BBD Editor: Dan Hope
Unable to consistently sustain drives and finish drives with touchdowns all season long, the Buffalo Bills’ offensive struggles was the primary factor in Buffalo losing six of its first nine games this season.
Even with that said, the Bills offense played what was easily its worst game of the season Sunday in Buffalo’s Week 10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Bills only scored 10 points in Sunday’s game, and even that small number is a misleading impression on a day where the Bills offense was not able to generate any meaningful scoring drives at all.
Buffalo scored on its first possession, but that possession started just 29 yards away from the end zone after an interception and 57-yard return by Bills free safety Jarius Byrd. The Bills did not even take full advantage of that great field position, settling for a 20-yard field goal after a poorly-called, poorly-executed 3rd-and-goal play on which rookie quarterback EJ Manuel threw a fade well out of bounds from the 1-yard line.
The Bills started in opposing territory again on their next series, but gained just four net yards and punted the ball. That set the tone for the rest of the game, as the Bills’ next offensive possessions ended with nine punts and one interception.
Buffalo’s lone touchdown of the game may have made the final score more respectable, but it was otherwise meaningless. Manuel finally strung some pass completions together on Buffalo’s final offensive possession, but only because the Steelers resorted to playing conservative, prevent defense. The ultimate conclusion to the drive, which began with the Bills down 20 points, was a two-yard touchdown pass from Manuel to Chris Gragg, but with only three seconds remaining on the game clock.
The Bills’ utter offensive failure in this game cannot be pinpointed against one specific aspect of the unit, but it can be blamed on everyone who was a part of it.
Quite frankly, the Bills did nothing well on offense in this game. They couldn’t sustain drives by converting on crucial downs. They couldn’t make plays in scoring position. They couldn’t avoid costly mistakes.
Even when you include the plays the Bills made on their final garbage-time drive, their offensive team statistics remain horrible. They were successful on only three of 14 third-down conversion attempts, finished the day with only 16 first downs and had only 227 total yards of offense.
The Bills played their worst offensive game of the season in a game that was set up for a potential offensive turnaround. For the first time since early in the season, the Bills had Manuel, running back C.J. Spiller and wide receiver Stevie Johnson all healthy. Meanwhile, they were going up against a defense that, coming into the week, ranked 23rd in the NFL with 26 points allowed per game and 31st in the NFL with 131.3 rushing yards allowed per game.
That made Buffalo’s offensive inadequacy Sunday especially disheartening in comparison to its struggles in previous weeks.
Manuel certainly played like a rookie in his first game back after missing four weeks with a sprained LCL. He threw for just 155 yards on 39 passing attempts, and that’s only when you include the garbage-time touchdown drive. Before his final possession, Manuel completed just 11-of-25 passing attempts for 79 yards with no touchdowns and one interception.
Manuel’s accuracy was consistently off-target throughout the game. When he did throw deep, he was either way off the mark or throwing into coverage, while nearly all of his completions came on short, conservative throws. Mistakes are to be expected from a rookie quarterback given his inexperience, especially after missing four games due to injury, but this game was arguably Manuel’s worst yet of his NFL career.
After an incredibly disappointing eight-game stretch to start the season, Spiller finally got the ball rolling against the Kansas City Chiefs last week, making explosive plays on just 14 touches for a 155-yard game. On Sunday, however, Spiller was disappointing again. He never got free in space to make any big plays, and finished the day with just 34 yards on 11 touches.
Johnson has not had a great season either, and Sunday was another struggle for him. Although some of the 10 passes Johnson was targeted on were off the mark, he missed a number of catachable balls and finished the game with just three receptions for 48 yards before leaving in the fourth quarter with a groin injury. Johnson has been plagued by a host of injuries all season long.
While the Bills’ three main offensive players struggled, no one else stepped up. Running back Fred Jackson led the Bills with 62 yards from scrimmage on 15 touches, but he did not make many key runs for conversions in this game. He didn’t get much help from the offensive line in front of him either, as that unit failed to generate significant push throughout the game while it also allowed a good amount of pressure, including three sacks.
Two men who will take some heat for the Bills’ continued offensive woes are head coach Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. Deservedly so, in my opinion.
Hackett’s playcalling has been suspect all season, and it was as suspect as ever Sunday.
The Bills have run a conservative gameplan whenever Manuel has been under center for them this season, and it simply is not working. Hackett is restricting Manuel to mostly short passes, which do not only keep the offense from making big plays, but also leave Manuel inexperienced and therefore uncomfortable on plays where he does attempt to pass deep, such as when he was intercepted by Steelers safety Ryan Clark in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game.
Meanwhile, Hackett continues to fail to find creative ways to get the ball in Spiller’s hands. Instead of making every effort to give Spiller playmaking opportunities — something he pledged the Bills would do before the season — Spiller has been used sparingly and ineffectively. Instead of using Spiller as a receiver outside or setting up perimeter run blocking for him, the Bills have simply been sending Spiller up the middle on runs, forcing him to try to create his own plays going out to the sideline, which has been ineffective throughout the year.
The play calling has been most questionable in red-zone and other significant situations. For the second straight week, the Bills left points on the table at the 1-yard line, as attempting to Jackson up the middle has failed to work, and neither has resorting to putting the ball in a rookie quarterback’s hands to try to complete a pass from tight quarters to the end zone.
Possibly the most head-scratching decision-making of the day, however, was the call to punt the ball in opposing territory.
It was understandable when the Bills did so from the 40-yard line with a three-point lead in the first quarter. That conservative approach made little sense in the fourth quarter, however, when the Bills punted from the 36-yard line, down two touchdowns and having punted on their last seven possessions.
On a day where the Bills needed something, anything to spark their offense, they didn’t even take a chance when they had the ball close to field goal position (a 53-yard field goal would be in Dan Carpenter’s normal range, but the Bills decided otherwise given the heavy wind conditions in Pittsburgh on Sunday) and desperately needed points. While the Bills certainly have reason to trust their defense over their offense, it would have seemed Buffalo had nothing to lose in that situation, and should have taken a chance at making a key conversion that could spark their offense to a scoring drive.
Even in an ugly defeat, the Bills defense deserves a great deal of credit for their performance Sunday. In a game where they frequently had to take the field off short rest and were put into some very tough positions, they only allowed two touchdowns and 300 total yards, came up with four sacks and continued to fight for four quarters even though the offense did nothing to reward their efforts.
Perhaps most impressively, the Bills held the Steelers to field goals on each of their last two series, even though both of those Steelers drives began inside the Buffalo 13-yard line.
The offense, however, had a performance worthy of a lambasting. If the Bills even had a decent offense, their defensive prowess might be enough to propel Buffalo into the playoff race. Instead, the offense’s incompetence leaves Buffalo at 3-7 and far out of position to make a postseason run.
Although there are only six games left in the season and the playoffs are far out of sight, it is important for the Bills to get their offense progressing quickly if they are going to be a contending team in 2014.
This may be most important for Hackett, for whom the seat of employment should be getting hotter as Buffalo strings together uninspiring offensive performances with questionable play calling.
But it is also important for Manuel, a rookie quarterback who did not show the same confidence Sunday as he did early in the season. It is important for Spiller, who the Bills are still counting on to be one of the league’s most dynamic offensive playmakers. And it is important for young offensive weapons like Gragg and rookie wide receivers Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin, who the Bills drafted with the expectation that they could quickly become playmakers on an offense that still isn’t making big plays.
The Bills, who have not scored more than 24 points in a game this season and have dropped from 23 to 17 to 13 to 10 points in their last four games, will be looking to right the ship against the New York Jets (5-4) in Week 11 before going into their Week 12 bye.