BBD Editor: Dan Hope
The Buffalo Bills’ failure to sustain offensive drives should have cost them another game Sunday against the Miami Dolphins.
The Bills managed just one scoring drive from beyond their own 40-yard line, and even though they started a goal-to-go offensive opportunity at the 4-yard line, they were forced to settle for a field goal.
The Bills only had one offensive touchdown in the game.
With 1:47 left on the game clock late in the first half, the Bills’ attempt at a two-minute drill resulted in no first downs and lasted just 22 seconds, which gave the Dolphins 1:25 and two timeouts left to work with — two timeouts the Dolphins didn’t even end up needing to use when Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Gibson connected for a 13-yard touchdown with 21 seconds to spare.
And as has been the case in many games already this season, the offense went flat when the team needed a drive late in the game. Trailing by just one point with 5:42 left to play, the Bills took two full minutes off the clock but failed to gain a first down, leaving them in a desperate spot as the Dolphins took possession with a lead and less than four minutes to take off the clock.
The Bills have had this problem all season. While they have at times flashed explosive playmaking ability or an impressive drives, they have been unable to consistently sustain offensive drives. Yet even with that problem, the Bills have remained competitive in every one of their games.
That is a credit to the Buffalo defense, which was a saving grace for the Bills once again with its big plays.
The defense had issues of its own, giving up four drives of 60 yards or more, with three of those four drives ending in touchdowns. It was the big plays that defense made early and late in Sunday’s game, however, that allowed the Bills to escape Miami with a 23-21 victory.
The first big play of the game came from slot cornerback Nickell Robey, who intercepted a Ryan Tannehill pass and returned it for a 19-yard touchdown on the Dolphins’ first possession of the game. After the Bills defense forced 3-and-outs on their next two series, the Dolphins had found vulnerability in the Bills defense to drive 63 yards before a Tannehill floater was picked off by Bills safety Aaron Williams at the goal line.
The biggest play of the game and one of the biggest plays of the Bills’ season, however, came when things were looking bleakest for Buffalo. As previously mentioned, the Dolphins had the ball with a one-point lead less than four minutes away from a victory.
The game was suddenly turned on its head when defensive end Mario Williams beat Dolphins right tackle Tyson Clabo for his second sack of the game and 10th sack of the season. That’s because in the process, he forced a Tannehill fumble which Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams recovered at the Miami 34-yard line.
If there was one thing the Bills offense was able to do on Sunday, it was taking advantage of short fields. The Bills scored on all three drives that started past their own 40-yard line.
In this situation, it was a 10-yard run by running back Fred Jackson, who led the Bills with 36 rushing yards on a day they really struggled to move the ball on the ground, that converted a 3rd-and-4 and allowed the Bills to run the clock down to within the final minute before Bills kicker Dan Carpenter, who made all three of his field goal attempts Sunday against his former team, gave the Bills a two-point lead with a 31-yard field goal with just 33 seconds remaining.
Carpenter’s next kickoff was not as clutch, as it was deliberately kicked short and returned to the Dolphins’ 46-yard line, giving Miami hope for one more back with 23 seconds left on the game clock. From there, however, the Bills defense stepped up once again in stopping the Dolphins on four consecutive plays to secure Buffalo’s third win of the season and first win of the year against a divisional opponent.
To be fair to the Bills offense, it was only its second game with Thad Lewis at quarterback in place of injured starter EJ Manuel. The Bills’ offensive problems, however, go beyond the quarterback change, as they were already problems before Manuel injured his knee against the Cleveland Browns.
With Manuel likely to be sidelined for four more games as he continues his recovery from a sprained LCL, the Bills need Lewis to improve, especially after a no-touchdown, one-interception performance Sunday. One way or another, however, the Bills have to be able to sustain offensive drives if they are going to string together victories and remain in contention at all. While better quarterback play is key, so is establishing a stronger ground game, receivers doing a better job of making plays and the offensive line doing a better job providing the quarterback protection.
It’s not as if the Bills offense has been awful — statistically, it’s actually have been the most consistently average unit in the NFL, at least in terms of points scored (where big defensive plays have given the offense a boost). The Bills have scored between 20-24 points in each of their first seven games, and are also the only team other than the Denver Broncos, who boast the NFL’s No. 1 offense through six games, to have scored 20 points or more in every game thus far this season (h/t Rant Sports’ Greg Higgins).
To this point in the season, nonetheless, Buffalo’s hopes of winning have been tied to its defense making big plays in key situations (the Bills’ Week 2 win over the Panthers, when Manuel and the Bills’ offense answered a Panthers field goal in the game’s final 1:38 with a game-winning drive, was an exception).
That won’t work every week, but it worked in Week 7.
If I was giving a Player of the Game award for this Bills game, it would have go to Mario Williams, who had the only two sacks of the game for the Bills including the strip sack that proved to be the game’s turning point. Robey had to leave Sunday’s game early with a shoulder injury, but he was also fantastic, with three passes defensed including the pick-six.
Overall, it was a strong performance for the Bills defense in making the plays it needed to make to win a football game. The weakest link of the unit may have actually been cornerback Stephon Gilmore. A club on Gilmore’s injured left wrist clearly continued to affect his ability to play physically with receivers, and he was beaten for multiple big plays along with a holding penalty.
The game is unlikely to be more rewarding for any player, however, than Carpenter. He was cut by the Dolphins this offseason in favor of rookie Caleb Sturgis, and was subsequently signed and released by both the Arizona Cardinals and New York Jets, but has excelled since finding a home with the Buffalo Bills. By making all three of his field goals Sunday, Carpenter improved to 15-of-16 on field goal attempts this season. Sturgis, on the other hand, pushed his only field goal attempt of the game wide right from 51 yards out, marking his second consecutive miss in as many attempts.
With their win Sunday, the Bills improved to 3-4 on the season, while the Dolphins dropped to 3-3. The Bills remain in last place in the AFC East, but are only two games of the division-leading New England Patriots, who are 5-2 after losing to the New York Jets, who improved to 4-3, in overtime Sunday.
Getting back to .500 on the season, however, won’t be easy for the Bills, as it would require another road upset, this time against the 5-1 New Orleans Saints, who will, like the Dolphins, be coming off of a bye week.