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Joe B: 7 observations from Buffalo Bills - New York Jets (12/9/18)

Joe B: 7 observations from Buffalo Bills - New York Jets (12/9/18)
Posted at 8:05 PM, Dec 09, 2018

For the second straight week, an AFC East matchup for the Buffalo Bills came down to the wire, with Josh Allen and the Bills on the outside looking in. Their second straight loss, this time a 27-23 decision to the New York Jets, brought the Bills down to a 4-9 record on the 2018 season and officially eliminated them from playoff contention.

It's not as though the playoffs were ever a realistic option for this team that has dedicated the final part of the season to developing their young players and seeing who can play a role into their future. Though, with some simple issues continuing to pop up for the team, it led the Bills to a bit of a grumpy disposition after the game.

And for a good reason. With the Bills' first-half performance on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball, it probably should have been good enough to have a big lead going into the locker room. Except, it wasn't -- and the Bills left their home field with yet another loss.

Where did it all go awry, and what does it mean to the big picture? Seven observations from the Bills' loss to the Jets:

1) Josh Allen giving the extremes of rookie QB play
- As Josh Allen stood up at the podium for his post-game press conference, it was plain to see how hard rookie quarterback was taking the loss. Allen, usually festooned with a smiling and light disposition, didn't at all mirror his normal self. Instead, Allen was staring down into the podium, didn't fluctuate in his voice, and repeatedly put the loss on his shoulders for his fumble and interceptions. To a certain degree, he is partially to blame for the outcome. He didn't take care of the ball on one of his many rushing attempts -- though it's fair to say him not having fumbled with all the running he's done this season until then was somewhat of an upset. Allen also, for the first time since the loss in Green Bay, reared back and had a genuinely head-scratching interception. Then, on the final drive of the game, Allen threw the ball behind the intended target and the potential game-winning drive was over before it really ever got started. Those three plays are just the example of the lows of a rookie quarterback learning how to play, and potentially how to win in the NFL. For Allen, those moments never happened in Miami as he went through the cleanest game of his career to date. Heck, it's fair to say Sam Darnold had a good game down the stretch in Buffalo, but even he still had one of those rookie moments in his interception delivered right into the arms of Tremaine Edmunds. Even though Allen is taking the loss hard, and that the Bills have lost two of the three games he's started in since his return from injury, it will be important for him to realize that there was also the rookie 'highs' buried by the initial feelings of the loss. Despite having some of the worst offensive line play you'll see, Allen still managed to move the ball down the field both through the air and on the ground. While you'd like to have more yards through the air -- especially with someone that has a cannon for an arm as Allen does -- there's only so much he can do with 80-plus percent of his offensive line continuing to let him down. Through those odds, he still managed to deliver some big-time throws -- most vividly on third downs. That's the thing with Allen, he has the arm and the mentality that makes you believe that most distances on third downs are attainable, and he has a knack for it in his game. However, there are still some clear as day things he must work on. The pocket presence took a step back from what it was against Miami -- and that will continue to be an ongoing battle for him, and he has to learn the sweet spot between good risk versus being reckless as we saw a few times against the Jets. The extremes of young quarterbacks vary from week to week, which is why it's important to see the sweet signs of the future even when the sour dose of present reality is still a part of it as well. Allen has worked hard through the season and has already progressed in some areas, but now it's about getting through the rough areas of his game and becoming the consistent and winning player the Bills hope he can be. The sky isn't falling with Allen, and he isn't a finished product. He is precisely what you thought a rookie would be only eight starts into his career -- a work in progress, but also a fun and infuriating one to track from one week to the next.

2) The defense played good enough to win
- For the second week in a row, the Buffalo Bills played a game where the defense limited what the opposing offense did for the majority of the time, but didn't have enough in the tank to come away with the victory. Heading into the final, non-kneeling drive of the game for the Jets, the Bills had held their offense to under 200 yards. It wasn't until the 59th minute of the contest that the Bills allowed them over that mark, and then Sam Darnold delivered his marquee pass of the game over the shoulder of Tre'Davious White and into the waiting arms of Robby Anderson down the sideline. After the initial viewing of the play, my initial impulse was that the top cornerback on the roster, the player they specifically put into those situations, has to be better in that spot. However, after watching the play over and over again after the game, you have to tip the cap to Darnold who made an outrageously good throw. The only area that you could critique White was at the start of the route by coming off of press coverage, or right at the tail end for not getting his head around to the ball quickly enough, but he was stride for stride with Anderson the whole way. Even after that play, the defense still forced the Jets to the brink of a loss by getting them to a fourth-and-goal situation, to which they eventually punched the ball into the end zone. However, everything was clicking for most of the game for that side of the ball. The pass rush was working, the run defense limited the Jets all game to the tune of 2.8 yards-per-carry, and the back-seven of the defense was strong in coverage for much of the game, too. So when the tale gets told about the Bills' loss to the Jets, the defense did almost everything they could to get them to a victory. The Bills were let down in other areas, including in large part by one that shouldn't have as much of an impact as it did, as to why the Bills allowed as many points as they did on Sunday.

3) Danny Crossman's special teams unit has their worst day of the year
- For special teams coordinators, it's rare that the individuals in that position get heaped with praise for how their unit performs. Mostly, when they're doing a great job, it's just the standard. However, if things start to unravel through a given season, the special teams coordinator becomes one of the most talked about names by the fan base. And that's where things are at the moment for the Bills special teams coordinator, Danny Crossman. As the season has gone on, the performances of the coverage, punting, field goal, and return units have become increasingly under scrutiny -- and for a good reason. Head coach Sean McDermott, who typically stays away from the criticism of individual units in a public setting, has routinely made his feelings known that the special teams need to get better. Not only has it not gotten better, but Sunday against the Jets was their worst of the season -- and along with some costly turnovers from the rookie quarterback -- was the reason the Bills ultimately lost the game. Just take a look at the first half. The Bills, who had been dominating the game through the first 25 minutes of the contest both on offense and defense, had to keep trying to pick up the play of special teams. It was because of them, that allowed the Jets to get off the mat. On two consecutive kickoff coverage attempts after scores, the Bills allowed a 51 and an 86-yard return from Andre Roberts. Their plan going into the game didn't get executed properly, it was flawed, and they didn't veer from it ahead of the 86-yard return. With those two moments and Allen's early fumble, it helped the Jets to an average drive start of the Bills' 43-yard-line, which is ridiculous. The Bills, through the first half, had an average drive start from their own 23-yard-line, which is a full 34-yard advantage for the Jets. McDermott isn't happy, he mentioned the play of special teams almost immediately after the game, and it leads you to believe that Crossman is in serious trouble -- if he wasn't already before. With how meticulous McDermott is in analyzing the state of his team and wanting to have all of the information before deciding to help avoid impulsive moves, my gut is that Crossman will survive until the end of the season. After all, that's what happened with offensive coordinator Rick Dennison last season even when McDermott could have made a move at many different points of the season. If Crossman gets fired, my guess is it will be once the season is over. Regardless, Crossman isn't making a strong case for his survival, and with how frustrated McDermott has been for months now with special teams play, it could be closer to a foregone conclusion at this point.

4) Robert Foster is why you give time to young players in a rebuilding year
- When the Bills released both Kelvin Benjamin and Andre Holmes earlier in the week, it was to clear out enough space at wide receiver to allow their young receivers -- namely Robert Foster and Isaiah McKenzie -- to grow. It also provides the front office with a full view of what the player is right now, and what they can become. That's especially important when a team goes into the offseason trying to figure out what their needs are, and the play of a young player can influence those decisions. Of all the young players that the Bills put into a high percentage, starting position late in the 2018 season, Foster has taken it and ran with it the most. The undrafted rookie, who has all the talent and speed you could want, underperformed for much of his college career -- to the point in which a former big-time recruit went undrafted in the NFL. And he almost lost his chance with the Bills after they cut him in the middle of the season to send a message that safety isn't guaranteed in the NFL like it is in college. Foster's response has been everything they wanted and more. Above all else, he showed in his first start that he is more than just a deep threat. While that element of his game is the most feared and respected from opposing teams, it helps pave the way for the underneath routes to work, too. Foster exhibited precision in his routes and good hands to complete the play. Allen looked for him throughout the game and found him in a big spot down the stretch for a huge 38-yard gain. Like most rookies, you have to expect the highs and lows as they develop, but Foster has been trending up for four games in a row now. And this game, above all the others, showed he could be more than just a fourth wide receiver that stretches the field. If Foster continues to show the same in the final three weeks, the Bills might look at him as a potential long-term solution -- or at worst, a solution for 2019. No matter what, he's off to a great start and is playing the best he has all year.

5) What's happening with Dion Dawkins?
- The Bills, throughout the 2018 season, have certainly had their troubles when it comes to both protecting the quarterback and opening up enough running lanes for the skill players. They entrusted Dion Dawkins, a second-round selection from the 2017 NFL Draft, with the most significant responsibility along the offensive line at left tackle. Dawkins has played mostly at an average level, but in recent weeks he has indeed shown signs of struggling -- including against the New York Jets. The bad reps are the most visible for fans that watch the game on broadcast because people are searching for a reason as to why a play didn't work. Every player in the NFL eventually gets beat, so the difference is what they're showing the rest of the game, and if they do enough and have enough potential visible to justify their standing on the team. With Dawkins, while it always hasn't been pretty this year, he still shows those flashes of great plays -- much in the same way that young players like Josh Allen, Robert Foster, and others have throughout the year. I think it's a tad early to make a judgment on the left tackle because you have to think about all of the different factors. For him, especially over the past several games, he's had a rookie starting right next to him as opposed to a veteran player in Vladimir Ducasse. He's still getting to learn Teller and how to work with him, while Teller is going through his growing pains at the same time. I believe Dawkins has to make a jump with his consistency in 2019 to warrant the continuation of his hold on the left tackle job, and not considering other options either at right tackle or at guard. However, he has left the door open enough for the Bills' front office to discuss a potential first round, Day One starter off the plane at left tackle if that can't miss player is available. He has a starting role in 2019, but Dawkins and Teller both have to show some growth together -- the same way that other young players have. 

6) It's time for the full youth movement at offensive line, too
- The Bills have already done their part in pushing Wyatt Teller into the starting lineup, and with having Dion Dawkins be the starting left tackle all year, but the time is here to push all the chips in on the youth movement along the line. It's time for the Bills to do that, the same way that they did at wide receiver when they released both Kelvin Benjamin and Andre Holmes. While there isn't an apparent young player to push forward at center, there is at both right guard and right tackle. Both John Miller and Jordan Mills, the starters at those positions, are on the last year of their contracts and will be an unrestricted free agent. Both Miller and Mills have struggled enough this season to warrant replacement. And now with the season where it is, the Bills have nothing to lose by pushing two young players into the starting lineup. Now, I may come across as a broken record with these two positions in particular, but it's only because the Bills have made the remainder of their season about that very principle -- to get their youth the reps to determine if they can be a long-term starter or reserve when the games matter. So, with how poorly the offensive line has played the last two weeks, it can't get any worse for what's in front of Josh Allen and the running backs. You can't continue to trot the same right side of the line out time and time again and expect overwhelmingly different results. So, yes, the time has come for Ike Boettger to start at right guard over John Miller, and for Conor McDermott to start at right tackle. If the Bills would instead prefer to give them a few series next week to get their feet wet, so be it. However, both players should get a start before the end of the season. If they don't, I think that's a bit of a wasted opportunity that flies in the face of what they've done at many other positions down the stretch of the season.

7) It's time to re-sign Lorenzo Alexander
- As the weeks go on, and the trends continue to stay the same, strongside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander has proved that his great performances on defense aren't fleeting. At 35-years-old, Alexander has been one of the best players on the team outright and makes a few flash plays on a weekly basis. Now, Alexander is on the last year of his contract, and at 35 years old retirement is something he and his family have to ponder. However, dating back to the week leading up to the Monday Night Football game, Alexander expressed his desire to continue his career not only in general -- but more specifically with the Bills. Alexander's big plays and reliability have more than warranted an extension, and when you add in his leadership and how much his teammates respect him, it's an absolute no-brainer for the front office. Above all else, his play stands alone as a reason to bring him back for at least one more season -- and his huge tackle for loss today only adds more evidence to it. With all the needs that the Bills have for the offseason, Alexander is the perfect option at strongside linebacker to continue to build the team both inside the locker room and on the field for 2019, while potentially addressing that spot when they have far fewer needs in the 2020 offseason -- or at least, they would hope.

Bills MVP: WR Robert Foster
- From a deep route specialist to a well-rounded receiver. Foster showed a great deal in this game, and he's improved every week since the Bills promoted him off the practice squad.

Bills LVP: ST Coordinator Danny Crossman
- 2018 has been a lousy season for Crossman, and the Jets game might have been the last straw for McDermott in what to do with his coaching staff once the season is over.

Up Next: The Bills (4-9) take on the Detroit Lions (4-8) on Sunday, December 16 at 1:00 pm at New Era Field.

Draft Order Update: Through 13 games, the Bills hold the 6th overall draft pick ahead of the Sunday Night and Monday Night Football games.

Final Thoughts: 
- When it comes to rookie quarterbacks, it's always fair to expect the highs and lows -- because it's natural. We saw it from both high-end quarterback prospects through the day at New Era Field, and it's something that is sure to continue through the final three games, too. It's all about building the base in the rookie season and then working from what you learned about those players to get them to turn a corner in the second and third seasons. After a whopper of a game against the Miami Dolphins where he hadn't made any crucial errors, Josh Allen served up three of those moments against the New York Jets. However, this is why Allen is playing as much as he is and why it's essential that he continues to. As long as those moments to learn from are paired with those moments of brilliance -- which they still are -- then progress is being made. And Allen, even in only being with the team for less than a year, has made progress in some of the areas that he struggled in previously. Now, as evidenced by the Jets game, he isn't all the way there yet and will have minor progressions and regressions along the way, but they've done a good job with him to this point and how they've formed the offense around him -- really with a lack of talent on the offensive side of the ball. This Jets performance will be a low for him when Allen looks back and reflects on it immediately after the game, but as the Bills go through the film and reveal the good that he did in addition to his turnovers, he'll learn that what both he and they want him to become is there for the taking. It's just going to take the stubbornness to work at it, the repetition of those things he must learn, and the open-mindedness to accept the coaching. It seems Allen is on the right track 13 games into his rookie season, and at the end of the day, that's what 2018 has always been about -- the development of the rookie quarterback.

Twitter: @JoeBuscaglia

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