Bills Fall To Pats On The Field, Not The Sideline

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Updated: September 10, 2013
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If you are reading this, then congratulations are in order. You have survived the most dangerous 48 hours of your year – the two day period following the Bills annual home loss to the Patriots. Consistently finding new ways to rip our hearts out, Buffalo managed to contain Brady as well as any team could reasonably hope to do, only to be surgically dissected on a game-winning drive that wrestled away a one point lead. Blame is being doled out across the board, the most appropriate area being the three would-be first downs dropped by Scott Chandler and Stevie Johnson, unforgivable miscues that cannot be made against a team that has dominated you for a decade. Hand-wringing continues over the 10 penalties for 75 yards, although an undue amount of criticism has fallen on the coaching staff for those transgressions. While a pair of calls for too many men on the field stems from failures on the sideline, it’s difficult to blame two hands-to-the-face infractions by the offensive line on Doug Marrone and his staff. Many fans have lamented the hurry-up offense used on the Bills final drive. These are likely the same people that would have assailed Marrone for abandoning his game plan and “getting tight” had he turned to his unsuccessful running game to chew up the clock. There are a number of less-obvious factors that played large roles in delivering such familiar Sunday heartbreak.

New England’s defense yielded 59 points to Buffalo’s 19th ranked offense in 2012, proving to be much more effective against this year’s squad which, on paper, should be far more potent than their predecessors. The Patriots were able to exploit a weaker offensive line using new matchups, often lining up pass rushing end Chandler Jones at right tackle where he accumulated all three of his pressures on the day, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). Their grading system, examining a player’s performance on snaps in which he intervenes, issued defensive end Rob Ninkovich a disastrous -7.0 for his performance in the Week 10 clash with Buffalo in 2012. However, even while being consistently confronted in the running game, he earned a +2.4 in Week 1, notching six run stops during a frustrating day for CJ Spiller. The defensive line’s performance was aided by the horrific play of left guard Colin Brown, who received a -7.8 grade from PFF and was particularly atrocious against the run, overshadowing a terrific game from his neighbor Cordy Glenn, who allowed zero pressures.

For the Bills defense however, it was the same old story in a different year. The run defense somehow regressed from their 2012 performance, a feat previously thought to be scientifically impossible. In the Week 4 debacle of 2012, the Pats averaged 5.9 yards per carry en route to 247 rushing yards. In Week 1, that number actually jumped to 6.4 on rushes by Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley before the latter was replaced by the plodding Lagarette Blount. Vereen was particularly elusive, causing six missed tackles between running and receiving. The most disturbing figure for the Bills was the -3.1 grade Marcell Dareus received for his run defense. According to Football Outsiders, Dareus saw his run stop rate drop ten percent from 2011 to 2012 while opponent’s yards-per-carry jumped nearly a full yard on plays in which he was directly involved. There simply isn’t any hope for this unit to improve against the run if Dareus doesn’t make a major leap in year three of his career, and this week was a discouraging start.

Regarding the offense, you can count me among those who think the team could have been more aggressive downfield, but I believe their reluctance to dream big came from problems on the field rather than the sideline. While New England blitzed EJ Manuel on only six dropbacks, PFF found that he attempted merely seven passes of 10+ yards, completing three for 55 yards. So much time in the pocket should result in more plays developing downfield, and for that the blame rests on the receivers. Among the four players with the most targets and receptions in the game, Stevie is the only wide receiver to be found. The trio of Marquise Goodwin, TJ Graham and Robert Woods compiled the following statistics: four targets, two catches, 18 yards, one touchdown and one fumble lost. According to Buffalo Rumblings, the Bills lined up with three wide receivers on roughly 90 percent of their snaps. Out of 63 snaps, Woods and Graham were present for 97 and 95 percent respectively. With Manuel attempting 27 passes and the pair receiving so much time of the field, someone has to step up and warrant more attention from EJ (his missed throw on Graham’s go route notwithstanding) in order for the offensive scheme to work. I have written about Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett’s desire to slowly install their playbook with Manuel. This approach can be extremely successful, as it was for Marrone and Hackett with Ryan Nassib at Syracuse, but it requires a reliable running game and plays to be made by the wide receiving corps. The Bills offered neither in Week 1, and Manuel’s yardage totals will continue to suffer until they do.

Defensively, the Patriots turned last year’s struggles into this year’s strengths while the Bills continued to fail against the run. On offense, Manuel’s wings were clipped by the inability to work downfield with disappointing performances from his playmakers. Problems like drops and penalties are sloppy mistakes with direct solutions. The underlying problems seen in the Week 1 loss will be much more difficult to fix.