BBD Editor: Dan Hope
The Buffalo Bills’ 2013 season came to an unceremonious end Sunday as they lost, 34-20, to the New England Patriots. Following a 6-10 season, the Bills and head coach Doug Marrone plan to immediately set their sights on improving for next year.
Marrone: "As soon as Tuesday starts, we're working on 2014."
— Buffalo Bills (@buffalobills) December 30, 2013
The outcome of Sunday’s game was as ugly for the Bills as the rain-soaked conditions it was played in. Though the Bills were only down seven with less than three minutes to play, their demise in this game ultimately came with the play of Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount, who ran for 189 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries while he also started scoring drives with 83- and 62-yard kickoff returns. The Bills matched the Patriots with 68 total plays for each team and their offense actually outgained the Patriots by 11 yards (393 to 382), but the 267 rushing yards allowed by their defense proved too much to overcome.
The Bills might not, or at least they probably should not, spend as much time focusing on the factors that led to this loss as they did in their first nine defeats. There was little more than a shot at redemption against the Patriots on the line in Sunday’s game, and their offseason is not going to hinge on a road loss to a team against who they were overmatched to begin with.
Still, Sunday’s loss gave a glimpse of where the Bills are at going into the offseason, and of some of the issues that the team needs to clear up, though the focus now turns to how the team can play better in eight months’ time rather than in one week.
Fixing run defense remains a priority
Though the Bills have one of the NFL’s best defensive lines and one of the league’s most promising young linebackers in Kiko Alonso, stopping the run continued to be problematic for Buffalo all season. While New England’s rushing total Sunday was a season-high against the Buffalo defense by 85 yards, the Bills already came into the game ranked 23rd in the NFL with 119.7 rushing yards allowed per game.
There were a number of factors in this game that didn’t do the Bills run defense any favors, including Marcell Dareus’ first-half suspension (more to come) and the slippery field.
For the season as a whole, the rushing yards allowed are in part the result of a trade-off of the pressure-heavy scheme installed by Buffalo defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. The Bills made many plays in the backfield this season as a result of consistently bringing heavy pressure on blitzes, including a franchise record 57 sacks, but doing so comes with the risk of often leaving open running lanes. If the Bills are going to continue to emphasize getting to the quarterback as much as possible, it could come at the continued expense of allowing big plays on the ground.
That said, the Bills have to continue to make adjustments in an effort to improve, whether that be by adjusting the scheme and/or making personnel changes.
Part of that effort should come in continuing to upgrade the linebacker corps. While Alonso has shown a great deal of promise as a rookie, the Bills should be in the market for another run-stopping inside/outside linebacker who can be a thumper alongside of him, especially considering the number of 3-4 looks Buffalo uses.
Neither of the two players who primarily played in that role for the Bills this season, Arthur Moats and Nigel Bradham, is the answer Buffalo needs to stop the run from the linebacker level. Moats is an unrestricted free agent, while Bradham has not blossomed to expectations in his sophomore season.
Though Alonso has thrived as the play-caller in the middle of Buffalo’s defense, he is best suited for a role in which he can roam the field and take advantage of his speed then as a linebacker who offenses are running straight at.
If the Bills can add another physical run-stopper who can play around the line of scrimmage, it can allow Alonso to play to his strengths, while also allowing the Bills to be more effective in full defensive front sevens. Buffalo used primarily nickel and dime defensive packages this season, which often leaves defensive backs responsible for making plays against the run at the second level where a linebacker might be able to do a more effective job closer to the line of scrimmage.
Special teams coverage woes
There might not be any kickoff returner in the NFL who fits the traditional mold of that position less than LeGarrette Blount, which makes the Bills allowing him to return two kickoffs at least 62 yards all the more concerning. Against a more traditional kickoff returner with better acceleration and long speed than Blount, the missed tackles and bad angles taken by Buffalo’s kickoff coverage unit might have allowed touchdowns.
Many, including BBD’s own Ryan Talbot, believe that the scapegoat of Buffalo’s problems in coverage should be special teams coordinator Danny Crossman, whose job might not be safe after one season in that role. This game wasn’t the first in which return coverage issues proved costly to the Bills — most notably, 179 punt return yards including a 79-yard punt return by Travis Benjamin proved costly in a Week 5 loss to the Cleveland Browns.
The struggles in those two games, however, exaggerate what might not actually be a major problem, as steady kickoff coverage is rarely recognized but lapses are frequently remembered. The Bills came into Sunday’s game ranking 25th in the NFL with just 21.2 yards per kickoff return allowed and a long kickoff return allowed of 50 yards.
Crossman deserves another year for a chance to fix the problems with his coverage units, especially since personnel could go a long way in that process. Though Dan Carpenter has been a good field goal kicker for Buffalo this year, the Bills should have stronger kickoffs next season when Dustin Hopkins returns from injury. The Bills should be in the market for a new punter after Shawn Powell and Brian Moorman both struggled this season, while they should also look to find some new blood for special teams units largely devoid of playmakers.
The offense might have actually been Buffalo’s strongest unit Sunday, as it put up the aforementioned 393 total yards while putting together two touchdown drives, four total scoring drives, 19 first downs and no turnovers. Over the course of the season, however, the offense’s inability to sustain drives and consistently finish drives with touchdowns was possibly the greatest cause of the team’s struggles.
The biggest reason for that might have been the team’s quarterback play, to which the end of the season only created more uncertainty. If the Bills are going to become serious contenders in 2014, they are going to need significant development from EJ Manuel in his second NFL season. Manuel missed the opportunity for significant repetitions in Buffalo’s final two games, however, due to a third sidelining knee injury of the season.
Thad Lewis had a decent performance Sunday against the Patriots, completing 16 of 29 passing attempts for 247 yards and one touchdown including some very nice deep balls, but he is not the quarterback of the future in Buffalo. That is what the Bills drafted Manuel to be, and his progression will be key to the 2014 season.
One bright spot of Sunday’s game was the Buffalo rushing offense, which totaled 169 yards led by C.J. Spiller (105 rushing yards) and Fred Jackson (60 rushing yards). Including their receiving totals on the day, Spiller and Jackson totaled 246 yards, and have the skills to be one of the league’s top running back duos if Spiller can stay healthy, something he struggled to do this season, in 2014.
The team’s success on the ground was also a sign of continued progress for the Buffalo offensive line, which has performed better down the stretch than it had earlier in the season. Left guard Doug Legursky had one of his best games of the season Sunday, though it would still come as a surprise if the Bills do not look for an upgrade at that position. Right tackle is another position where Buffalo should be in the market.
The Bills’ leading receivers on the day were wide receiver T.J. Graham, who had three receptions for 62 yards including a 41-yard deep ball catch-and-run from Lewis and a 12-yard touchdown, and tight end Scott Chandler, whose three-catch, 55-yard day included an impressive 19-yard sideline grab. Still, their days may be as much remembered for their mistakes: a pass off Chandler’s hands was nearly intercepted by Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan and led to a punt, while a 4th-and-2 drop late in the game by Graham (on a pass that was, to be fair, poorly thrown behind a wide-open Graham) proved very costly.
While Graham showed some promise Sunday, his overall disappointing second season should have him fighting for a roster spot in next year’s preseason. Chandler, on the other hand, could be on his way out in favor of an upgrade as an unrestricted free agent.
A need for more discipline
The Buffalo Bills have had an issue with on-field discipline all year in terms of penalties, though aside from a sequence of back-to-back unsportsmanlike conduct penalties by Alan Branch and Jerry Hughes in the third quarter, the Bills actually had one of their cleaner games of the season in terms of penalties, with only six penalties for 54 total yards. That said, avoiding costly, unnecessary penalties like those by Branch and Hughes on Sunday are important for Buffalo’s continued aspirations for success in 2014.
One player who specifically ended his season on the wrong foot, however, was defensive tackle Marcell Dareus. For the second consecutive week, Dareus was suspended for the start of the game, this time for an entire half, for a team rules violation. Dareus told ESPN’s Mike Rodak that his benchings were a result of being late for team meetings.
Marrone on Marcell Dareus: "He made a mistake. There are consequences. And we will move on from it."
— Buffalo Bills (@buffalobills) December 30, 2013
Dareus’ lack of punctuality might not be a reason for the Bills to make a change, but it might decrease the likelihood that Buffalo would sign Dareus to a contract extension prior to the 2014 season, after which he is set to become an unrestricted free agent. He didn’t help his cause by making one of the game’s biggest on-field mistakes. After the Bills came up with a red-zone defensive stop to hold the Patriots to a field goal attempt, he was flagged for encroachment which gave New England a set of downs on which they scored a touchdown on the subsequent play.
Dareus is likely going to have to prove his worth in 2014 to earn a lucrative long-term contract from the Bills or any NFL team, but possibly more significantly, Marrone’s decision to bench Dareus in two straight games sets an example that a lack of discipline, especially off the field, is not going to be tolerated going forward.