The 2017 regular season is nearly halfway through, and the majority of fans are sitting there and pondering one simple fact:
How did they get here?
And it’s not in the same, usual debilitating manner that has adorned basically each individual season the Buffalo Bills have played since the drought began at the turn of the century. It’s in a different way that, for fans of the team, is a Jessie Spano-level mix of happiness, excitement, and outright anxiety about what’s to come.
This much we know: the Buffalo Bills are 5-2 — and are winning games that good teams are supposed to win. That much was evident after a complete effort against the Oakland Raiders and a 34-14 victory.
How did it all come about? Seven observations from the Bills victory:
1) The defense slammed the door shut
- The job the defense did, all game long, simply cannot be overstated: they are the reason the Bills claimed their fifth victory of the season — and in such an impressive fashion, no less. Despite having one of the best offensive lines in the NFL and not getting much pressure on Derek Carr in the backfield as a result, the secondary completely frustrated the high-powered Oakland passing attack. And to do it with two starters unavailable because of injury? That’s nothing short of miraculous. The Bills took away most everything deep down the field with double coverage, and that helped lead to the Raiders having to settle for frustratingly short throws when the game was still in question. Credit has to be given to both cornerback Shareece Wright and Trae Elston, along with the coaching staff, for not allowing the losses of EJ Gaines and Jordan Poyer be such a setback that they couldn’t overcome. Forcing turnover after turnover also helped things for Buffalo, and continuously kept the Raiders feeling like their backs were up. They had players out of nowhere stepping up and making huge plays. It’s guys like Eddie Yarbrough sniffing out a screen, getting off a block, and bringing down the ball carrier for a loss with no other defender in sight. Also, Leonard Johnson forcing the fumble that turned the tide of the game for good. And even at the end, Trae Elston coming down with an interception. These are not stars of the team or even starters, but when combined they made for an outright dominant defensive performance, no matter how many yards Derek Carr threw for. This Bills defense is for real, and it didn’t seem to matter who was or wasn’t in the lineup on Sunday — and that’s a mark of a good team.
2) Tyrod Taylor again steps up when it counts
- The statistics weren’t overwhelming from Tyrod Taylor by any means, but once again — just like last week — when the Bills needed him to step up and make a big throw… he did. When they could least afford to take a sack, he somehow escaped trouble and either threw an incomplete pass or ran the ball without taking a loss. Of course, Taylor had the fantastic throw over to Andre Holmes for the touchdown and he also crossed the line with the ball on that big 4th-and-goal play late in the game. However, two other throws of Taylor’s really stands out for multiple reasons. The first, on a 3rd-and-13 in the third quarter where nothing was developing at the start for Taylor. He stayed patient, climbed up the pocket, and found Andre Holmes deep down the right sideline on a flag route for a 36-yard gain. This shows some evolution from Taylor, who has in the past panicked in the pocket and looked to escape it if things don’t develop quickly enough. His poise in a big spot was a welcomed sight. Without that throw and catch, the Bills punt the ball back to the Raiders only with a three-point lead. The result of that drive? A touchdown, and a 20-point lead with 14:57 to play. His other big play, while not coming on a scoring drive, was just as big for the Bills in closing out the game. The Bills were faced with a 3rd-and-4 with 9:26 to go, and Taylor was getting pressured right up the middle. Spotting the coverage and a breaking Jordan Matthews out left, Taylor stood tall, and stepped into the throw — while taking a hit — and hit Matthews perfectly in stride for a nine-yard gain and a first down. With the Raiders down 27-14 at that point, the Bills just needed to run the clock down. That huge throw by Taylor helped the Bills kill another four minutes off the clock, leaving the Raiders with only five minutes to go and in need of two touchdowns for the comeback. Taylor has his warts, but he rarely costs his team the game. And some will argue that they don’t want the Bills to find “false hope” in Taylor by trusting him too much and not addressing the position for the future. I get that worry, but sometimes, you have to let go of the past failings of the organization. We’ve seen the Bills get fooled by one quarterback after another, only to get set back a few more years. However, this is not a regime that’s just flying by the seat of their pants. They have a clear as day plan of how they want to attack 2017 and several years past it to sustain success. They know a long-term franchise quarterback is needed for sustained playoff appearances, and perhaps even challenging for a Super Bowl. However, they have to find that guy, and they have to develop him the right way. So, ladies and gentlemen that are still hesitant to give Taylor his due, just realize this: It’s okay to be on board with Taylor starting and having success now while still pining for a young, franchise quarterback to build a roster around. It doesn’t have to be one or the other — especially not with this front office. They want similar things, and they’re winning games with a ton of draft picks in hand. And with a potential bridge quarterback in Taylor that can keep them competitive and not force a young guy into the lineup before he’s ready… that’s a pretty ideal situation if you ask me. So, see? You can have it both ways. The Bills front office just has to pull the trigger on a young quarterback, but I have no doubt that they’ll do just that in the not so distant future.
3) The Tre’Davious White adjustment
- We pointed out the play of some defensive role players that stepped up and made a huge impact on the game for the Bills, but they might not have made it out of there with a victory if it wasn’t for one adjustment. Starting on the second defensive series — after the Raiders had just marched it easily down the field for a touchdown to open up the game — the Bills made the call to have rookie cornerback Tre’Davious White shadow Amari Cooper mostly everywhere he went on the field. The Bills did something similar in the second half against Cincinnati, and this time, it worked so well that it was easy to forget Cooper was playing. Cooper didn’t make an impact on the game until the fourth quarter when the Bills were up multiple scores and playing a more preventative style of defense. Through the first, second, and third quarters, Tre’Davious White made it so that Cooper wasn’t heard from whatsoever. The game changed when the Bills started to do that, and the Raiders struggled to move the ball through the air. It’s just a terrific job by the rookie cornerback and one that is just the next stage in his development. Locking up a team’s top wide receiver gives them even more defensive flexibility, and when they get healthier, it can become a weapon so that way more attention can be paid to other solid pieces of an offense. White truly has been outstanding in 2017. The Bills couldn’t ask for anything more out of their first-round pick so soon into the start of his career.
4) Preston Brown learning from past mistakes
- One of the big problems for the Bills on defense in 2017 has been some of the coverage mistakes by the starting linebackers, and middle linebacker Preston Brown has been caught out of position a few times throughout the season. However, he showed that he’s quickly learning on the job as the every-down middle linebacker with two plays on the same drive that exhibited precisely what type of play McDermott wants out of his middle linebacker. Sometimes struggling with the depth of his coverage, Brown baited Carr into the throw over the middle and jumped into the air to get a hand on it and force an incompletion. Forget the interception, just having that type of knowledge to get back and make a big play to avoid a long completion showed how much he’s been working at it. That happened on first down, and then on third down, the Raiders tried to attack Brown and the Bills in the deep middle of their coverage once again. This time, Brown got a hand on it and deflected it so well that safety Micah Hyde had enough time to get underneath it to corral it for yet another turnover. The Bills managed to get a field goal from the turnover, but that’s three more points in their favor, and more time the Raiders would have had on the clock to mount a comeback — but it was all pushed aside because of the excellent play by Brown in an area of the game that he’s struggled.
5) Is Matt Milano forcing the Bills’ hand?
- When Ramon Humber went down with an injury a few weeks ago, I wrote that I wouldn’t be surprised if rookie fifth-round pick Matt Milano would, in fact, push to take that starting job outright when the veteran gets healthy. The thinking behind it was Milano getting drafted as a hand-picked fit for McDermott’s scheme — even though Humber had been playing at a fairly average level before the injury. Usually, in roster building, a tie in production goes to the rookie. Now, over the past two weeks, both McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier have said that Humber would retain his starting job when he returned. However, McDermott did admit Milano made a “big jump” from his first start to his second start, and was eager to see how he performed on Sunday. Well, Milano was a standout player once again. After being one of my top five graded players against Tampa Bay, Milano went on to be in on multiple defensive stops, returned a fumble for a touchdown, showed well and coverage, and forced a fumble on a punt return in the second half. Milano is clearly ahead of schedule from where they expected him to be at this point in his career, but they always thought of him as someone with the potential to start down the line. Well, down the line might be here already. Even though it was said that Humber would retain his job, this answer from McDermott after the game is certainly worthy of another look at the situation:
“Matt looked like, at least on the surface, he had a big game. Like I had mentioned before, the great part about Matt is he continues to learn and make big-time jumps in between one outing to another outing. He’s made the most of his opportunity and that’s, you know, I love those hard decisions. Ramon’s a good football player. It’s a good thing for us, a good problem to have, and when you’re developing young players that are getting significant playing time experience, that’s big.”
The words “I love those hard decisions,” leads me to believe that Milano is really making it hard to take him off the field from his starting role. Even if they end up starting Humber, I just don’t know how they can take the rookie off the field on defense for the entire game. They need to keep developing him based on all the potential that we’ve seen, and at least give him a small defensive role moving forward to keep him going in the right direction. You simply cannot ignore his production over the past two weeks in particular.
6) McCoy and the running game is back
- For the second straight week, the Bills had success on the ground. Last week, McCoy finally broke free on some runs against Tampa Bay, but it just felt like there was at least some yardage left on the field. Whether it was McCoy not making the right read, or the offensive line not holding up… McCoy’s day probably could have been bigger. This time around, the same mistakes weren’t made against the Oakland Raiders, and the “get right” tour of 2017 continued along. McCoy had a humongous day in both yards and usage, carrying the ball 27 times for 151 yards, catching the ball six times for 22 yards, and adding a touchdown. The receivers were once again a factor — not an overwhelming one — but enough to spread the Raiders out and let McCoy get the job done. The “get right” tour continues on Thursday night against the New York Jets — the team that McCoy ran all over in the Bills’ Week One victory.
7) Finishing the job: the right call to go for it on 4th-and-goal
- Let’s take a trip down memory lane to Week Four of the season. The Bills were in Atlanta taking on the favored Falcons, and it got to the 4th quarter in which the Bills had the lead. They were up 14-10 with 12 minutes to play, and at the tail end of an 11-minute drive that seemed like the Bills were ready to take control of the game for good. The Bills marched it down to the one-yard line and faced a 4th-and-goal. After not seeing the look they wanted with the offense on the field, the Bills declined to go for the touchdown and took a delay of game penalty. Stephen Hauschka kicked the field goal to put the Bills up 17-10, but more importantly, still only one score ahead of the Falcons. Atlanta marched right down the field and tied up the game on the ensuing drive — and I think that might have been a bit of a teaching moment for Sean McDermott. They were safe and took the points, rather than trusting the offense to get at most one yard and a two-possession lead. Now, back to the win over the Raiders, and another key situation near the beginning of the fourth quarter. This time, the Bills were up 13 points (20-7) with 15 minutes left in the game, and a 4th-and-1 at the goal line. Rather than trying to draw the Raiders off and settling for the field goal, the Bills got aggressive and went for the win and going up three possessions. If they had kicked the field goal, they would have only been up by two possessions (23-7) with Oakland still having a boatload of time to come back. McDermott trusted his offense to get him a yard, Tyrod Taylor did just that, and the Bills took an overwhelming and nearly back-breaking 27-7 lead at the beginning of the fourth. The players are learning from mistakes, the coaches are learning from past situations, and you have to like the self-analysis that’s going on over at One Bills Drive — with this being another shining example of it.
Bills MVP: CB Tre’Davious White
- The whole complexion of the game changed when White started to shadow Amari Cooper in the first quarter. We didn't hear from Cooper again — at least when it mattered — and White showed just another reason why he’s a serious contender for defensive rookie of the year honors.
Bills LVP: Ed Hochuli
- There wasn’t a lot to pick at with the Bills in this game because it seemed like almost every player had a good hand in winning the game for the team. However, Hochuli called a few phantom penalties throughout the game that was questionable at best — with the Jordan Matthews “offensive pass interference” in the first quarter that negated a 27-yard gain that would have put the Bills at the Oakland 15-yard line being the most glaring example. Ed gonna Ed.
Up Next: The 5-2 Bills head to New Jersey to take on the 3-5 New York Jets on Thursday, November 2.
- Honestly, I really can’t believe I’m sitting here — with the month about to change from October to November, and the Bills only have two losses to their name. This team is way ahead of schedule, and this game — maybe even more than any of their five wins — shows that this team is a serious contender for a playoff spot in 2017. This is a good Oakland Raiders team and one that just seemed to cure what ailed them on offense just last week. It was a huge spot because they would likely be vying for a Wild Card spot in the AFC as well, and with the Bills so low on conference opponents at this point of the season, the Week Eight matchup had plenty of playoff implications. Not only did the Bills win, they dominated the Oakland Raiders. On offense, they ran all over them and threw the ball successfully when they needed to. Defensively, they shut them down after their first touchdown drive, basically until the game was well in hand in the fourth quarter. On special teams, they forced a turnover, the punter had a tremendous game, and kicker Stephen Hauschka even forced a fumble. This was a total team effort in every sense of the term — and in a humongous spot. It was good to carry a healthy level of skepticism in the early stages of success this season because you weren’t really sure what to expect as the season wore on. However, the team overcame injuries and thrived with backup players that went above their normal playing level. That, folks, is a mark of a good team. You cannot understate the job that Sean McDermott and company have done so quickly to completely change the operating procedure in Orchard Park. This is a good team and a playoff contender. The time for sleeping on this team is over — they have arrived way earlier than anyone outside the building thought they would. While it’s still good to have some skepticism, it’s time to get comfortable with one fact: the playoffs are very much on the table this year, and this Bills team can play with just about anybody in the NFL.