Where offensive progress is still needed
When Buffalo cornerback Stephon Gilmore intercepted a pass in the end zone with just 3:15 remaining on the clock and the Jaguars only have one timeout left, the Bills only needed one first down to all but put the game away. Instead, they went 3-and-out, forcing their defense to step up and come up with another stop to secure victory.
This has been a problem for Buffalo all season. Only one of Buffalo’s five wins has come with a lead of more than one score, and in nine fourth-quarter drives with a lead of seven points or less (excluding drives that started with kneel-downs) across four games this season, the Bills have only picked up four first downs and no points. The Bills only won two of those games, one of which came Sunday.
A primary reason for that problem has been overly conservative playcalling by Bills offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. Of all games, Sunday should have been a day where the Bills trusted Manuel to coordinate a first down or two and finish the game in Buffalo’s favor, but instead, Hackett predictably called three consecutive runs up the middle for running back Fred Jackson. The result, also predictable, was a net gain of four yards.
As the Bills look to continue making progress and correcting mistakes in their final two games of the season, fourth-quarter playcalling should be near the top of their list of things to work on, though they may be hard-pressed to get a lead against either the Miami Dolphins or New England Patriots, two teams currently in playoff position, in their final two games of the season.
Another issue that the Bills offense should be working on is avoiding sacks. This continued to be a problem for Buffalo, allowing five to the Jacksonville defense Sunday. A big part of this problem has been the offensive line, where the Bills should be looking for new starters at left guard and right tackle for 2014, positions where Doug Legursky and Erik Pears respectively continued to struggle Sunday.
Part of this problem, however, has been Manuel, who is still struggling to recognize rushes coming toward him and knowing when to throw the football away. The latter was at least partially responsible for the third-quarter strip sack that played a big part in setting up Jacksonville’s game-tying score early in the fourth quarter.
While many individuals had promising performances Sunday, Legursky and especially Pears struggled against a pass-rush that came in dead last in the NFL with just 23 sacks in its first 13 games. Another individual who had another disappointing performance was wide receiver Stevie Johnson, who dropped one pass off his body and had another go off his arm but caught only one ball for a four-yard gain.
Defense disappointing but still clutch
On the other side of the ball, the Bills continued its run of disappointing performances, allowing 354 yards to an offense that came into the game ranked last in the NFL with only 285.2 yards per game.
Specifically, Buffalo’s rushing defense continued to struggle. Jaguars running back Jordan Todman, who came into the game with just 201 yards from scrimmage for his career and having never rushed for more than 31 yards in a game, set career-highs against the Bills with 109 rushing yards on 25 attempts and adding 44 receiving yards on four receptions out of the backfield.
That said, Buffalo’s defense is worthy of credit for coming up clutch when its backs were against the wall.
With less than five minutes remaining in regulation, the Jaguars appeared destined to tie the game at 27 when the Bills came up with a crucial goal-to-go stand. Safety Jim Leonhard read a run play right on 1st-and-goal and attacked it full-speed to down Todman for a four-yard loss. On 2nd-and-goal from the 5-yard line, cornerback Leodis McKelvin had perfect coverage against wide receiver Mike Brown in the end zone, locking him up and turning his head around to knock down a pass intended for Brown.
Then, on 3rd-and-goal, a pass overthrown but not thrown far enough by Jaguars quarterback Chad Henne was intercepted by cornerback Stephon Gilmore in the end zone, who played the ball well and got his feet down in bounds for a takeaway that left a promising Jacksonville drive without any points.
After the Bills had their typical struggle to a 3-and-out on their subsequent offensive possession, the defense stepped up again. Leonhard made a leaping pass breakup on a deep ball intended for tight end Marcedes Lewis over the middle. On third down, the Jaguars failed to block cornerback Nickell Robey, who laid out Henne for an 8-yard sack. A 4th-and-18 pass fell incomplete, and Buffalo could finally kneel its way to its fifth win of the year.
A somewhat insignificant but still confidence-boosting win
Buffalo Bills players, coaches and their fans are not going to look back on the 2013 season with glorious memories of clawing out a victory against the Jaguars, a team Buffalo was expected to beat.
The win does, however, reverse a trend that had the Bills in danger of losing its way out with two games coming up against the AFC East’s two best teams. And although the Jaguars may be at or near the bottom of most team statistical categories, they were a team on the rise having won four of their last five, and the Bills were able to bounce back from some tough defeats to beat a team on a winning streak.
In their last two weeks of the season, winning might not carry much significance. The Bills will not be projected to win either game, and with the playoffs officially out of reach, it might not make much of a difference going into next year.
Still, the Bills should continue playing to win after building some momentum Sunday. Win or lose, it is important for Buffalo to continue making progress in the areas that have been problematic all season, including offensive consistency, stopping the run and avoiding penalties and turnovers.