BBD Editor: Dan Hope
Bringing back Brian Moorman to replace Shawn Powell at punter paid immediate dividends for the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. Replacing the punter, however, did not fix the deficiencies of the Bills’ punt coverage unit, which helped cost the Bills a second consecutive game when they allowed a 29-yard punt return to Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Brandon Tate in overtime of Sunday’s 27-24 home loss.
The Bills struggled for the majority of the first three quarters of Sunday’s game versus the Bengals on both offense and defense, but a valiant effort from both the offensive and defensive units pushed Buffalo into its first overtime game of the season.
Rational expectations were low coming into the game for the Bills offense, and more specifically, quarterback Thad Lewis. An offense that had struggled to find rhythm all season long wasn’t supposed to be successful with a quarterback they promoted from their practice squad against a defense that had allowed just six points and 248 yards of offense to the Tom Brady-led New England Patriots one week earlier.
Lewis exceeded those expectations with an impressive performance, given the circumstances.
His accuracy was inconsistent throughout the day, with many of his passes going high or wide of his intended target. He also displayed poor pocket presence, often staying in the pocket too long trying to make a play and taking a sack as a result. Most importantly, however, he had more touchdowns (two passing, one rushing) than turnovers (one fumble), including two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter that eliminated a 24-10 deficit.
The Bills had said they weren’t going to limit the playbook for Lewis, and they held true to their word on Sunday. He made some big plays with his arm, including a 40-yard dime perfectly placed in the end zone on Marquise Goodwin’s game-tying touchdown catch, while he also showed he could make plays with his feet. When things went wrong, Lewis showed the poise and composure Manuel has to bounce back from his mistakes and stay confident on the next series.
On the other side of the ball, the first three quarters could not have gone much for the Bills defense. Not including a kneel-down possession for the Bengals at the end of the first half, the Bills allowed the Bengals to gain a whopping 387 combined yards and 24 points between their first six drives. The Bengals scored three touchdowns and one field goal in that span, and squandered away opportunities in scoring position with an interception and a missed field goal on the other two series.
The defense finally stepped up when the Bills needed to mount a late comeback. After forcing no punts in the first three quarters, the Bills forced punts on five consecutive drives, including all four fourth-quarter Bengals possessions.
The Bengals scored on their second overtime possession, but that wasn’t the defense’s fault. They held the Bengals to just eight yards and no first downs, but Tate’s punt return had left the Bills in a tough spot to defend. On 4th-and-2, the Bengals turned to Mike Nugent, who left the door open for the Bills’ comeback with a 34-yard miss in the third quarter, but easily converted the game-winner from 43 yards out in overtime.
Pinning the Bills’ loss entirely on the punt coverage would certainly be irresponsible — on the only other two punt return attempts in the game, they had held Bengals cornerback Adam Jones to just five combined yards, including one downed at the 5-yard line — but its role in the Bills’ second consecutive loss should be one of the team’s chief concerns.
Just 10 days earlier, the Bills were gashed by Cleveland Browns punt returner Travis Benjamin for 179 yards on seven returns, including a 79-yard touchdown, in the Bills’ 37-24 Thursday night loss to the Browns. Salt was rubbed in those wounds when Tate set up the game-winning field goal with his 29-yard punt return on Sunday.
While many Bills fans on Twitter are calling for the firing of special teams coordinator Danny Crossman, that is unlikely to happen nor would it do any good in the middle of the regular season. Instead, the rest of the Bills’ coaching staff need to work with Crossman to get the right personnel and packages out on the field to do a more adequate job covering punts and not giving up big plays in that capacity.
As far as Sunday’s loss goes, it’s not as if the Bills put their punt coverage unit into a good spot.
While the defense was able to get off the field on their first series of overtime, it wasn’t before the Bengals drove 40 yards, allowing the Bengals to pin the Bills offense at their own 7-yard line on a Kevin Huber punt. Subsequently, the Bills offense left their punt coverage in a bad spot by failing to pick up a single first down. Moorman did his job well, punting the ball 51 yards and high in the air, but the punt coverage was unable to catch up to the play and Tate made them pay.
That, of course, was only how they lost the game in overtime.
Had the Bills offense managed to score on their second drive of the game, rather than being stopped on four consecutive rushing plays after starting a goal-to-go set of downs at the 2-yard line, the Bills may have won the game in regulation. Had the defense been able to get off the field during the first three quarters of the game, the Bills may have won in regulation, and had it not been for Mike Nugent’s miss — which came after a holding penalty on Bengals tight end Alex Smith nullified a converted 24-yard field goal — the Bills likely never would have gotten it back to overtime at all.
There are plenty of positives to take away from Sunday’s game. Lewis stepped in and played an admirable game. Goodwin, playing in just his second career game after injuring his hand in Week 1, showed exactly why the Bills drafted him when he used his sprinter speed to burn the Bengals for the game-tying touchdown reception. The Bills defense didn’t have a good performance, getting beat for 483 total yards in the game, but they deserve credit for the way they bounced back in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Forcing a better team to overtime, with a quarterback who wasn’t even on the 53-man roster less than a week ago, could be considered a moral victory for the Bills. At 2-4, however, the window of the season for moral victories is closing. The Bills’ upcoming schedule does not get any easier, with three consecutive upcoming games against the teams with winning records.
If the Bills are going to start winning close football games — and stop themselves from falling completely out of contention — the offense, defense and special teams all have to play better.