BBD Staff Writer: John Maher
Quarterback EJ Manuel made his return for the Buffalo Bills, after missing the past four games due to a LCL sprain in Week 5, to face the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. After watching practice squad promotion turned starting quarterback Thad Lewis play for three games, and undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel start in Week 9 against the Kansas City Chiefs, Bills fans were excited to see Manuel back on the field.
Coming into this week, the Bills stood at 3-6 and were looking to make a second-half push for the playoffs if they could start with a win against the Steelers.
On paper, the Bills held statistical advantages on both sides of the ball. On offense, the Bills rank seventh in the league with 140.7 rushing yards per game, while the Steelers rank 29th with 127.2 rushing yards allowed per game. On defense, the Bills rank second in the NFL with 33 total sacks, while the Steelers have allowed 36 sacks, tied for the NFL’s most through Week 10.
The Bills defense exploited this advantage, finishing the game with four sacks on Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and nine total tackles for loss, but the Bills rushing offense struggled, finishing the game with 95 yards on the ground, their third-smallest number this year.
The story of the game, as Dan Hope explained in his postgame column, was the dreadful performance of Manuel and the entire Bills offense.
On a day where not much went the Buffalo Bills’ favor, defensive end Jerry Hughes had one of his best games in what is turning out to be a career season for Hughes. He had two sacks Sunday, increasing his total on the season to six, already one more than he had in three seasons combined with the Indianapolis Colts to start his career. He is second on the Bills in sacks, only behind defensive end Mario Williams, who has 11.
After holding out in the preseason, missing the first five games of this season with plantar fasciitis, and reports of the Bills looking to trade him, free safety Jairus Byrd finally had his first interception of the year on the Steelers’ opening drive Sunday. Byrd picked off Roethlisberger on the Buffalo 14-yard line and returned it to the Pittsburgh 29, giving the Bills offense great field position. This takeaway set up the Bills’ only score of the first 59:57 of the game, a 20-yard field goal by kicker Dan Carpenter. Byrd’s interception was the only takeaway for the Bills during the game and gave the Bills an early lead.
Bills defensive tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams each had a good game defensively. Kyle Williams posted a huge sack for an 11-yard loss on a third-and-goal in the second quarter, which forced the Steelers to settle for a field goal in the red zone. This sack was one of three tackles for loss. Dareus also came up with a key third-down sack for a loss of 10 yards which forced a Pittsburgh punt in the third quarter.
The day was not all good for Dareus, who had a huge mental blunder on a 4th-and-3 in the red zone where he was called for encroachment as the Steelers were in field goal formation. This gave Pittsburgh a new set of downs on Buffalo’s 6-yard line, and led to a Steelers touchdown two plays later. In Dareus’ defense, he was not the only Bills defender to jump offsides, but he was the most obvious to do so and the penalty was called on him.
The best adjective to describe Manuel’s performance Sunday was “rusty,” similar to how your bicycle becomes rusty after leaving it out all winter, so rusty that it hardly works. That is how bad Manuel was Sunday. The final stat sheet shows he completed 22-of-39 passes for 155 yards with one touchdown and one interception, but 76 of those yards and the touchdown came on the Bills’ meaningless final drive, down 20 points with less than five minutes to play. If you take those yards out of the equation, Manuel had just 79 passing yards in the game’s 55 minutes.
As BBD staff writer Ryan Talbot pointed out, 19 of Manuel’s 22 completions were for nine yards or less. During Manuel’s four-game absence, Lewis or Tuel put up more passing yards in each game than Manuel did Sunday.
The Bills’ receiving corps did not do much to help Manuel. Rookie wide receiver Robert Woods, who saw early success in the Bills’ first four games with Manuel at quarterback, was inactive Sunday, which left fellow receivers Stevie Johnson, Marquise Goodwin and TJ Graham to step up.
They did not.
Rookie backup tight end Chris Gragg, who has sparingly this season, led the team with four receptions, all of which came on the final drive. Johnson, who left the game early with a groin injury, led in receiving yards with just 48 on three receptions. Gragg caught the lone passing touchdown on the day, which also came during garbage time and was meaningless (besides that it was Gragg’s first NFL touchdown).
Overall, the Bills receiving corps was completely ineffective Sunday.
Bills running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson both had great games against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 9, but the same cannot be said about Sunday’s game against the Steelers. The Bills only mustered 95 total yards rushing between Spiller, Jackson, and Manuel. Spiller had a measly 23 yards on eight rushing attempts, while Jackson had 55 yards on 12 attempts.
Courtesy of the abysmal offensive performance, Bills punter Brian Moorman was called upon an astonishing nine times Sunday. Following Carpenter’s field goal in the first quarter, the following eight Bills drives ended with Moorman trotting on to the field. With swirling winds at Heinz Field throughout the game, Moorman had a very low net punting average of 24.2 yards, including one 39-yard punt that was returned 50 yards by Antonio Brown to the Buffalo 11-yard line.
Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett is taking much of the blame for Sunday’s loss, and rightfully so. Hackett made conservative play calls throughout Sunday’s game, and did not call for a pass on the opening play of a drive until the third quarter. His predictability made it easy for one of the NFL’s most experienced defensive coordinators, Dick LeBeau, to coach against him.
Spiller, who totaled 155 yards as a playmaker last week, got a total of 11 touches this week.
The Bills looked like they were under the headset of former head coach Dick Jauron (2006-09) with conservative play calling and inconsistent, dump-off passing plays by Manuel that looked similar to those that JP Losman and Trent Edwards used to run as Bills quarterbacks. Bills fans have tried to block out the 2000′s in Bills history and look forward to the 2010’s, but Sunday’s embarrassing loss brought flashbacks.
The second-to-last Bills drive of the game summarizes the game quite well: an incomplete pass, two consecutive sacks and a 3-and-out punt on 4th-and-28.
The Bills now stand at 3-7, and while they may not be mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, they are extreme long shots to even hope at playing in January. Even if the Bills were to win out and end up 9-7, that record would most likely not be enough to make it to the postseason. The Bills’ focus for their final six games should shift to developing their young team, specifically Manuel. The Bills looked promising in their first four games of the season with Manuel at quarterback, going 2-2, but have looked terrible in their past few games and are facing another season without making the playoffs, which would extend their playoff drought, the longest in the NFL, to 14 consecutive seasons.
Tags: Brian Moorman, C.J. Spiller, EJ Manuel, First Downs and Flags, Game Reviews, Jairus Byrd, Jerry Hughes, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, Nathaniel Hackett, Offensive Struggles, Pittsburgh Steelers, Week 10