BBD Staff Writer: John Maher
The Buffalo Bills went into Sunday’s game against the New York Jets coming off their worst showing of the season in a Week 10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. After nothing had worked well against the Steelers for the Bills offense and quarterback EJ Manuel, all eyes were on the quarterback and the Bills offense as it was set to go against a strong New York Jets defense in the Bills’ first AFC East rematch of the season.
The Jets beat the Bills 27-20 in Week 3, but Sunday’s game went much differently, with the Bills blowing the Jets out for a 37-14 victory. Things did not look good for Manuel in the days leading up to the game as the Bills’ top two receivers, Robert Woods and Stevie Johnson, were ruled out with injuries. This left second-year T.J. Graham, rookie Marquise Goodwin, inexperienced Chris Hogan and underused Marcus Easley to serve as Buffalo’s receiving corps Sunday.
Even with those injuries and swirling gusts at Ralph Wilson Stadium, the Bills scored their highest point total of the season Sunday.
Coming off of his worst game thus far as an NFL starting quarterback, Manuel responded mightily in what turned out to be arguably his best performance thus far.
Manuel completed 20-of-28 passes for 245 yards, two touchdowns, one sack and no interceptions. His 71.4 percentage and 121.9 quarterback rating are both Manuel’s best this year. Compared to the Steelers, where Manuel was mostly dumping off short passes or overthrowing his targets, he threw the deep ball well Sunday, including completions of 31, 34, 40 and 43 yards.
Manuel almost threw a pick-six late in the third quarter to Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who simply dropped the ball. This was his only blunder on the day, however, and ultimately had no effect on the game. He looked more confident and downright better facing the Jets than he did the Steelers.
Last week, the Bills receivers were ineffective against the Steelers and did nothing to help Manuel.
That all changed Sunday.
Goodwin had six receptions for 81 yards and a touchdown. Graham only caught two passes, but for 74 yards and a touchdown, which was a great play on a desperation throw by Manuel, who was under heavy pressure, for a 34-yard gain in the end zone.
During a third-quarter drive, Manuel threw two passes — a 40-yarder to Graham and a 43-yard touchdown to Goodwin — in a drive that spanned 27 seconds and put the Bills up 27-7. The separation obtained by Goodwin and especially Graham from their defenders was something Buffalo has been missing all season. Sunday, Goodwin and Graham proved themselves to be valuable assets to their offense.
The Bills offensive coordinator faced considerable criticism after Buffalo’s loss to the Steelers, a game in which he called predictable plays and was simply outcoached by Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Hackett shook off the loss, however, and decided to call the plays from the sidelines Sunday, instead of the coach’s box as he previously had all season.
Facing a tough task with his top two receivers out and against the league’s top-ranked run defense, Hackett changed up his playcalling from past weeks and included end-arounds, screens and passing on first downs. While the run game was virtually a non-factor, Hackett’s more aggressive play calling resulted in the convincing win.
After forcing only one turnover and losing seven in the past three games, the Bills had four takeaways and no giveaways Sunday.
The Bills picked off Jets quarterback Geno Smith three times; Bills free safety Jairus Byrd had two, while rotational safety Da’Norris Searcy added a pick-six. Defensive tackle Kyle Williams also forced a fumble that was recovered by Bills linebacker Manny Lawson on a strip sack.
For only the second time this season, the Bills offense had no turnovers. Winning the turnover battle has been huge for the Bills this season: they are 3-2 in games where their turnover differential has been positive, but only 1-5 when it has been even or negative.
To go along with the four takeaways, the Bills defense had six tackles for loss (four sacks) and brought consistent pressure against Smith, including eight quarterback hits. These four sacks brought the Bills’ season total to a league-leading 37, which is already one more than the 36 they had all of last season.
The defense had many great individual efforts. Defensive tackle Kyle Williams had two sacks in the first half. Linebacker Kiko Alonso had 13 tackles, bringing his season total to 112, the NFL’s second-most. Cornerback Aaron Williams had 10 tackles and a pass deflection.
Overall, the Bills defense gelled tremendously Sunday. It held Smith to only eight completions for 103 yards, which led to his being pulled in favor of backup quarterback Matt Simms early in the fourth quarter. The Jets went 2-of-11 on third down, punted six times and had 267 yards of total offense, 69 of which came on a garbage-time run by Jets running back Chris Ivory. The defense also posted a shutout in the first half and only allowed one touchdown with Smith at the helm.
On a November day with wind gusts of up to 30 miles per hour, Bills kicker Dan Carpenter had no problem kicking three field goals, all of which came from 40-43 yards out. The wind was also a factor for Jets kicker Nick Folk, who went 1-of-2 on field goals, but missed a 48-yard attempt.
Carpenter is having a career season thus far with a 91.7 field goal percentage. His 13-point game Sunday was his fifth double-digit point game of the season.
The Rushing Offense
While Manuel and the Bills passing offense had a great game, the running back duo of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson did not. Jackson had 34 yards on 12 rushes, while Spiller had only six on 13 rushes. On five carries, Spiller was stopped for no gain or tackled for a loss. Coming off a week in which Hackett was criticized for not getting the ball to Spiller more, the Bills gave Spiller opportunities to make something happen, and he did not.
Blaming the rushing offense’s struggles only on the running backs, however, would be unfair, especially in the opinion of Doug Marrone, who told Spiller to voice his frustrations to the offensive line, according to Tim Graham of The Buffalo News.
Spiller is having his worst career season thus far, and it would be a huge strength to this team if he can get his game back on track, but it will take both Spiller and his offensive line improving their performances for that to happen.
Special Teams (sans Carpenter)
Brian Moorman was a Pro Bowl punter for the Bills twice during the 2000′s and led a tremendous special teams unit then, but it has not been the same since his return to the Bills this season. While Moorman has shown flashes of his former self, including a coffin corner punt on the 1-yard line in his first game back, he has struggled overall. Against the Jets, he muffed a clean snap and barely got off a punt that went for two yards, which gave the Jets the ball on the Buffalo 40-yard line and set up their first touchdown drive.
Along with Moorman’s struggles, the punt return and coverage units had five penalties on the day. While the coverage unit has been doing better in containing punt returns since allowing 179 punt return yards to Travis Benjamin in Week 5, the unit is having difficulties with penalties.
In a game many came into with low expectations for Manuel and the Bills offense with Woods and Johnson out, Buffalo put on a show, responding well to their embarrassing loss to the Steelers. Marrone stated earlier in the week that he considered holding out Manuel one more game, to which many thought Manuel may have returned too soon to face the Steelers. Regardless of that, Manuel looked like a poised quarterback in Sunday’s win, especially when compared to his rookie counterpart Smith.
For the first time this millennium, the Bills go into the bye week with a win. Coming out of the bye week, the Bills will face the Atlanta Falcons, who rank 30th in the NFL against the run, on December 1st. If Spiller and the offensive line can work together to fix the issues the Bills rushing offense is having, the Bills could get back-to-back wins for the first time since Weeks 2-3 of the 2012 season.
Tags: Aaron Williams, AFC East, Brian Moorman, Buffalo Bills, C.J. Spiller, Dan Carpenter, EJ Manuel, First Downs and Flags, Game Reviews, Jairus Byrd, Kiko Alonso, Kyle Williams, Marquise Goodwin, Nathaniel Hackett, New York Jets, Postgame Takeaways, Rematch, T.J. Graham, Week 11