One week ago, the Buffalo Bills looked lost at sea on offense after a shutout loss to the Green Bay Packers. On Sunday, after they returned home from a two-game road trip, the Bills did just enough to eek out a 13-12 victory over the Tennessee Titans.
It wasn't pretty by any means and won't be one that gets remembered even a year from now, but it's one that will be important to the Bills as a marker of their progress in a season centered around just that. Now, the Bills have a 2-3 record with the hopes of evening things out next weekend -- which would be an especially significant accomplishment given their performance in three of the first four weeks.
How did the Bills defeat the favored Titans on Sunday? Seven observations from the Bills' win:
1) The defensive interior dominates
- Ahead of the game, there were a few things that stood out from a Tennessee Titans perspective that led you to believe a Bills victory was entirely possible. While the Titans do have some talented pieces on offense, it's been the play of their defense that allowed them to jump out to a 3-1 start to the season. On offense, though, there were some clear weaknesses -- and those were areas that the Bills had some strengths. The biggest area of weakness on tape, at least to me, was along the interior offensive line for Tennessee. All three of the left guard, center, and right guard have deficiencies in their games that could be exploited by the defensive tackles on the Bills roster -- and that's just what happened. Star Lotulelei forced the issue inside by turning his assignment(s) the way he wanted, Harrison Phillips and Jordan Phillips both pushed back the interior which made Marcus Mariota panic a bit, and Kyle Williams got a solid push into the backfield as well. This group was the key to the game for the Bills because they helped influence the play on that side of the ball for the majority of the game. Their performances helped lead to doing well against the run and sacks, which made Mariota uncomfortable in the backfield all game long. After spending so many resources in the offseason on the defensive line especially, they're going to need them to lead the way to a victory. While in the first two games that group let them down, the past three games have shown the entire group coming into their own in Sean McDermott's defense. It was a bit uglier than the Minnesota victory, but this is the game script the Bills want to follow in 2018 because of how limited they are on the offensive side of the ball. The defense sets the table, and the offense needs to do just enough to get the victory. Now, those are priorities that will likely change as their rookie quarterback gets more acclimated or shows some progress, but the defense is starting to live up to the hype that they had heading into the season, and that defensive front deserves a ton of the credit. And in this game, the defensive tackles set the tempo for the Bills right from the outset.
2) What's going on with Josh Allen?
- While the defense deserves the credit for helping to churn out a victory at New Era Field, fans are left wondering where the Bills are with rookie quarterback Josh Allen. It's a complicated discussion because rookie seasons at that position tend to go all over the place. However, over the last three weeks -- two of which that were victories, mind you -- we haven't seen the same Josh Allen of the beginning of the preseason. Above all else, the Bills have put a focus on limiting the passing game while also trying to limit turnovers, too. It was less of an issue against the Vikings after the game because the Bills won in such an impressive fashion, but over the last two weeks, the lack of effectiveness in the passing offense has become a centralized talking point. Allen isn't attempting to push the ball down the field as much as you'd like to see from a passing offense, and against the Titans, we saw an increase of inaccurate passes on throws that should have been on target. With how much the Bills tried to run the ball against Tennessee, it was clear to see that they're trying to take the load off of Allen's shoulders so that he wouldn't be prone to as many mistakes. But, the trouble is, how much can they expect him to progress in his abilities as their quarterback if they have to mute the offense with the lack of talent around him? Zay Jones seems to be the only receiver winning on his initial routes, and while the offensive line did a better job Sunday, it still hasn't been good enough for the majority of the season. That, in essence, is the Bills' current conundrum. Allen has to learn to work the middle of the field, going through his progressions, and then delivering the ball accurately enough. However, if they limit his chances to do that, and even when he can, his receivers aren't winning on their routes nearly enough, what kind of progress can we expect? It's a question that doesn't have an excellent answer for the 2018 season. However, for the Bills to get to where they ultimately want to go, Allen needs to become a great quarterback in the NFL. How they choose to plan for the next 11 weeks, given all the potential pitfalls, will mean everything to them when the pressure is on and their wins and losses for the season matter.
3) Finally, full Milano
For three straight weeks, the Buffalo Bills continued to give time on the field to Ramon Humber, who is a core special teams player that when on defense, is nothing more than a replacement-level player. Making matters worse, the Bills were giving Humber snaps at weakside linebacker over the likes of Matt Milano -- one of their brightest young players that shows continual improvement. The more Humber was on the field, the more that his presence led to big mistakes on the defensive side of the ball, and errors that they likely could have avoided had the Bills just kept their young linebacker on the field at all times. They couldn't give a good explanation as to why they continued doing so, either. When asked after the Week Two loss to the Chargers, head coach Sean McDermott said that sometimes young players could learn from the sidelines, too -- which didn't make sense because Humber had been making mistakes that Milano wasn't. It isn't to say that Milano is without his flaws as a player, but the talent level from one player to the other is as clear as day, which pointed to Milano being on the field as long as he was healthy. The Bills finally came to their senses and allowed Milano to take 100-percent of the snaps at weakside linebacker, and the young player rewarded them. Milano was consistently around the ball and making big stops against the run while serving as a versatile piece in pass coverage as well. Paired with Tremaine Edmunds, the Bills have potential to have a great young linebacker duo patrolling the middle of the field for years to come. It was good to see the Bills admit their mistake in a way and to allow their exciting young linebacker to continue developing his already multi-talented skill-set.
4) Kelvin Benjamin goes silent once again
- For the fifth straight week, the Buffalo Bills went into the game with wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin as their starter and perceived top option. Just as it happened in Weeks One through Four, Benjamin was a no-show for the Bills and didn't provide much help to rookie quarterback Josh Allen. It did seem like there was a bit of a shift with Benjamin and his place on the team, however, because even though he started, he was on the sidelines quite a bit this week -- much more than a typical starting wide receiver should be, anyway. The struggling wideout failed to gain separation on many of his plays, and then when targeted over the middle of the field, didn't give up his entire body to try and make a play on a low throw. The Bills are in a rough spot with their wide receiver group because there aren't any answers right now, and it doesn't appear that there are any answers available to them on the free agent market, either. The receivers aren't winning enough and Benjamin, along with Zay Jones (three catches for 20 yards) have failed to make much of an impact in the 2018 season. There were times that Jones was running open and Allen didn't spot him, but that wasn't the case for Benjamin. The only way he was roping in a reception past the one he made was if Allen threw the wideout the ball for a potential contested catch. The Bills are standing by Benjamin for now, but it's evident that it's just not working.
5) The Tre'Davious White treatment continues to impress
- The Buffalo Bills have found themselves in a spot where they continue to challenge their second-year cornerback Tre'Davious White, and all they get is more evidence that he is one of the best players -- if not the best player -- on the team. For the fourth straight week, the Bills chose to have White shadow the opponents' top receiver. This time around it was second-year wide receiver Corey Davis, and whenever White was covering him, he didn't do any damage. The only times when Davis made an impact on the game were when the Bills were either in a zone scheme and had a different corner lined up over him, or if the Titans got the Bills to make a mistake by stacking the receivers ahead of the snap. By showing the ability to take away a team's top target, White has given the Bills the ability to do so many different things with their defense in providing unique pressure packages, without the concern that the most talented receiver is going to make them pay in one-on-one coverage. White has been mostly perfect in those shadow matchups, except for Green Bay's Davante Adams, who got the better him on a pair of plays. Don't expect this trend to go away next week, either. I'd expect to see White lined up against his most difficult matchup yet -- DeAndre Hopkins of the Houston Texans. It will be exciting to see how he does against one of the best in the game.
6) Bills can't make up their minds at cornerback
- The good thing about the cornerback position is that they have White in the lineup each week. The bad thing is that they don't know what they want to do with the player they line up on the opposite side of White. For the third straight week, the Bills used Ryan Lewis as the starting cornerback -- which made sense because of how well he played against the Green Bay Packers. However, that only kept up for a few defensive series, because eventually, the Bills started to work in former starter Phillip Gaines. By the second half, Lewis was no longer in the defensive game plan and Gaines had taken over the job the rest of the way -- and even let up one of the Titans biggest plays. Tennessee had Corey Davis motion from the right to the left side and stacked him behind Tajae Sharpe. Rather than communicating with White to make sure he stayed with Davis, Gaines jumped in front of the top wideout which created a significant mismatch, and the predictable result was a 23-yard reception that put the Titans in business offensively in the second half. There weren't any injuries announced for Lewis, which is why it's relatively surprising to see the Bills go away from him so quickly after such a solid game as the starter against Aaron Rodgers. I look forward to seeing if he was a constant weakness for the Bills in the first half with the coaches film, but for now, it didn't seem like he did anything so egregious that led to his upheaval from the starting lineup. We'll put this in the to be determined category, along with who starts there next weekend.
7) Jordan Phillips fits right in
- When the Bills saw defensive tackle Jordan Phillips get released by the Miami Dolphins, they likely didn't think twice about putting in a waiver claim for him. Phillips, a former second-round pick that played a ton of snaps in Miami, isn't what you would think that he is. At 6-foot-6 and 341-pounds, those players have the reputation of being the block aggregators -- the ones that take on the double teams and let the rest of their teammates make the play. However, his combination of both power and speed in such a big package make him a viable option in the penetrating role of three-technique defensive tackle -- and that's the spot we primarily saw him against the Titans. His impact on the game, in limited snaps, was a big one. He made a pair of tackles behind the line of scrimmage and he constantly pushed his blocker back, which helped blow things up for the Titans. The Bills had a big need for depth at three-technique defensive tackle to help fill out their rotation. So, while we'll have to see if the player keeps up this level of play when he's not in the 'prove his old team wrong' frame of mind, Sean McDermott might have found the last piece they needed for that group in Jordan Phillips.
Bills MVP: The defensive tackles
- Lotulelei, Williams, Phillips, and Phillips all played a pivotal role in keeping the Titans out of a flow on offense and helped contribute to the victory.
Bills LVP: WR Andre Holmes
- Josh Allen had another poor game, but he hit Andre Holmes in the hands. Holmes needs to make that play -- or at least bat the pass down, so the team doesn't turn the ball over.
Up Next: The Bills go back on the road to take on the Houston Texans on Sunday, October 14 at 1:00 pm
- Over the last three games, the Bills have started to fulfill the potential that many saw in the defense coming into the season. They have good, young players that are developing, the defensive line is getting pressure on the quarterback, and they're getting the opposition to turn the ball over. These are all great signs. However, the state of the offense -- even in a victory like the one they had over Tennessee -- is worrisome for one main reason: the development of Josh Allen in 2018. The Bills have to decide, before they run out of time this season, what they want this year to be. If they want it to be Allen protecting the ball, letting the running game go to work, and then to allow the defense to lead the way to a competitive match -- then so be it. But if that's what they wanted, then there was no point in yearning for something better than Tyrod Taylor and investing as much as they did in Allen. This season needs to be all about Allen, giving him the opportunity to make the mistakes and learn from them now so that way he doesn't do the same things in 2019 and 2020 when jobs are potentially on the line. The receivers aren't the best, and in fact, they might be the worst group in the league. However, that doesn't mean you get to hide your rookie quarterback and blame his lack of development as a passer on them. Good quarterbacks help their teammates thrive, and the Bills have to see if Allen has that in him. If they don't even give him the opportunity to do that in 2018, then the entire exercise of rebuilding this season will be a waste of time. Since Josh Allen has become the starter, I can't think of one throw that flashed the brilliance that we all saw in the preseason, and that's likely due to a few different factors. However, when the Bills call the type of game that they did against the Titans, they remove those potential plays from even happening. They need to see what they have in Allen as a rookie, and what they need to work with him on in the offseason to get him to become the quarterback not just to be a part of the team but to lead the team. Their game plan for Allen against the Titans reminded me of what Jacksonville has devolved their offense to be around Blake Bortles -- and that is likely a frightening thought for Bills fans. So, while the win was a good stepping stone for the team, they need to let their rookie quarterback grow more than they allowed him on Sunday. If they don't, then they're doing themselves quite a disservice in the lowest pressure season that they'll ever have.