BBD Editor: Dan Hope
Even with quarterback EJ Manuel struggling, the Buffalo Bills have a rookie making a strong case to win a Rookie of the Year this season.
When Manuel couldn’t make the plays he needed to late in Sunday’s game versus the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens to secure a Bills victory, Buffalo had to rely on its defense to make big plays to hold a waning lead. No one came up bigger than Bills rookie middle linebacker Kiko Alonso.
With less than a minute remaining in the game, Alonso caught an interception off a pass deflection from free safety Da’Norris Searcy that all but sealed a 23-20 victory for the Bills. The interception was Alonso’s second interception of the game and his fourth in a three-game span.
On a day where he also made five tackles, Alonso continued to look like a steal of a second-round draft pick, but he wasn’t the only player on the Bills defense who made big plays.
Aaron Williams, who started at left cornerback instead of his regular strong safety spot due to injuries to starting cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin, also had a two-interception game, even though he left the game at multiple points due to injuries. One of his interceptions came in the end zone to take away a potential touchdown pass, and he finished the day with four total pass defenses.
Searcy, who started again at free safety in place of Jairus Byrd, also had four pass defenses in the game. The Bills had a total of five interceptions and 13 pass defenses on a day where Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco only completed 50 percent of his passing attempts.
With Byrd, Gilmore and McKelvin all out, many expected the Bills pass defense to fold against the Ravens. While they did give up some big passing plays and 321 yards, they made up for it with their many big plays. The Bills didn’t overwhelm Flacco with pressure, but they did finish the day with four sacks, and the Bills secondary more than held their own given the game’s circumstances.
Even more impressive than the pass defense, however, was the dominance of the Bills run defense. The Bills held the Ravens to just 24 rushing yards on nine attempts, as the Ravens abandoned the run almost entirely in the second half due to their lack of success on the ground.
The Bills were able to control the battle in the trenches, force the Ravens offensive line into same costly penalties and never allowed Ravens running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce to break off any runs of more than seven yards.
The Bills also did a terrific job in red zone defense, only allowing the Ravens to score one touchdown in four trips inside the Bills’ 20-yard line (their other touchdown came on a 26-yard touchdown pass from Flacco to Torrey Smith). When the Bills were clinging to a lead in the fourth-quarter, they made the necessary pass breakups in the end zone on back-to-back drives to hold the Ravens to field goals.
The Bills defense had a very good all-around showing, and they had to. As has been the case all season long, the Bills were unable to sustain any offensive rhythm in the second half, forcing the defense to hold the lead rather than making plays offensively to extend the lead.
The first half was actually quite promising for the Bills offense. They reached the red zone on their first two offensive possessions of the game, though they had to settle for back-to-back 27-yard field goals. In the second quarter, they put together back-to-back touchdown drives to take a 20-7 lead, though they only needed 28 yards on the second drive following a Jim Leonhard interception.
The Bills showed early that they could establish the run to set up the pass, and that they could put together offensive drives without relying on their no-huddle, quick-passing system.
In the second half, however, the Bills offense was horrible. They only managed three second-half points, and those came on a drive that started in opposing territory off Alonso’s first interception. The Bills only achieved four first downs in the second half.
Thanks to a 13-point halftime lead and their defense holding the Ravens to 13 second-half points, the Bills were able to survive the Ravens’ comeback effort and win Sunday’s game. The Bills offense has been bad all season, however, and simply has to get better if the 2-2 Bills are going to make a serious run at the postseason.
Sunday was another bad game for EJ Manuel, who completed just 10 of 22 passing attempts for 167 yards, and threw two interceptions with just one touchdown pass. While he did have a great 4-yard throw to the right rear corner of the end zone to Robert Woods overturned as an incompletion upon review, and his second interception went off of Stevie Johnson’s hands, he had more inaccurate throws than precise passes on Sunday.
Additionally, the quarterback who made a name for himself with his clutch game-winning drive in Week 2 nearly cost the Bills this game late in the fourth quarter.
With less than four minutes remaining and the Bills clinging to their three-point lead, Manuel started running the ball out of the shotgun when he dropped the football on the ground.
He caught a break when wide receiver Stevie Johnson recovered the loose ball, but those are mistakes a quarterback cannot afford to make at any point in the game, let alone in a three-point game in the fourth quarter.
On a more positive note, the Bills went with a run-heavy game plan on Sunday, and it worked for 203 yards on the ground. Fred Jackson led the way with 87 yards on 16 carries, while C.J. Spiller had 77 yards on 23 carries. The game came with a price, however, as both running backs left the field at times with injuries. Fortunately for the Bills, Spiller and Jackson are both expected to be fine, coach Doug Marrone said after Sunday’s game according to the team’s official website.
The Bills have to get better on offense, however, and much of that burden falls upon Manuel to become more consistent and efficient as a passer. It also falls on players like wide receiver Stevie Johnson, who finished the day with only one reception for a loss of one yard, and left tackle Cordy Glenn, who gave up numerous pressures, was called for multiple penalties and not only allowed the pressure that caused a strip sack, but then failed to fall upon the loose ball that was right at his feet.
The Bills’ defense has made promising strides under defensive coordinator Mike Pettine this season, and they overcame some major blows on the injury front for a strong showing Sunday. The Bills cannot count on their defense to consistently bail them out of games, however. If the offense cannot string together offensive drives and reach the end zone when they have opportunities, the Bills are likely to lose more games than they will win.
Manuel and the Buffalo offense will have their next chance to start putting together momentum — and potentially lead the Bills to a 3-2 start — when they play the Cleveland Browns on Thursday at 8:25 p.m.