After winning their first two games of the season in surprising fashion the Buffalo Bills have now dropped two straight following their 23-17 loss to the Houston Texans on Sunday and have played some ugly offensive football in doing so. The offense has yet to win Buffalo a game – their victories have come on the backs of the defense and special teams play – but it has outright lost them the last two games. There are several issues that the Bills must address but the biggest question of all is at the quarterback position where EJ Manuel has considered to struggle with accuracy issues and his ability to read NFL defenses.
Manuel completed just 48 percent of his passes on Sunday (21 of 44) for 225 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions. Before his late 80 yard touchdown to Mike Williams Manuel was averaging just 3.2 yards per attempt which begs the question of why Buffalo was even considering throwing it at that point. With Manuel’s passes traveling such a paltry distance and the ground game supposedly their strength and the facet upon which their offense is based, why is Manuel throwing 44 times a game? The Bills never trailed in this game by more than 10 points and late in the game cut that lead to three so there was no urgency to move away from the run.
Moreover asking Manuel to throw that many times increases the likelihood that he will make mistakes or bad decisions. Sure enough after throwing just one interception over the first three games, Manuel had two against the Texans. Manuel, who has the tendency to lock in on his primary target thus allowing the defense to get a jump on where he intends to deliver his pass, threw both of his picks (one of which was returned 80 yards for a touchdown by star defensive end JJ Watt) in the red zone making the errors even worse. And really if Manuel is not able to minimize his mistakes while managing the game AND he hasn’t proven capable of making big throws to win a game then what exactly is his upside?
Just as damning is the fact that Manuel targeted his wide receivers 27 times but connected on just nine receptions. Over the past two games Manuel is completing just 33 percent of his passes to wide receivers for 180 yards and 3.75 yards per attempt. Manuel’s accuracy actually seems to be getting worse, although to be fair, he did not receive a great deal of protection from the offensive line as the Texans would record two sacks, four tackle for loss, and 16 quarterback hits – nine of them coming from Watt alone. To put that in perspective through the first three weeks the Dolphins, Bears, and Chargers were credited for a combined total of just eight hits on Manuel. Buffalo’s receivers also dropped several passes, including Sammy Watkins who dropped the first two balls thrown his way.
Speaking of Watkins he has been largely invisible through the first quarter of the season with the exception of his game against the Dolphins in Week Two. Watkins finished with just four catches for 30 yards (though he did catch the Bills’ first touchdown of the day) and has certainly not resembled anything close to the “missing piece” he was supposed to be for this offense. To recap Buffalo has spent three first round picks on both Manuel and Watkins in the last two years and neither of them is living up to the expectations that their draft status would dictate.
Manuel has not proved to be much of an upgrade over Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Texans current quarterback and the turnover-prone quarterback the Bills released soon after drafting Manuel. The only consolation is that Manuel (currently) costs less than Fitzpatrick and his $60 million dollar-mistake from the start-contract would have.
The running game should still be the focus of Buffalo’s offense but seeing how the Bills invested as much as they have in a receiver and quarterback then there should be some confidence in the passing game with the expectation that it can be successful. And that just does not seem to be the case right now.
Fred Jackson has been the team’s most consistent threat on offense – leading the team in receptions on Sunday (six for 52 yards) and adding seven rushes for 33 yards. While Jackson is unquestionably the team’s leader and still a very dynamic player it is saying something when your best – or at least most reliable – offensive weapon is a 33 year old running back.
Sunday was just another example of a solid effort by the Bills defense – forcing three turnovers and holding the Texans to just 37 yards rushing – that was wasted. Generally when a team generates that type of defensive performance it is enough to win a game. And cornerback Leodis McKelvin seemed to imply as much after the game, with his post game comments seeming to pin the blame for the loss on the offense. Though McKelvin later denied that was what he was suggesting, he wouldn’t be wrong.
Not only did Buffalo’s defense watch their offense’s ineptitude cost them the game but they also lost linebacker Nigel Bradham and tackle (and defensive anchor) Kyle Williams leave the game with knee injuries. Without either of them the defense would be much more limited and even harder pressed to keep covering for the offense.
Manuel and Watkins (and the rest of the offense) need to start stepping up and matching the effort on the defensive side of the ball. Failing to score over 20 points in three out of their four games is not going to win you very many games in the NFL’s new pass happy league. Head coach Doug Marrone shows no signs of giving up on Manuel so those hoping that the Bills will turn to Kyle Orton in the coming weeks are going to be waiting for a while. But with new owners in place, Manuel, Marrone and GM Doug Whaley are on a short leash.