Just two weeks ago, the Buffalo Bills snapped a four-game losing streak ahead of their bye week, with the hopes that it could help push them to a strong finish for the rest of the season. And on Sunday, well-rested and back home at New Era Field, the Bills collected their second straight victory.
This time around the Bills defeated the reeling Jacksonville Jaguars 24-21, which improved their record to 4-7 on the season. And above all else, the Bills did so with their rookie quarterback at the helm for the first time since his elbow injury.
How did the Bills pull off the win? Seven observations from the Bills-Jaguars contest:
1) Allen's return an outright success
- The Buffalo Bills may not have had their rookie quarterback over the four games before this one, but for those that chose to look on the bright side, it almost provided a blank slate for the young signal caller as he approached the final six games of the season. After getting his feet wet through his first five starts of the season, Allen got to take a backseat approach and see the game from afar while his elbow healed, allowing for some growth in his approach off the field if he took it seriously enough. With the evidence of one game, it appears that he did. Before the injury, Allen was quick to evade the pocket and try to make a play with his legs rather than to try to win from the pocket. Against the Jaguars, Allen hung in the pocket and looked for an open target down the field up until the point in which that there wasn't an option available -- or if he didn't spot one. However, it was hard to ignore the progress that was evident as a pocket passer on the field -- even on opportunities that didn't end up counting for one reason or another. Allen made multiple clutch throws throughout the game with the headliner being the 75-yard touchdown toss to Robert Foster. Anyone can throw the ball to an open receiver, but Allen spotted a mismatch of the safety turned the wrong way with Foster about to cross his face, threw the ball with anticipation, took on the punishment of a hit from three different defenders, and delivered a dime of a throw that led Foster to the point that he could scamper into the end zone for a touchdown. When you pair that throw with a zone-beater over the middle of the field to Robert Foster, the big completion to Kelvin Benjamin early in the game, and something as taken for granted as a perfectly executed out route to Isaiah McKenzie on a 3rd-and-short to keep a drive alive, you get a day full of progress. On top of that, there were multiple opportunities missed by Allen's teammates that should have gone for big yardage. Jason Croom had a pass go right through his hands along the sidelines that would have gone for a first down. John Miller and Russell Bodine both acquired a penalty call on consecutive plays. Miller canceled out an in-stride rollout pass to Logan Thomas that went for a first down on a third-down try, and then Bodine negated a perfect anticipation throw on a comeback pass to Isaiah McKenzie that also went for a first down on a third-and-15. Then in the second half, Deonte Thompson brought in a frozen rope over the middle of the field from Allen, only to get it knocked away by the safety after initially making the reception. Those are multiple opportunities to make his day, from a statistical perspective anyway, look more acceptable on paper. However, Allen also provided a spark on the ground to both gain the lead and put the game away. Allen has proved to be a multi-faceted threat that, as long as he continues his progress as a passer, will be tough for opposing defenses to defend. And while I know some want the quarterback to be a passer-only, moving the ball down the field and keeping the defense guessing is as much as you can ask for -- and if that's Allen's formula for doing so both through the air and on the ground, then the Bills shouldn't shy away from that in the slightest bit. Now, Allen did have two or three passes that were duds that should have been placed much better than they were, but it's hard to ignore the progress he made from the last time that we saw him on the field. Now, it's a matter of finding the consistency in his passing to continue to create these opportunities for big plays down the field through the air, which will put defenses on their heels right from the get-go. This performance was the best start we've seen from Allen, and I don't believe it was any coincidence that it came after an extended break and a breath following his first five starts.
2) The moment that changed everything
- Without a doubt, the play that changed the entire complexion of the game after the initial surge by the Bills offense and the subsequent comeback by the Jaguars, was the third quarter brawl that had extreme implications. The play began with Blake Bortles uncharacteristically completing a pass over ten yards, placing a jump-ball over the head of Bills cornerback Levi Wallace and into the hands of wide receiver Donte Moncrief. Wallace got his hands on the ball at the same time, and in doing so, prevented Moncrief from getting into the end zone and forcing the Jaguars to have to run more plays to get into the end zone (more on that in the next paragraph). However, what we ended up seeing after that play as multiple players spilled on to the Bills sidelines, was a little bit of pushing, a little bit of shoving, a slap to the helmet from Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette, and retribution right back to him from Bills defensive end Shaq Lawson. With multiple players involved and even Sean McDermott jumping into the fray to try and keep everyone as safe as he could, the Bills didn't back down from the loud and brash Jaguars. The Bills came out swinging in the game by jumping out to the 14-0 lead, but followed that up by falling flat after the Jaguars tied the game up. It's as though the Bills were asleep and on the cusp of falling behind on the scoreboard, but that little melee on the field woke them up enough -- along with a little luck -- to secure the victory. That, plus the ejection of running back Leonard Fournette for the rest of the game was a huge development as the Jaguars lost the identity of their entire offensive attack because of that incident. If not for that play and sequence, I'm not sure the game results in the same way for the Bills.
3) The defensive stand
- Immediately following the ruling that Moncrief was down, and with their bruising back Fournette being banished for the rest of the contest, the ensuing plays sank the Jaguars and helped lift the Bills to victory. It started at the one-yard line, with a key stop for a loss by Lorenzo Alexander and company on Carlos Hyde. From there, the Jaguars were called for a false start and an offensive holding call on subsequent plays, which pushed them all the way back to the Bills 17-yard-line on 2nd-and-goal. Bortles couldn't do anything with the ball on second down and was brought down near the line of scrimmage, and then was sacked on third down, which completely took the air out of the balloon and set the Jaguars back another eight yards. The subsequent missed field goal derailed the Jaguars from that point forward, as the Bills defense took control of the game from that point forward while the Jaguars were still within one score. What started with Levi Wallace, and ended with Josh Lambo's wide left attempt helped the Bills collect their fourth victory in 11 attempts and to extend the Jaguars' tailspin. It was a humongous response by a defensive line that was getting gashed on the ground from the end of the first quarter right through to that pivotal moment of the game. If Shaq Lawson's response and getting kicked out was the catalyst to all of it, that was one of the most productive ejections in recent memory for the Bills.
4) Run defense worrisome for much of the first half
- The troubling part, even though the Bills did eventually wake up and start to dominate in the closing stages of the game, was that they needed to wake up in the first place. The Bills have been superb for much of the season on that side of the ball with a few exceptions, and for a long stretch of the game, it seemed like the Jaguars had found the formula to keep the Bills lunging at their ground game. It's not as though Jacksonville caught them by surprise, either. Blake Bortles has been horrendous for much of the season -- to the point where the Jaguars take the ball out of his hands unless it's entirely necessary to throw the ball -- so there were no false illusions of what they were trying to accomplish. Against a fully healthy defense, the Jaguars were doing whatever they wanted to with Leonard Fournette as their runner. The young linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano were getting covered up, the defensive tackles weren't winning at the point of attack, and the Jaguars found success even when the Bills knew what was coming. Considering how much the Bills have invested into their defense right up the middle, it was especially concerning to see them get as dominated as they had been for a considerable amount of the game. To their credit, they got it turned around following the brawl and thwarted the Jaguars for the most part the rest of the way. However, would it have been the same for the Bills had the super-impressive Fournette been available to the Jaguars? One might argue that the Jaguars would have taken the lead right on the first-and-goal opportunity from the one-yard line. I suppose we may never know, but the Bills got it turned around after a really bad beginning to the game, and they deserve some respect for making those adjustments mid-game.
5) Pondering what could be with more talent around Allen
- Allen was the big draw for me in this game, after having seen the Bills go through horrendous quarterback play for three straight games following the rookie's injury. It was a huge step for him to show some progress in some of the areas of his game that were missing -- especially going up against a super-talented defense that has the potential to frustrate any player, let alone a rookie quarterback starting for the first time since mid-October. However, because Allen was let done as much as he was by players like center Russell Bodine, right guard John Miller, tight end Jason Croom, and wide receiver Deonte Thompson -- it's hard not to consider the potential of Allen when he's surrounded by substantial investments by the Bills front office. Outside of Allen himself and Wyatt Teller, the Bills didn't do anything of note to address all the glaring weaknesses on the offensive side of the ball because it was more important to them to solve the salary cap woes in 2018 while building up the defense, with the focus turning to the offense in the 2019 season with ample cap room and ten total draft picks. It's not to say that they'll be able to cross off all of their needs in the offseason or that it's going to be a perfect scenario for Allen in 2019, but with a better surrounding cast around him even cutting these mistakes in half will go a long way in Allen's overall productivity from one week to the next. Without question, this was Allen's best showing of his rookie season -- so it's totally within reason to think about where this thing is headed in 2019 with some actual playmakers around him and solid allies up front.
6) McKenzie, Foster providing a huge boost to the offense
- In the interim of adding to the offense, the Bills are in the process of finding out who can play right now and perhaps into the future. Over the last two weeks, both wide receivers Robert Foster and Isaiah McKenzie provided a huge response to a challenge given to young players to show the coaching staff and front office what they can do. Foster came close to gaining 100 yards for the second straight week, while registering yet another big play as he did against the Jets. His reception on the 75-yard touchdown pass was an excellent throw, but his adjustment to the ball and the confidence to bring the pass in calmly while darting into the end zone to finish the play, that goes a long way for the front office when they are deciding what they need to do on the offensive side of the ball. On top of it, McKenzie has turned himself into a specialty play weapon that offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has designed several plays for and is working into the offense more every week. McKenzie's abilities as a returner especially shine through as well, making him into a gadget player that the Bills hadn't previously had. You cannot overstate McKenzie's impact on the team, because in just two games, he has completely supplanted rookie sixth-round pick Ray-Ray McCloud on the depth chart, has taken all his reps on offense, and took the role on special teams they originally drafted McCloud to have. He might have had some fumbling issues in Denver which led to his release, but McKenzie has been a terrific addition to the Bills and one that the front office deserves credit for.
7) McCoy, run game goes back to status quo in 2018
- Outside of all the positives, one area that the Bills needed to be much better in to take some pressure off of their rookie quarterback was along the ground. Now, the Jaguars have a good defense that have all the ability to play well every week, but considering the success that Allen was having early on in the air it was a tad concerning that their top running back LeSean McCoy couldn't get it going at all. This has been a theme throughout the season, too. With the exception of his breakout performance against the New York Jets, McCoy has been held at bay far too often and it's held the Bills offense back -- and it hasn't allowed for the team to get the balanced attack that they crave so much. While the Jets game showed that McCoy still has some gas left in the tank as a running back in the NFL, he hasn't been nearly as consistent as they've needed him to be. Of course, it's not all on him and the offensive line has had to provide a better push, but there have been multiple times that he has been his own worst enemy and there is a tiny crease for him to work with. His inconsistency needs to be rectified before the end of the season comes around, or else the Bills might need to consider using a substantial resource -- perhaps a Day Two draft pick -- on a young running back to pair with McCoy with the intention of taking over for him folllowing 2019.
Bills MVP: QB Josh Allen
- You could make an argument for Shaq Lawson, but this was an entirely different offense with Josh Allen making big throws from the pocket under duress. When he plays like that, he can be a game changer for the Bills.
Bills LVP: C Russell Bodine
- Not much of a push all game, and he got called for a crucial penalty that negated a big throw on a 3rd-and-15. He's been a weakness for the team for much of the season.
Up Next: The Bills (4-7) go back on the road to take on the Miami Dolphins (5-6)
- As Josh Allen returned to the lineup, many weren't sure what to expect. Would they be getting the same, stagnant offense that was seen just ahead of the injury to Allen, or would he get back to being more like the confident player that was willing to use his arm and make special plays within reason that the Bills thought he could develop into? The answer, for the most part, was the latter. With that one throw down the field to Robert Foster, Bills fans were treated to a play -- and a player -- that can do something so extraordinary that can turn him into the best player on the field at any given time. From that moment, Bills fans were given their first big flash from Allen -- a player that flashed big plays like that all the time while at Wyoming. And with that flash play came emotional investment from fans hoping that the flicker of light plays become more of the norm, and that all the small stuff he must conquer become more consistent as the Bills march forward. Most of all, the important part of the game was to show what one player at the most important position in the sport can do to change the complexion of the matchup. Without Josh Allen, it's likely a much different approach by the Jaguars and the Bills become a lot easier to defend. However, because Josh Allen has that type of arm, because he showed the ability from the pocket and the willingness to hang tough in the pocket, and because he has the mobility to burn you on the ground if you fall asleep and give him a big running lane, defenses can't hone in on any one thing if Allen is operating at full capacity. This game against the Jaguars was the biggest bit of foreshadowing of what he could become, considering that his afternoon could have been even bigger than it was. For the first time in a long time this season, Bills fans are feeling good about the state of their young quarterback and the situation moving forward. It's now on Allen and the Bills to foster his development through these final five games to continue to bring these positive plays out from him, while keeping him playing within himself and not doing too much. From there, they can attack the offseason with Allen and figure out how to get him to take the next step after that. However, you have to crawl before you walk, and for the first time, we've seen Allen start to crawl with some velocity. It makes for an incredibly compelling end to the season, and one that will garner a lot of attention from the fans as the plans for the future are starting to look a little more attainable -- and all with the help of their rookie quarterback. Imagine that.