The Buffalo Bills came crashing back to earth with their first loss of the season to the San Diego Chargers on Sunday.
With a chance to maintain their lead in the AFC East, the Bills instead failed to capitalize and the flaws in their offensive scheme were ultimately exposed in the process. The same issues that had plagued them in their first two games of the season – problems converting on third down and converting red zone opportunities into touchdowns – continued but as troubling might be the realization that this team may not be built to win if it falls behind early.
Some key observations from the 22-10 loss:
1. Is EJ Manuel capable of overcoming an early deficit? Prior to Sunday’s game, where they never led, the Bills had only trailed for a total of four and a half minutes in their first two games.
In that scenario – playing with a lead – an offense predicated on the run, with Manuel fulfilling the role of game manager, works to perfection.
But what happens when they fall behind early particularly behind a team that is centered around a quarterback with a big arm and multiple weapons? As it was, outside of Fred Jackson, neither the passing nor running game could get it going with any consistency on Sunday. The Bills totaled just 87 yards on the ground with CJ Spiller rushing a mere 10 times for 25 yards.
Spiller is the type of back that is capable of producing some awe-inspiring plays that audibly make you gasp but has never been a ground and pound type workhorse that can consistently pick up yardage.
That becomes an issue for a team that is run-first; the big play cannot always be counted on to manifest itself when needed.
With the running game not working and having to dig out of a 17 point hole before the half, the Bills were forced into having Manuel pass almost as many times (39) as he did the first two games combined (48). And although Manuel would pass for 256 yards and a touchdown his accuracy issues resurfaced and he was only able to lead the team into the red zone two times all game.
The good news is that once again the team protected the ball and finished the game without a turnover; not a small or insignificant feat when your offense is struggling.
Unfortunately, some of the offensive inefficiencies displayed during the preseason became magnified once again.
2. The disappearance of Sammy Watkins. Watkins and Manuel had trouble connecting again after an encouraging performance last week against the Miami Dolphins. Watkins was targeted eight times but caught just two passes for 19 yards and his first reception didn’t come until the start of the fourth quarter.
Even more concerning was Watkins’ admission that he ‘took a play off’ during the Bills’ final drive when he pulled up on a route that could have been a crucial completion – certainly not something the Bills’ want to hear from a player they gave up so much to get.
If Manuel is to have any hope of continuing to progress as a quarterback Watkins has to be part of that equation and actively involved all game.
3. Where was Corey Graham? Or maybe a more apt question is what was Doug Marrone thinking starting Leodis McKelvin and Stephon Gilmore over Graham – arguably the Bills’ best corner now?
Though the front seven would produce just one sack of Chargers’ quarterback Philip Rivers, the defensive problems that cropped up yesterday were largely due to the lack of coverage by the secondary and that started with McKelvin, who gave up a 49 yard completion to Chargers’ WR Malcom Floyd and had a 31-yard defensive pass interference call, and Gilmore who missed several tackles early on to go along with a 15-yard face mask penalty.
Marrone’s explanation was that “we just rotate guys in.” Ummm no – that’s not usually how it works in the NFL. Most teams have clear starters, backups, and then situational corners (nickel and dime packages). Rotating players in and out randomly is a passive approach that indicates a coaching staff that isn’t capable of making adjustments to their overall philosophy when the situation dictates they do so.
Through the first two weeks of the season, despite being the Bills’ most targeted corner (22 times) Graham has given up just eight receptions for 64 yards and zero touchdowns.
Opposing quarterbacks have produced just a 25.9 NFL passer rating when facing Graham, second best among qualifying corners.
If it isn’t already clear to Marrone and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz it should be – Graham needs to be on the field in order for the Bills’ defense to shut down the passing game.
4. Fred Jackson still has “it.” While most of the Bills’ offense failed to produce the same could not be said of Jackson – the one high point of the game for the Bills. Once again Jackson proved to be useful in both the rushing and passing game, picking up 34 yards on six carries and 78 yards on eight receptions, producing the Bills’ only touchdown of the game.
At 33, Jackson is well past the expiration date for most running backs but often has still proved elusive running through defenders and may be the only consistent creator of offense for this team.
Throw in the Bills were hit with 11 penalties costing them over a 100 yards and the offensive line gave up three sacks – after looking so good in the Bills’ first two games – and there’s a lot not to like about this loss. Still Buffalo was in this game until the last minutes largely due to key stops by the defense as usual.
The true question facing the Bills as they prepare to head to Houston for a showdown against former starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Texans, is whether this offense, particularly Manuel, is equipped to overcome their red zone difficulties and to put points on the board when they’re playing from behind.
If not Bills’ fans are facing another season without a playoff chase.