BBD Editor: Dan Hope
If you’re a Buffalo Bills fan, there was a lot to be excited about in the team’s season-opening game versus the New England Patriots.
Between the second and third quarters, the Bills clearly had the game’s momentum, and outscored the Patriots 21-7 in that span. The defense showed significant strides from last season, making numerous stands in goal-to-go defense and coming up with three takeaways off which they scored 14 points. Rookie quarterback EJ Manuel had a very solid debut, completing 18 of 27 passes for 150 yards and leading two touchdown drives while throwing no interceptions.
The Bills lost the game, however, because they started and ended poorly. The Bills were outscored 16-0 in the first and fourth quarters, giving up two scoring drives in each quarter. They failed to sustain any offensive momentum in both quarters, and the Patriots — specifically wide receivers Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, and running back Shane Vereen — made enough plays down the stretch to set up two field goals on the Patriots’ final three series.
While the Bills certainly must overcome their inability to close out the victory, putting themselves in position for said victory was an impressive start for head coach Doug Marrone, Manuel and the Bills’ defense.
Positives: Why the Bills Were in Position to Win
For a rookie quarterback in his NFL debut, EJ Manuel had a very promising performance Sunday.
Manuel displayed the poise and confidence of a veteran. While his ball placement wasn’t consistently great, he did not appear to be rattled by poor throws.
The rookie was terrific on the Bills’ final drive of the first half and the first drive of the second half, on which Manuel led the Bills to their only two offensive scores of the day.
Set up by a Justin Rogers interception at the 37-yard line with only 1:01 to play in the first half, Manuel quickly connected on a 19-yard pass to Scott Chandler over the middle of the defense, then hit a wide-open Robert Woods on an 18-yard throw to the right side of the end zone on the next play. That touchdown drive cut the Bills’ halftime deficit to three points.
Manuel’s flagship series of the game, however, came at the start of the second half. Though the Bills gained most of their 80 yards on the ground, Manuel displayed control of the no-huddle offense as the Bills marched down the field on an 11-play, 79-yard drive. He showed his ability to make a play with his legs, scrambling for a 19-yard gain to move the Bills into Patriots territory, then capped the drive with an outstanding 18-yard fade throw over double coverage to wide receiver Stevie Johnson.
As he continues to progress, the Bills will expect Manuel to be throwing for more than 150 yards in a game. For a first start, however, the most important steps for Manuel were to build confidence, make some big plays and avoid mistakes. For the most part, he did all three of those things.
Secondary Steps Up
Going up against one of the NFL’s all-time great quarterbacks, it was reasonable to expect that the Buffalo Bills’ secondary would be exposed would be Tom Brady and the Patriots. With the Bills’ two best defensive backs, cornerback Stephon Gilmore and free safety Jairus Byrd, both out with injuries, it was going to take a team effort to step up just to avoid embarrassment.
The Bills successfully did that. All four starters — cornerbacks Leodis McKelvin and Justin Rogers, free safety Da’Norris Searcy and strong safety Aaron Williams — stepped up and made plays to help soften the impact of Gilmore’s and Byrd’s absences.
McKelvin was the top standout in the Bills’ secondary. The No. 1 cornerback in Gilmore’s stead, McKelvin did a great job of consistently locking down his opponent — often Kenbrell Thompkins — and making plays on the ball. He made a whopping four breakups on the day, including one very impressive break and dive in front of Amendola, and did not suffer any bad beats. He also had six tackles for the game.
Searcy was the Bills’ best defensive back in the first half. He made the biggest play of the game when he scooped a self-fumble by Patriots running back Stevan Ridley and returned it 74 yards for a touchdown. He was also all over the field as a tackler. He came up with a sack off a blitz, made multiple other tackles around the line of scrimmage and tied for the team lead with nine total tackles.
Unfortunately for Searcy, he was sidelined for much of the second half. The issue was cramping, according to Jay Skurski of the Buffalo News. Veteran Jim Leonhard, who was just signed to the team Wednesday, had more issues in coverage in Searcy’s place.
Rogers did not lock down his side of the field as well as McKelvin, but he also made a huge play to set up a touchdown. He intercepted a pass that went through the hands of Patriots tight end Zach Sudfeld and secured the catch even though he was simultaneously hit by Sudfeld. That interception set up the Bills’ end-of-first half touchdown drive.
Williams had a decent game and also had nine tackles. Slot cornerbacks Ron Brooks and Nickell Robey also played solid games, providing decent coverage while both came up toward the line of scrimmage to make big tackles on multiple occasions.
Yes, the Bills gave up 273 passing yards, two passing touchdowns and many key completions late in the game during the Patriots’ comeback rally. That said, many of those completions were the result of Amendola and others making tough catches against coverage rather than the Bills being out of place.
The secondary must continue to improve. Brady’s 35-yard completion to Edelman that set up the Bills’ first fourth-quarter field goal drive, with many of those yards coming after a badly missed tackle by Rogers, was unacceptable. So were the three completions that the Bills allowed for first downs to Amendola on the Patriots’ game-winning drive. That said, they played very well considering their own personnel and their opposition.
The hire of defensive coordinator Mike Pettine brought promise of increased pressure from the Bills’ defensive front. Pettine’s defense lived up to that promise on Sunday, showing their ability to make Brady uncomfortable in the pocket and to rally to stops on run defense.
The Bills brought pressure from their defensive front, with defensive tackle Marcell Dareus and outside linebacker Manny Lawson being among the leaders of that effort, but they also generated pressure on aggressive blitzes from the secondary. While those blitzes occasionally left openings that the Patriots took advantage, it also made their defense less predictable and more troublesome for the Patriots’ offense.
The Bills had a subpar day defending the run, giving up 158 yards as the Patriots were able to open up some large holes against their defense while missed tackles were also problematic. That said, the Bills’ improvement over the course of the game in stopping the run and in goal-to-go defense was noteworthy.
In the first half, the Bills allowed two red zone touchdown passes for nine and eight yards respectively from Brady to Edelman. In the second half, however, the Bills’ defense came up with two huge stands against the Patriots’ offense.
On the Patriots’ first drive of the third quarter, middle linebacker Kiko Alonso made a key tackle just inches behind the goal line on 3rd and goal, setting up a fourth-down stop on a fumbled snap by Brady. On their first drive of the fourth quarter, the Bills were scythed down to the 10-yard line before making three consecutive stops (with a five-yard penalty that proved inconsequential in the middle), including a 10-yard sack by defensive tackle Kyle Williams, to hold the Patriots to a field goal and preserve at that point a one-point lead.
See page 2 for reasons why the Bills ultimately came up short.