Looking Back to Move Forward: Storylines of the First Half of the Buffalo Bills’ Season

There have been many impressive young players for the Buffalo Bills this season, but none more promising than middle linebacker Kiko Alonso. (Photo: Ron Schwane — USA Today Sports)

BBD Staff Writer: Eric Samulski

Sitting at three wins and five losses at the midpoint of the season, the overall numbers might not seem to be working in the favor of the Buffalo Bills, yet it seems clear the Bills are generally moving in the right direction. Of the team’s five losses, three of them were by seven points or less — including two on game-winning field goals — and one, against the Cleveland Browns in Week 5, came when undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel was the only option to finish the game at quarterback after EJ Manuel suffered an LCL sprain that has kept him out ever since.

The new coaching staff led by Doug Marrone, and general manager Doug Whaley, have acquitted themselves well. Even with a losing record, there is more reason for optimism with the Bills than there has in the past. But, as I learned in history class: if you don’t study your past, you’re destined to repeat it, which means it’s time to look back at the Bills’ first half and see what mistakes they can learn from to make positive progress.

First-Half Positives

Rookie Production

This year’s Buffalo Bills were never going to be a team to contend for a Super Bowl. In order for the Bills to get back to the success they have not had since the turn of the century, they must continue their effort to rebuild.

Like all rebuilding efforts, the most important factor is the performance of the young starters. For the Bills, this has been incredibly strong: the 2013 rookie class has come into Buffalo and produced immediately.

Although first-round pick EJ Manuel won the starting quarterback job by default when Kevin Kolb ended up on injured reserve with a concussion, he was already in line to win the job by outperforming the veteran in the preseason.

Manuel stepped in from the first week of the regular season and was effective and poised in leading the Bills early on. Sure, he didn’t set the league on fire, but he was smart with the ball, didn’t force too many throws and made some key plays in a comeback win against the Carolina Panthers and comeback efforts that fell short against the New England Patriots and New York Jets. Overall, Manuel completed 85-of-150 passing attempts for 985 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions before injuring his knee in Week 5.

Wide receivers Robert Woods (No. 41 overall pick) and Marquise Goodwin (No. 78 overall) have similarly been solidly effective.

Woods has 305 yards and two touchdowns on 22 receptions, and while his overall target rate has declined since Thad Lewis took over as Bills quarterback in Week 6, Woods has shown himself to be a dynamic route-runner and strong possession receiver.

Although Woods has seen more time on the field, Goodwin has displayed surprising skills as a receiver for a guy who was reputed to just be a speed threat. Goodwin has only played four games and only seen significant action as a receiver in two after missing four games due to hand surgery, but has six catches for 107 yards and a touchdown, including an overtime-forcing 40-yard touchdown reception against the Cincinnati Bengals. He has displayed great body control and soft hands on some difficult catches.

The real star of the rookies, however, has been the No. 46 overall pick, middle linebacker Kiko Alonso.

Alonso has been the starting middle linebacker all season long, and has been a demon in that role. He seems to fly around the field, consistently swarming around the ball. He has shown solid skills in pass coverage. So far, throughout eight games, he has totaled 81 tackles, one sack and four interceptions. Some tight ends have used their speed against him and victimized him on double moves, but nonetheless, Alonso has been a true every-down player, having yet to miss a single defensive snap for the Bills this year according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

Doug Whaley’s Trades Have Paid Off

In his first year as general manager, Doug Whaley has already done his part to make the Bills roster significantly better. (Photo: Kevin Hoffman — USA Today Sports)

While the NFL trade deadline came and went without much fanfare this week, the Bills are a team that was able to spin some gold from trades in the offseason.

The first post-draft trade for the Bills came in training camp, when the team decided third-year linebacker Kelvin Sheppard was not the right fit for Mike Pettine’s new defensive system. In truth, it probably had more to do with Alonso’s ability than Sheppard’s lack of it, but nevertheless, Buffalo shipped him to the Indianapolis Colts for fellow third-year semi-disappointment Jerry Hughes.

A pass-rush specialist who was the No. 31 overall pick of the 2010 NFL draft, Hughes was a poor fit for the 4-3 defense run in Indianapolis his first two seasons there, and he never got into a rhythm last year even as the team moved to a 3-4 scheme under new coach Chuck Pagano. Since arriving in Buffalo, however, Hughes has flashed the pass-rush ability that made him an early draft pick. He has already accumulated 28 tackles, more than half of his career best, while he has already notched three sacks and one forced fumble.

An under-the-wire trade that has worked in Buffalo’s favor was its move to send special teams linebacker Chris White, who likely would have been cut otherwise, to the Detroit Lions for Thaddeus Lewis just before the two teams played one another in the preseason. With Manuel dealing with another knee injury at the time, Lewis thoroughly outplayed Matt Leinart, who had also been signed by the team prior to playing the Lions, and although Lewis did not make the Bills’ 53-man roster, he earned himself a spot on their practice squad.

Lewis has since been promoted to the active roster and started the past three games for the Bills in Manuel’s absence. Lewis has completed 62-of-103 passing attempts for 652 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions in those games.

Both of these moves, in addition to some strong free-agent additions such as outside linebacker Manny Lawson, defensive lineman Alan Branch and left guard Doug Legursky, have been a great job by Whaley of adding role-playing talent to make the Bills a deeper team, all without surrendering any draft picks.

The Young Core Has Continued to Develop

Being one of the youngest teams in the league, the Bills are relying on the continued development of their roster in order to become contenders. This is not a team that is going to add one veteran piece and immediately challenge for a title; the young core needs to improve as a whole for them to have any chance.

As far as this season goes, so far, so good on that front.

After becoming a competent left tackle in the second half of last year, Cordy Glenn has really flourished in his second season on the blind side. Protecting two quarterbacks who feel the pocket a little better than last year’s starting quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, has helped, but Glenn has only allowed one sack, two quarterback hits, and nine quarterback hurries so far this season according to Pro Football Focus. For a guy who was projected by many as having to kick inside to guard at the next level, Glenn’s development into a premier left tackle is a gigantic win for the Bills long-term success.

Similarly, Marcell Dareus has rebounded from a rough sophomore campaign, due in part to traumatic personal events, to become one of the league’s best defensive tackles. Through the first half of the season, Pro Football Focus has Dareus ranked as a top-10 defensive tackle with 29 total tackles, thirteen quarterback hurries, and five sacks.

With Dareus and Glenn becoming elite talent in the trenches, the rookie class becoming quick studies and the flashes shown by first-round pick cornerback Stephon Gilmore last year, the Bills look like a young team with future stars all over the field.

See page 2 for negative storylines and a prediction for the second half of the season.

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Tags: Buffalo Bills, Clock Management, Colin Brown, Cordy Glenn, Doug Marrone, Doug Whaley, EJ Manuel, Injuries, Kiko Alonso, Marcell Dareus, Marquise Goodwin, Midseason, Midseason Review, Nathaniel Hackett, Penalties, Robert Woods, Storylines

One Response to “Looking Back to Move Forward: Storylines of the First Half of the Buffalo Bills’ Season”

  1. Duncan says:

    Great article, I agree 100%

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