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Joe B: 7 observations from Buffalo Bills vs. New England Patriots (10/29/18)

Posted at 3:52 AM, Oct 30, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-30 09:49:58-04

For the first time in a decade, the Buffalo Bills were the hosts of Monday Night Football in a game where the crowd, the halftime ceremony to retire Thurman Thomas' number, and the opponent were all right. The atmosphere, as one would expect, was a great one for a game of that magnitude compared to the rest of the regular season tilts over the years.

However, the team on the field -- most notably the offense -- didn't have the game to live up to the hype of the event, as the Bills stumbled their way to a third-straight loss, and now are near the basement of the AFC with a 2-6 record.  The New England Patriots wound up winning against the Bills, once again, only this time with a 25-6 victory.

How did it all come to be? Seven observations from the Bills' most recent loss:

1) Another defensive gem wasted
- The last time we left the Bills, we saw the defense uncharacteristically provide a confusing performance that let up a lot of points and yards on the way to a blowout loss. Based on how the previous month had gone for the defense, that was a bit of an anomaly -- and their answer on Monday against the Patriots was more proof that this is a good defense that borders on great when they're at their best. The Bills, despite the lack of a consistent pass rush and almost at times by design, were able to keep Tom Brady from working the ball down the field consistently enough. The trio of the running game, tight end Rob Gronkowski, and wide receiver Josh Gordon were all largely held in check as the defense provided every opportunity for the offense to take the lead of the game. In no way should the defensive effort from the Bills be what some should blame for the loss. They did almost everything they could against an All-World quarterback and couldn't hold up forever. Ahead of the game, I wrote and said that the only way the Bills have a chance in this game is if the defense held the Patriots to under 20 points -- and they did just that. Had it not been for Derek Anderson's pick-six, the score would have been 18-6, which means those 18 points are all that you can pin on the defense. With being on the field as much as they were, it was only a matter of time before Brady started moving the ball. And on the backbreaking drive that yielded the Patriots' first touchdown of the evening, Brady needed a pair of big third-down throws to keep it alive. The Bills defense went kicking and screaming into the night and didn't make anything easy on the Patriots, so before we get into the not so great from the game, it was important to acknowledge how good of a job they did.

2) Milano bounces back in a big way
- And part of that has to do with how well second-year starter and weakside linebacker Matt Milano responded to his worst performance of the season last weekend in Indianapolis. Right from the opening defensive series, Milano was flying to the ball and made high impact tackles to limit what the Patriots did on the offensive side of the ball. Whether it was finding the running lane and not allowing himself to get covered up by blocks, or if it was in coverage in some critical one-on-one situations that required a pass breakup, Milano was always there for the Bills on Monday. Milano nearly came away with an interception that had all the potential to be returned for a touchdown, though he couldn't secure the ball -- which also might have been the Bills' second-best opportunity to score a touchdown on the evening. The Patriots game was an important one for the development of Milano, as he now has swiftly answered back with a massive game after the ones that he struggled significantly in during the 2018 season. Of course, we have to wait and see how each player did with the coaches film, but the early indications are that Milano was a monster for the Bills defense.  Since the Bills are halfway through the 2018 season, Milano has more than proved that he is here to stay as a starter on the defense, considering 75-percent of his starts have been some of the best defensive performances we've seen in 2018. As long as Milano plays at a similar level the rest of the way, or even slightly below it, the Bills will still have an absolute steal on their hands in the former fifth-round selection.

3) Optimism nowhere to be found on offense
- On the opposite side of the defense, the offense is a hot mess in every sense of the phrase. The problem is all-encompassing, and one that has survived the test of time through the first two months of the season. The quarterback play has been horrid, which puts more pressure on the running game and they can't establish themselves, but also due in part to the offensive line not doing their job well enough at the line of scrimmage. It all leads to the opponents' creeping up and playing the run, which then requires a passing attack to spread them out a bit more. The trouble is, if none of those things work well enough on a weekly basis, the problems are much deeper than just one game. Above all else -- and especially without rookie quarterback Josh Allen in the lineup -- the Bills' offense provides certain hopelessness for the fan base. Without great results, and also with only scoring six points or less in half of their games in 2018, it ultimately lets the air out of the balloon for fans hoping to see some signs of progress to help tolerate the down season. Some will be quick to blame offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, though I'm not sure what he's supposed to do with the current crop of personnel he's dealing with at this point of the season. I guess the real problem, above all else, is that there isn't anyone remaining on the roster that fans can sink their teeth into in the hopes of what's to come in the future. Josh Allen, Zay Jones, and Dion Dawkins are already starting to hot-and-cold results. The only other thing that could get some of the fanbase remotely excited is if the Bills were to begin to give the rookie and fifth-round selection Wyatt Teller a chance at one of the starting positions. Past that, there's nothing else for fans -- except for only the hope that Josh Allen can return and that the offense begins to show signs of life before the season is over. With a severe lack of talent on the offensive side of the ball, there aren't any short-term answers -- and that has to be as frustrating as it gets for both fans and the defensive players on the Bills roster.

4) The time for change along the offensive line should be here
- Over the last few weeks, head coach Sean McDermott has made a point to stress that the line of scrimmage needs to be won, specifically on the offensive side of the ball. Over the last three weeks, that just hasn't been the case for the Bills as the opponents have dominated the offensive line at the point of attack. All across the board, the performances haven't been good enough. However, the difference with it being at the halfway point of the season rather than the early part of 2018 is that now the Bills could stand to benefit from some changes. And if they don't work, with a 2-6 record, it doesn't matter much. With only eight games to go, I believe it's in the best interest of the Bills to start to give some other offensive linemen a chance at a starting job. The first position I would start with is at right guard. Although John Miller has had a pair of solid performances in 2018, he has run hot-and-cold without a lot of showings at an average level. Due to his performance, and with Miller being a free agent at the end of the year, combined with the player behind him, I think the Bills should look to that starting position as the first place for some new blood. If Miller were to come out of the lineup, that would give rookie Wyatt Teller a shot a starting gig. With the season already in a tailspin, the Bills owe it to themselves ahead of the offseason to see if Teller can play and if he's someone they can pencil into the starting lineup in 2019, or if that's another spot that they must look to address in free agency or the draft. On top of that, I wonder if we might also see undrafted rookie Ike Boettger or one of the reserve tackles get into some game action as well. Boettger has gotten some reps at center during the individual portions of practice, and with both Russell Bodine and Ryan Groy having shown some difficulties this year, perhaps Boettger can be an alternative option. However, since he lacks a lot of experience at that spot, I think it's far more unlikely than if Teller were to get in the lineup. Jordan Mills falls into the same category as John Miller, with both players due to come off the books at the end of the season. Mills has struggled quite a bit over the last few weeks, and with a pair of players the Bills have shown a liking for in Jeremiah Sirles and Conor McDermott, I wonder just how much more it might take for the Bills to start to consider one over Mills. Going along the same lines as the center position, I'd probably think the right guard position to be the candidate with a higher likelihood of change in the short-term. No matter what, the Bills need more from their offensive line -- and they've got a heck of a task ahead of themselves against the Chicago Bears on Sunday.

5) Zay Jones continues to progress
- On the one hand, the offense of the Buffalo Bills has been a complete disaster since the beginning of the season. However, if you’re looking for a shred of optimism, the progress that second-year wide receiver Zay Jones has shown has been a solid morale booster over anything else for Bills fans trying to cling on to anything on offense without the presence of Josh Allen. Jones hasn’t been spectacular by any means, and a six catch, 55-yard performance is an afterthought with most offenses. However, the Bills offense is different than most in that they’re getting next to no production from most of the unit, and don’t have much young talent that they’ve invested in for the future. Jones is one of the only exceptions, which makes his slight but noticeable progress a potential benefit to the Bills in the coming offseason. Can the wide receiver be a dependable second option once the offense adds some more talent? While we don’t have the full answer on that just yet, I think he is at least buying himself another season in the same role with this team.

6) Bills don't rule out Allen missing the rest of 2018
- While it wasn't necessarily an observation from the game itself, the pregame chat Bills GM Brandon Beane had on the 7ABC pregame show was a bit eye-opening on the Josh Allen front. In regards to the injury to the elbow on his throwing arm, Allen has yet to begin throwing in practice -- which likely casts doubt on his availability for the upcoming game with Chicago. However, a few things stood out from what Beane had to say, which you can see in full right here. The first, he likened the injury to that of a baseball injury, so they have to figure out what the best approach is for recovery for the sport of football -- which quite obviously has more potential for collision than baseball.  However, the starkest of answers came when Beane answered a question about if there was some concern that the injury would prevent Allen from coming back before the end of the season. Beane's response: “Not a concern right now, but I can’t say it won’t [end his season].” The simple fact that the Bills didn't outright commit to Allen returning before the end of the season signals a few different things. First, they still are probably trying to figure out what they're dealing with and how the injury responds to rest. Second, the Bills are in the midst of a season that is quickly getting out of control with an offense that lacks talent all across the board. And third, should they decide that sitting Allen for the rest of the season is in their best interest for multiple reasons, they are giving themselves the wiggle room to choose to do so. From a fan's perspective, I'm sure having to go through the rest of the season without Allen getting action in a game is about as palatable as a dish of raw sewage. However, the Bills haven't ruled it out, which means you shouldn't either.

7) One last trade deadline push
- In that same interview with Beane, the GM said that they weren't actively shopping any of their players as of Monday night, though Beane did add the caveat that they have to be prepared to field offers that could knock their socks off. However, at 2-6, you'd have to think the Bills will give as much consideration as possible to moving one or both of running back LeSean McCoy and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin should a suitable offer come their way from another team. At this point, neither player is designed to play a significant role in the future of the Bills, and through eight games, neither player has proved to be an indispensable piece of the offensive puzzle. Especially with the season heading in the direction that it is, and with Josh Allen's timetable still looking murky at the moment, is keeping either Benjamin or McCoy around for a handful of games worth punting on a potential draft pick or two to add to their collection for the 2019 NFL Draft? Should the Bills get an offer of a fourth-round pick for McCoy, I think that would probably be enough for me to move on from a 30-year-old running back with a cap hit over $9 million in 2019. For Benjamin, perhaps a fifth or sixth-round pick would do the trick, though I don't know if the interest will be as massive with him as it might be for McCoy. With the Bills still in rebuild mode, this offers another opportunity for the organization to get more fruitful for the future by sacrificing a player for the short-term. I think Beane needs to be active right up until the Tuesday deadline of 4:00 pm to try and find a deal.

Bills MVP: WLB Matt Milano
- The second-year linebacker was all over the field in a significant bounce-back effort from his performance last week against the Colts.

Bills LVP: The offensive line
- This award could go to quite a few entities on the Bills' roster, but I think the offensive line's inability to get a push against the defense up front, and for allowing Derek Anderson to take the punishment that he did for much of the game is what ultimately wins out.

Up Next: The Bills (2-6) stick around Orchard Park for their second straight home game, this time against the Chicago Bears (4-3) on Sunday, November 4 at 1:00 pm at New Era Field.

Final Thoughts: 
- While the defense deserves as much credit as you can give them for the job they did on Tom Brady, the offense is what will continue to drive the conversation with fans. Simply put, the offense has been a complete mess from the start of the season right to the halfway mark. Scoring less than two touchdowns for half of a team's games would be considered unacceptable throughout the NFL. With that logic, that makes scoring less than a touchdown and an extra point in half of their games a complete embarrassment. It's a situation that begs for the decision makers not to be averse to personnel changes of any kind in the starting lineup if the incumbent hasn't done enough to hang on to the job. While the long-term answers likely don't exist in most positions, the Bills also owe it to themselves to see who can and can't play before the offseason comes along and they are forced to make decisions. So, the offensive line, tight end, wide receiver, running back -- it all should be up for debate as the Bills move into the second half of the season. Given the now rather large sample size, with how the offense has performed as an entire unit, the only thing they can rely on at this point for optimism are the performances of younger players with how they could slot in for the long-term. Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott only get one of those whole teardown seasons, so they owe it to themselves to get as much as they can out of it with their younger players -- which could pave the way to some changes in short order here. At this point, what do they really have to lose?

Twitter: @JoeBuscaglia

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