outright clunker of a game in almost every facet, but the pass defense against both Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski performed incredibly well all game long. Except for the play in which two Bills defenders thought Julian Edelman was down, the Bills were reasonably close to flawless against one of the best quarterbacks in the game. The Bills forced multiple turnovers, they limited Gronkowski to zero catches without their best cover linebacker available to them, and Edelman should have made a much more significant dent in the defense than he did with safety Rafael Bush covering him in the slot. Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier seem to have a formula that has worked against Brady over their four matchups since the coaching duo has arrived in Buffalo. And considering the Patriots are the team they have to beat to get anywhere in the AFC eventually, that's a sign of optimism for the Bills heading into 2019 when they'll ideally have more talent on the field.

Bills MVP: SLB Lorenzo Alexander
- Another high impact game for Lorenzo Alexander, who has been one of the best players for the Bills in 2018 at 35 years old. He needs to be re-signed immediately after the season ends.

Bills LVP: WR Isaiah McKenzie
- Eight targets, and only one reception for eight yards. There were other offenders in the passing game, but a pair of big drops and his lack of production throughout the game gets him the honors.

Draft Order Update: Regardless of the Sunday and Monday night results, the Bills will finish Week 16 in a tie for 7th overall with the New York Giants.

Up Next: The Bills (5-10) wrap up their season at New Era Field against the Miami Dolphins (7-8) on Sunday, December 30 at 1:00 pm.

Final Thoughts:
- With games like this one against the Patriots, it's relatively important to remember what this game means in the grand scheme of it all. While Josh Allen's early struggles were a bit of a short-term buzzkill for fans hoping that the past four weeks of positive performance would propel them into a competitive matchup with the team they just can't seem to get past, his second-half response is of equal importance, too. With how he was throwing the ball early on, and how his teammates around him let him down, Allen easily could have drifted into the land of hero ball and tried to throw his way out of it one bad decision at a time. Instead, he settled in, continued to operate within the offense, and helped put the Bills in position to make plays without much threat of a running game. While fans shouldn't laud him for not going off the deep end, I don't think he should get buried for the afternoon, either. Allen, as rookies tend to do, probably got caught building this game up in his head a bit, and got caught early on with some big mistakes. However, the poise he showed in the second half means he didn't let the lessons learned from previous weeks go out the window, and it makes you wonder what could have happened if the Bills had an average offensive line, a semblance of a rushing attack, or better players at either wide receiver or tight end. Instead, it went back to the same thing that we've been saying and writing about the 2018 season all along. It's a rebuilding year in many ways, and not all their needs could have been met with what they chose to do with the salary cap. While specific players have emerged in the youth movement (see: Robert Foster and Levi Wallace), this week was a cruel reminder that plenty of work needs to be done in a crucial upcoming offseason. If Allen continues on his upward trend and the Bills add better pieces around him, I think they can be in the hunt for a playoff spot next season. However, that's on GM Brandon Beane, when the real fun of putting together a full roster begins in March.

Twitter: @JoeBuscaglia