The Buffalo Bills traveled to Foxborough to take on the New England Patriots in the first duel between rookie QB Josh Allen and veteran legend Tom Brady. The Patriots were able to secure the win and keep their perfect home record in 2018, but the game was closer than the scoreboard suggested. Here are my four takeaways from yesterday’s matchup:
Special teams needs to be fixed ASAP
A lot of people underestimate the importance of special teams play but, in fact, when they’re not doing their job, you quickly remember how important they are. In the Bills’ case, their special teams unit has been directly responsible for their last three losses, against the Dolphins, the Jets, and yesterday versus the Patriots.
The always-reliable Stephen Hauschka, who used to be automatic for the Bills since joining the team, hasn’t been the same the last four weeks. The big hit he took versus the Dolphins and the new holder since that game (punter Matt Darr) could be reasons for his decline in production. Anyway, Hauschka was major part of the Bills’ playoff campaign last year, but now his struggles are holding the team back. Yesterday, he missed a 43-yard attempt when the game still was just 7-0 New England. Late in the second quarter, with the Patriots holding a 14-0 lead, Bills HC Sean McDermott selected to go for a 4th-and-3 from New England’s 25 instead of securing the three points. Hauschka’s poor moment certainly played a role in the decision. Buffalo couldn’t get the first down and finished the half scoreless.
Another guy who’s struggling badly but doesn’t have anywhere near the scrutiny Hauschka has is punter Matt Darr. Since being signed to replace the unspectacular but reliable Colton Schmidt, the former Dolphin hasn’t performed well and yesterday had some of the worst punts I can remember. He had one blocked and averaged just 38.3 yards on his six attempts, despite taking advantage of some lucky bounces on awful kicks.
Overall, the special teams hasn’t been doing well in Danny Crossman’s tenure as the ST coach. Replacing him should be one of the very first moves of the offseason.
Missed opportunities killed the Bills’ chances
Despite New England holding a comfortable lead all day long, Buffalo had a lot of opportunities to make the game more competitive and even threaten the opposition at their home field.
Checks to the deep shot and Foster loses it in the sun. pic.twitter.com/bK2Sqgmm6q— Cover 1 (@Cover1) December 23, 2018
We already talked about special teams failing to do their jobs and making the game harder, but on offense the Bills had plenty of opportunities and couldn’t capitalize. Josh Allen didn’t have one of his strongest performances of the year, but despite surely wanting some of those plays back, most of the time it was his weapons failing to make plays for him and not the other way around. Robert Foster could have had a long TD grab if not for a drop caused by the sun, and TE Logan Thomas dropped another TD on a perfect back-shoulder throw by the rookie signal caller.
Missed opportunities pic.twitter.com/duoEqjZ4KS— Cover 1 (@Cover1) December 23, 2018
Other drops, lack of physicality to win in contested catch situations, and a Jason Croom fumble inside the red zone kept Buffalo out of striking distance on a day were the defense limited Brady to 13 completions for 126 yards and just one score, with two INTs. This was a huge missed opportunity by the young Bills offense.
Run defense has improved from 2017 but still not where it needs to be
The Bills entered the week 16 with the 10th-ranked run defense in the league, but it wasn’t enough to slow down the Patriots’ ground game. On a day where the passing defense made Brady look miserable, the struggles to stop Sony Michel and company were too much for the team to overcome.
Three straight runs for 43 yards for #Patriots on 1st TD drive:— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) December 24, 2018
- Jet sweep w/CP. Strength to run through tackle and vision to cut back to the inside.
- Power play w/3 in the backfield. Double-team, big block by LG Thuney/Allen, Michel in open field.
- Wham scheme w/Develin. pic.twitter.com/xtcj0J2XhM
New England consistently lined up in 22 personnel, with two backs, two TEs, and just one WR, and imposed their will. They finished the day with 273 yards and two TDs on the ground on 47 attempts, with an average of 5.8 yards per carry. Buffalo’s passing defense is finally able to put Tom Brady in trouble; the next step is becoming more disciplined in gap integrity and more physical at the point of attack. If able to make this adjustment without sacrificing the ability to stop the pass, we could be talking about the best defense in football in 2019.
Veterans’ destinies becoming clearer as the season’s finale approaches
We already talked about it last week, but yesterday’s game gave another glimpse of what could be on the horizon for some Bills veterans. If Lorenzo Alexander and Kyle Williams continue to show why it would be awesome to have them back for another year in 2019, other veteran pieces are looking very replaceable going forward.
Bills’ defense doing everything they can to keep their team in the game. Lorenzo Alexander comes up with a huge interception. Brady looks terrible thus far #gobills #nfl #bufvsne pic.twitter.com/iLAJJjSo4N— alex brasky (@alexbrasky) December 23, 2018
TE Charles Clay was a healthy scratch on the day, signaling his career as a Bill is close to an end. What I didn’t expect to write, at this point, is how cutting LeSean McCoy is becoming an increasingly good option at the end of the season.
Shady was benched by McDermott for an undisclosed incident and simply didn’t look like himself on the few touches he had. He has been the least productive running back on the roster the last few weeks. The fact that journeymen like Chris Ivory and Marcus Murphy and undrafted rookie free agent Keith Ford can come in and be more productive than him speaks volumes about McCoy’s best days being behind him. I still think he can be effective with a good offensive line, but with his high salary for 2019, I think it’s difficult to justify keeping him around.
"At the end of the day I can't worry about that. Only thing I can worry about is who I am. I'm a good player and I love it here."— Jon Scott (@JonScottTV) December 24, 2018
LeSean McCoy's response when asked after Pats game about his future w/ #Bills. McCoy saw undrafted rookie Keith Ford get 1 more carry than him Sunday pic.twitter.com/5Kf7gNANVl
The Bills can save $6.425M cutting the veteran RB. Add this to Clay’s $4.5M in savings, and Brandon Beane can have an extra $11M to work with during free agency. It’s becoming a big possibility, and one I wasn’t expecting even a few weeks ago.