BBD Editor: Dan Hope
For the most part, everything seemed to be in the Miami Dolphins’ favor going into their Week 16 game Sunday against the Buffalo Bills. Coming off a Week 15 victory against the New England Patriots, the Dolphins were 8-6 and in serious contention for an AFC playoff spot. The Bills, meanwhile, were 5-9, had been eliminated from AFC playoff contention in Week 15 and game into the game without three key injured starters, including starting quarterback EJ Manuel.
The Bills and backup quarterback Thad Lewis, however, had the Dolphins’ number this season. In Week 7, while Manuel was sidelined with an LCL sprain in his right knee, Lewis got his first career win as an NFL starting quarterback when Buffalo clawed out a 23-21 victory over the Dolphins in Miami. On Sunday, with Lewis back in the lineup again and Manuel sidelined with a left knee sprain, the Bills had an absolutely dominant effort, a 19-0 shutout in their final home game of the season.
For the first time all season, Buffalo has won back-to-back games.
Lewis deserves credit for his play under center in two wins against Miami this season (his only wins in four starts), but it was not as if him playing over Manuel was the difference in winning this game. Lewis completed 15 of 25 passing attempts for 193 yards, but had accuracy issues throughout the game and had no passing touchdowns but threw one interceptions.
To find the primary difference in this game that favored the Bills, you don’t need to look any further than the zero on the scoreboard. The Buffalo defense was absolutely dominant Sunday, holding the Dolphins to just 102 yards on 53 plays.
The Miami offense only made it into Buffalo territory three times Sunday, and one of those drives started inside Buffalo territory after a 13-yard shank by Bills punter Brian Moorman.
The Bills pass-rush, which already led the league with 49 sacks coming into Sunday’s game, came in with a clear advantage over the Dolphins offensive line, which came into Week 16 having already allowed a league-high 51 sacks this season.
Thanks to an overall defensive effort that consistently forced Miami into third-down passing situations, Buffalo was able to exploit that advantage all game. The Bills consistently brought additional pass-rushers for heavy pressure in obvious passing situations, and finished the game with seven sacks, five of which came on third downs.
Buffalo has been able to hang its defensive hat on its ability to produce pressure all season, and Sunday proved it should continue to do so heading into 2014. That pass-rush effort all starts with a star-studded defensive line, led by three players—defensive end Mario Williams and defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus—who should all be part of Buffalo’s long-term plans.
Kyle Williams had two sacks Sunday and Mario Williams had one, but the pass-rush effort isn’t all about them, and Sunday proved that as well. Jerry Hughes added one of Buffalo’s seven sacks Sunday, and his future in Buffalo looks promising as he has had a career year as a pass-rusher. But the real key to Buffalo’s pass-rush dominance Sunday was how it allowed blitzers from the second level of the defense to take advantage of the defensive line’s play up front and get to the quarterback.
Rookie cornerback Nickell Robey has been fantastic all season as a cornerback blitzer and he was at his best Sunday, coming up with two of Buffalo’s key sacks. Da’Norris Searcy, another frequent blitzer this year, had Buffalo’s first sack of the day.
Pettine’s pressure-heavy scheme was won over fans in Buffalo, and after Sunday’s dominant performance, there is little doubt that it is there to stay. Pettine could be a dark-horse head coaching candidate, as he is included in the list of candidates assembled by the NFL’s new Career Development Advisory Panel according to a report by Peter King of The Monday Morning Quarterback, but even in that unlikely event, the Bills would have no reason to change their defensive philosophy.
With the core players of a dominant rush defense already in place, the Bills can go into 2014 continuing to look for supplementary talent who can improve the defense at the linebacker and secondary levels.
Of course, where Buffalo should really be focusing its talent effort this offseason is on its offense, which has not progressed as successfully as the defense this year. But while the score indicates the defense won Buffalo this game, the offense also deserves credit for what was circumstantially one of its best performances of the year.
Scoring 19 points might not usually be worth getting excited about, but the Bills offense did something it has struggled to do all year: putting together sustained drives with a second-half lead.
One could harp upon the point that the Bills only scored one touchdown in this game even though they took four drives into the red zone. But the Buffalo fans who booed as the Bills settled for three second-half field goals might have missed the point.
In a season where Buffalo’s offense has needed the defense to bail it out time and time again, Sunday was different.
The Bills were successful in running to control the clock, keeping its defense rested and mostly off the field by possessing the ball for more than 22 of the second half’s 30 minutes. They did so despite a decimated offensive lineup that forced the Bills into conservative play calling and a run-heavy offense.
The Bills came into the game without their best passer in Manuel and their best wide receiver in Stevie Johnson. A knee injury to wide receiver Marquise Goodwin took him out of the game in the first quarter, while fellow rookie wideout Robert Woods was ejected from the game in the third quarter for throwing a punch. With a lineup that consisted of Lewis under center and T.J. Graham and Chris Hogan as the top two wide receivers, Buffalo wasn’t going to fool anyone into thinking it would continue passing the ball downfield in the second half.
That didn’t stop the Bills from putting together three second-half field goal drives — two of those came off of interceptions by the defense, but the first was a masterfully-executed, 19-play, 92-yard drive that spanned more than nine minutes.
Buffalo will want to go back to the drawing board to work on its red-zone offense, but it’s tough to score in the red zone when a defense can stack the box knowing how limited its opponent’s passing options are. In this game, its need to settle for field goals proved to be inconsequential, in large part because the offense was able to take more than 15 minutes off the clock between their three field goal drives alone.
The Bills haven’t had a lot to be proud of this season, but this is a win they deserve to celebrate. Against a division rival, a team who had more to play for with a playoff berth on the line, the Bills exerted their will on both sides of the ball.
The offense’s 390 total yards was its fourth-highest total of the season, while it finished the game with 36 total minutes of possession. The defense was dominant. Additionally, the Bills had far fewer mistakes Sunday than they have had in most of their games this season: Buffalo won the turnover battle two to one, while it committed just four penalties for 31 yards.
Once the postseason fell out of reach for Buffalo, there had been a lot of talk from Bills supporters about building momentum for the 2014 season. Realistically, that might just be an optimistic point of view for a team with little tangible left to play for. But the Bills made that talk a reality Sunday with a game that showed real progress, and one that Bills coach Doug Marrone said builds confidence for a team looking to finally become contenders next year.
Doug Marrone: "We're going to build on this and get after it next year"
— Buffalo Bills (@buffalobills) December 22, 2013