A welcome sweep of the Miami Dolphins has moved the Buffalo Bills to 4-4. A loss may not have ended their hopes for the season but it would have dropped them behind the pack chasing a wild card berth. Last year the Bills’ poor record in the AFC dropped them well behind in the playoff race and despite a decent final stretch they never recovered. Given the optimism in Buffalo at the start of the season the team are well behind their own raised expectations but the crushing win is a much needed confidence boost.
Predictions before the season set up a number of benchmarks the Bills needed to hit if they were to break their playoff drought. Below is my assessment of these crucial targets.
Ground and Pound (Top 5 rushing attack): The target here was to control the clock and sustain drives with the running game to achieve two aims. Firstly to take the pressure off flaky quarterback play and also to keep the defence fresh. Statistically this is a tick, sitting second with 141.6 yards per game on the ground, but this stat has not supported sustained drives. Buffalo rank 30th in the percentage of 3 and out drives at 27%. By contrast Tampa Bay and New England are leading with below 12%. The inconsistent production of the ground game is not at a level that truly sets the team as a top 5 rushing attack and the statistics are inflated by being able to gash a poor Miami run defence twice in the first half of the season. The run blocking is a significant improvement on last year with Incognito a huge contributor. Getting McCoy and Williams back to full health gives the Bills a platform to drastically improve their productivity and consistency. C+
League Average QB play (avoid turnovers): This is an area of suprising success. Tyrod Taylor has exceeded expectations throwing 10 TD’s to 4 INT’s in his six games. His ability to find open receivers on intermediate routes needs to improve but he throws a lovely deep ball. Now that Sammy Watkins is nearing full health teams will have to pick their poison, either load the box and leave your outside cornerback’s exposed. The drop in quality if Taylor is again injured is a big one and would probably doom their season’s fortunes. B
Dominant Defence (Top 5 defence): This has been the major disappointment of the Bills’ season. The individual units have not shown a clear weakness but the sum of the parts is less than the whole. The secondary led by Gilmore and Darby has been as good as any in the league. Dareus and Kyle Williams have performed well in the centre of the line. Inconistency, confusion and ill discipline have reigned at defensive end, linebacker and safety. Statistically they are at best a top 8-15 defence. Spasmodic defence does not equal dominance. They have allowed too many long drives and consistently struggle to contain screens and other passes behind the line of scrimmage. This is the area requiring the greatest improvement. C
Play all three phases: Special Teams was a point of strength last year and had to remain so for the Bills to make progress. Colton Schmidt is shaping up as a Pro-Bowl caliber punter and the coverage unit has rarely allowed decent returns. Kickoff specialist Jordan Gay was briefly dropped from the roster but this was due to the glut of injuries rather than his own performance and was a case of absence making the heart grow fonder. Carpenter has been passable but it would be nice for him to return to the form of last year. The main problem has been a very poor return game and penalties consistently handing opposition teams better field position than they deserve. C
The Bills make the playoffs if they can improve the three deficient areas to a solid B.