BBD Staff Writer: John Maher
With EJ Manuel (sprained LCL) and Thad Lewis (bruised ribs) both out due to injury, Jeff Tuel made his first NFL start at quarterback with the Buffalo Bills on Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs. Many Bills fans were uneasy with Tuel, who completed just 8-of-20 passes for 80 yards in his only prior appearance of the season against the Cleveland Browns in Week 5, taking the helm against the Chiefs, who came into Week 9 as the NFL’s only undefeated team and with the league’s No. 1 scoring defense.
Tuel quickly gained the confidence of the crowd at Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium when he completed five of his first seven passes for 122 yards, including a 59-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Marquise Goodwin. With the help of the Bills defense shutting down the Chiefs offense, the Bills went into the locker room at the half with a 10-3 lead. Tuel struggled in the second half, however. He finished the game having completed less than half of his passes (18-of-39) for 229 yards and one touchdown but two interceptions, while the Bills lost the game, 23-13, having been outscored 20-3 in the second half.
The major turning point of the game, as detailed in Dan Hope’s postgame column Sunday, came on the Bills’ opening drive of the second half, when Tuel was intercepted by Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith at the goal line, from where Smith returned the interception 100 yards to the other end zone for a touchdown. This shift in momentum changed the game from being potentially 17-3 to tied at 10 in a matter of seconds, and the Chiefs never looked back for the rest of the half.
The Dynamic Duo: C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson
Bills running backs Spiller and Jackson got back to their old ways of ripping apart opposing defenses on Sunday, combining for 254 yards from scrimmage. Spiller ran for 116 yards on 12 carries, including a 61-yard run on the Bills’ first offensive play of the second half which ranks as the Bills’ longest offensive play thus far this season, while he also gained 39 yards on two catches. Jackson tacked on 77 yards on 16 carries, and also had a 22-yard catch.
While Spiller is still dealing with a lingering ankle injury and was visibly limping after some runs, it appeared the decision by Bills coach Doug Marrone to hold Spiller out against the Saints last week was a smart move. Spiller looked healthier and more like the back he was last season, when he totaled more than 1,700 yards as a rusher and receiver.
Running backs in the NFL are only as good as their offensive line, and Spiller and Jackson could have not gotten the rushing yards they did without the blocking of the Bills offensive line Sunday. When it came to pass protection, the Bills offensive line had their work cut out for them against a Chiefs defense that came into Week 9 with a league-leading 36 total sacks, but the offensive line did not allow a single sack on the day. That gave Tuel time in the pocket and kept the rookie quarterback from having to scramble and make rash decisions under pressure.
The Bills defense only allowed nine points on three field goals while they were on the field, with the only Chiefs touchdowns coming from two defensive scores. The Bills held the Chiefs to 210 yards of total offense, sacked Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith twice and consistently stopped the Chiefs on third downs, where they had a conversion rate of just 3-of-13.
Had it not been for the Chiefs’ defensive scores, the Bills very well could have held the Chiefs, who came into the week seventh in the league in points scored, to a single-digit scoring output.
Rookie Wide Receivers
Goodwin may have been best known for his speed and kickoff return ability as a third-round pick in this year’s draft, but he has grown into a quality wide receiver for the Buffalo Bills. Goodwin had the Bills only touchdown Sunday on his 59-yard score, which came off a go-route where he simply blew past the Chiefs secondary and caught a nicely-placed pass by Tuel. The Bills’ other rookie draft pick at wide receiver, Robert Woods, also had a relatively solid week: he totaled 44 yards on four catches, which was more than the 40 yards he totaled in his past three games with Thad Lewis at quarterback.
The news was not all good for Woods and Goodwin, however: both left the game with injuries. Bills coach Doug Marrone said X-rays on Woods’ leg came back negative, while Goodwin suffered a hamstring injury.
As aforementioned, the pick-six Tuel threw from the Bills 1-yard line on third-and-goal on the Bills’ opening possession of th second half was the turning point of the game. With a play call to throw a slant to wide receiver TJ Graham that seemed destined for failure, Stevie Johnson was left uncovered in the back of the end zone and Tuel never even looked at him.
While the interception returned for a touchdown was the most glaring example, Tuel consistently locked onto receivers with his eyes, making him an easy read for the Chiefs defense. On top of that, many of his incompletions were wildly overthrown.
Tuel did about as well as could have been expected for a third-string quarterback, but his mistakes led to a loss.
The Bills’ receiving corps had seven drops Sunday, which did not help Tuel’s campaign. Some were significantly costly, such as tight end Scott Chandler’s drop on third-down of the Bills’ opening drive, which would have placed the Bills in field goal range but instead forced them to settle for a punt.
Many of the Bills’ games have been very close this season, with six decided by a touchdown or less, and it appeared this week would be the same when the game was tied at 13-13 going into the fourth quarter. However, T.J. Graham’s costly fumble-turned-touchdown on a 11-yard return by Chiefs outside linebacker Tamba Hali gave Kansas City a quick lead in the fourth quarter, which forced Tuel into a failed comeback effort. The Bills looked very good for the most part on both sides of the ball, totaling 470 total yards on offense while only allowing 210 yards on defense, but they lost the turnover battle three to zero, which cost them this game.
The Bills are 1-4 since losing Manuel to injury (including their Week 5 loss to the Cleveland Browns, 37-24, a game which was tied 17-17 before Manuel was replaced by Tuel), and injuries have played a role in each loss. With the return of a healthier C.J. Spiller, the Bills showed how good of a team they can be, and if they had a quality quarteback, they could be a solid, potential contender. Until Manuel comes back with the his offensive playmakers around him healthy, it will be difficult to determine how good the Bills actually are.