The Buffalo Bills pulled off just their second win in road openers in their last eight tries Sunday against the Chicago Bears, offering hope that their preseason issues would largely stay just that – preseason issues.
While starting quarterback EJ Manuel will never be mistaken for a Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, or Aaron Rodgers prototype, racking up over 300 yards on a regular basis, he did prove adept – for one weekend at least – at minimizing mistakes and taking what the defense gave him.
Manuel would finish with a modest passing line of 16 of 22 for 173 yards with one touchdown and one interception (along with a rushing touchdown as well) but made several big plays when the game required him to.
Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett clearly had put together a more extensive playbook then he had shown during the preseason – a fact that should not surprise anyone familiar with the vanilla schemes most teams use leading up to the regular season.
However, the mix of screens and play action passes called demonstrated some creativity and were largely effective in the first half before the offense ultimately stagnated in the second half. The Bills are built on their running game and against a team that exited the 2013 season ranked last against the run – giving up over 161 yards per game – Hackett was smart to put that weapon to use.
While the two-headed running tandem of CJ Spiller (13 carries for 39 yards) and Fred Jackson (five carries for 18 yards) would put up modest numbers during regulation, both Manuel and Anthony Dixon would also help fuel the accumulation of nearly 200 yards on the ground and Jackson would show that he still has a lot left even at age 33 with his 38 yard run in overtime that set up the game-winning field goal.
Manuel may never prove to be anything more than a game manager – one who needs a strong running game and defense to succeed – a term that seems to have taken on such a negative connotation in the league, but as long as he can keep the turnovers to a minimum and has the capacity to make plays when it counts Bills’ fans will surely welcome such a scenario.
Manuel even stepped out of character the night before the game to give an impassioned speech, interrupting an offensive group meeting to do so, and demonstrating the leadership qualities that seemed to have lacked in his young career.
The Bills’ defense, with the exception of the first series, gave the offense every opportunity it needed to succeed forcing several three-and-outs, showing signs that it has the potential to be one of 10 defenses in the league against what was supposed to have been a potent passing game.
While yielding nearly 350 passing yards to Bears’ quarterback Jay Cutler, they forced him into two interceptions, several other bad decisions, and got stops when they were needed. While it is difficult, if not impossible, to replace players such as Kiko Alonso and Jarius Byrd the Bills’ defense did not seem to miss them yesterday.
Even while allowing 29 first downs the Bills seemed to be in ‘bend don’t break mold’ and 13 of the Bills’ offensive points came directly from Bears’ turnovers.
There are positives to be taken from this win but many more aspects of the Bills’ offensive game still are in need of improvement and further development. For instance, Manuel only made use of highly touted rookie offensive weapon Sammy Watkins in the first quarter, connecting with him on 3 passes for 31 yards, but afterwards Watkins was targeted just once.
If Hackett seeks to make use of play action on a regular basis (a good idea when you have a solid run game as the Bills do) there has to be the threat of Manuel going down field for that tactic to be effective – and far too often Manuel still seems hesitant at times to do so even with deep threats in Watkins and Mike Williams on the roster.
For now at least the Bills seem to have overcome the tales of internal strife that permeated the team late last week when it was revealed that head coach Doug Marrone had been seen having a heated exchange with Bills’ GM Doug Whaley and CEO Russ Brandon on the sidelines at the conclusion of practice – not the first time such a thing had occurred.
Between that and a rib injury to Watkins that largely kept him out of the teams’ last two preseason games, the looming suspension of defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, and the general malaise and ineffectiveness of the entire offense during the preseason it was assumed that this team was ready to implode from within.
That the Bills’ pulled together to defeat an opponent that some picked to win the NFC North and most believe will make the playoffs has to be encouraging. The Bills now need to carry that momentum to their home opener next week against division rival the Miami Dolphins, fresh off a dominating come from behind win over perennial AFC East favorite the New England Patriots.
After week one the division is up for grabs and primed for the Bills to make a statement.