BBD Editor: Dan Hope
There were many similarities between the Buffalo Bills’ first and second games of the season. Both games were decided by a score in the final five seconds of regulation. The Bills scored two offensive touchdowns in both games, gave up exactly 23 points to their opponents in both games and shot themselves in the foot with costly turnovers and penalties.
Yet while the majority of Bills fans seemed to come away from the first game versus the New England Patriots dejected with the game’s outcome and the prospects for their team, the morale of Bills fans (at least the ones I saw on Twitter) was excited and optimistic following the Bills’ second game versus the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
That, of course, was due to the fact that the Bills scored 24 points versus the Panthers instead of only 21 versus the Patriots. More specifically, after being beaten by a game-winning field goal in their season opener, the Bills came back from a 23-17 deficit against the Panthers when rookie quarterback EJ Manuel connected with wide receiver Stevie Johnson on a 2-yard touchdown pass to the end zone.
There was plenty that went wrong in the Bills’ win Sunday. Had Manuel not been bailed out by a pass interference call against Panthers inside linebacker Luke Kuechly, the game would have been clinched on an interception by Panthers safety Colin Jones on a deep ball over the middle. At the end of a game, however, nothing matters more than the result in the win-loss column, and the Bills found a way to get their first win of the season.
Even with the near-interception, the first props of the day have to go to Manuel. He bounced back from the interception immediately, taking advantage of the field position he received from the pass interference penalty. He scrambled to the right side and dove out of bounds to a 9-yard gain, setting up the game-winning touchdown pass one play later. By leading a game-winning drive with 1:38 to play and no timeouts and bouncing back from a near game-ending play, the rookie showed poise and composure well beyond his NFL experience.
Quarterbacks are often defined by their ability to perform in clutch situations. Manuel failed in this capacity in Week 1, as the Bills were unable to put together any successful drives in the fourth quarter. His winning performance Sunday, however, will inspire confidence in the Bills to put their faith in their quarterback when the game is on the line.
For all the great games and plays Stevie Johnson had in his first five years with the Buffalo Bills, his most memorable game of his career may also be his worst. Against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Nov. 28, 2010, Johnson dropped five passes including what would have been a game-winning touchdown in the end zone, costing the Bills a victory (memorably, Johnson later took to Twitter and blamed a higher power for his drops).
The opposite happened Sunday. When the Bills needed Johnson to step up, he did. Johnson caught three passes for 21 yards in the Bills’ final drive, including the game-winner. Johnson led the Bills in yards from scrimmage for the game with 111 yards on eight receptions, with six of those receptions for 83 yards coming in the second half.
It’s been awhile since the Bills have had a truly dynamic passing combination between a playmaking quarterback and a No. 1 wide receiver. On Sunday, Manuel and Johnson showe the potential to be exactly that.
A unit that has been frequently lambasted as a cause for concern on the Buffalo Bills this season, the offensive line has to be credited for their performance Sunday.
The Bills allowed just one sack and a costly one at that, as Manuel was stripped of the football on the play for a fumble recovered by the Carolina Panthers that set up a go-ahead field goal for the Panthers. That play, however, was not the fault of the offensive line, but rather of fullback Frank Summers, whose responsibility it was to pick up Mikell’s safety blitz on the play. Mikell drove Summers straight back to the quarterback to make the play.
The offensive line also did a nice job paving the way on the ground. Running back C.J. Spiller bounced back from a tough Week 1 performance by running for 103 yards on 16 carries on Sunday, and a big reason for that was the holes that the offensive line was able to open up. In total, the Bills ran for 149 yards on 33 carries Sunday, a 4.5 yards per carry average.
The Bills’ defense was largely praised for their efforts in Week 1, and gave up the same amount of points and 123 less total yards Sunday. It would be remiss not to praise them again, as the defensive efforts throughout the game kept the Bills alive and able to get the comeback win at the end.
For the first 28 minutes of the game, the Bills’ defense was superb. They allowed only 76 yards and zero points on the Panthers’ first five possessions, and had their only takeaway of the game from a Kiko Alonso interception on the opening drive.
In comparison to last week, the Panthers’ offensive production actually emulated that of the Bills from Week 1. Like the Bills did against the Patriots, the Panthers put together touchdown drives on their final drive of the first half and first drive of the second half to take a 14-6 lead. The Bills’ defense had lost their edge and the Panthers took the momentum of the game.
From that point on, however, the Bills’ defense stiffened up following a game-tying touchdown and 2-point conversion from the offense. The Bills kept the Panthers out of the end zone for the rest of the game, including two drives that started within the 26-yard line off of Bills turnovers.
The obvious star of the game for the Bills defense was defensive end Mario Williams, who dominated the Panthers’ offensive line (specifically, right tackle Byron Bell) for a team-record 4.5 sacks.
Alonso was another defensive standout. In addition to his interception, he finished the game with 10 total tackles and sacked Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton on the final play of the contest.
Cornerback Leodis McKelvin is another player whose play has been well-deserving of praise. Stepping into a difficult role of replacing injured Stephon Gilmore as the No. 1 cornerback, McKelvin has held his own. He held his own against Panthers wideout Steve Smith on Sunday, helping limit Smith to five receptions for 52 yards while he also deflected three passes to increase his two-game total to a whopping seven pass defenses.
More of the Same
While the Bills came away with a victory Sunday, many of the problems that cost the Bills their Week 1 game continued to plague them against the Panthers, and are problems that must be corrected for the Bills to consistently win games.
Most importantly, the Bills have to avoid to cut down on self-inflicted wounds. The Bills had two turnovers for the second consecutive week, and both of them put the Panthers in field goal territory before their defense was even on the field. Those mistakes fall at least in part upon Manuel, who was the game’s eventual hero but was stripped and intercepted in back-to-back drives.
Reckless, inopportunely-timed penalties also troubled the Bills on Sunday.
The Bills’ defense had stalled the Panthers in just two sets of downs on their first drive of the half before Summers picked up a defensive holding penalty on the Panthers’ punt, which gave the Panthers’ drive new life and ended up just four plays later on a 40-yard touchdown pass.
On the Panthers’ next series, the Bills came up with another key third-down stop that was once again negated by a penalty, this time on a 15-yard penalty against strong safety Aaron Williams for a late hit out of bounds. The Bills went on to force a punt on the next set of downs.
Those penalties did not end up costing the Bills this game, but they could have. All in all, the Bills had seven penalties for 55 yards on Sunday — a step forward from 10 for 75 yards in Week 1, but still too many.
Additionally, the Bills need to find a way to consistently put together offensive drives. The Bills certainly made strides in this area Sunday: EJ Manuel nearly doubled his passing yardage total to 296 from 150, while the Bills as a whole gained 150 total yards more than the previous week. Finishing drives with touchdowns, however, proved to be a more arduous task, as they reached opposing territory seven times but only made it to the end zone twice.
Overall, the Bills have a lot to be happy about. The Bills won their first of what they hope to be many games with Manuel and head coach Doug Marrone leading the way. With their backs against the wall, they showed they could make the plays necessary to win the game. That said, they still have a long way if they are going to win games consistently and convincingly.