The Game That… Wasn’t
How did the Bills lose this game? Who had the largest impact? Here are my thoughts.
We were all ready for a win, right? Didn’t we as fans all need a win in this spot for our belief in the team just as badly as the team did for their playoff hopes? Yes, we did, or at least I know I did. We knew we needed it to keep our fantastical dreams of playing in a wild card playoff game this season alive. The only thing standing in the way of continuing our collective whimsical hopes was the 2-6 Pittsburgh Steelers, and we were a better team, finally healthy, and ready for E.J. Manuel’s return. However, a little more than three hours after kickoff most of us were left wondering, “what team did I just watch play a game against the Steelers?”
Here are my thoughts on that question while attempting to remain as positive as possible.
The first quarter.
I’ll start at the beginning of this game because, well, this was the point in the game where the Bills played their best football.
Right away on the first drive, the Bills defensive line picked up where it left off in the Kansas City game, forcing pressure on their own, and pushing Pittsburgh’s linemen off of the ball. The Steelers, despite this pressure, were able to move the ball down the field, but Jairus Byrd put himself in excellent position to pick off an underthrown ball by Ben Roethlisberger. This was what the Bills had so far been missing from Byrd, a big play that took almost certain points off the board for the other team.
We all know how important it is to capitalize on these turnovers by scoring touchdowns, but the Bills, despite starting their drive at the Pittsburgh 29, were once again unable to punch the ball in from the 1 yard line on three tries. Although Marrone discussed working all week in practice in this area, it still is evidently a very big problem that needs to be addressed.
The Bills defense however seemed to be in the mood once again to bail out an offense that simply could not move the ball, holding Pittsburgh to only 3 points in the quarter on their four possessions. It was most certainly not a good start for the Bills offense (three 3 and outs), but the defense kept them in the game early, and it was much better than games past, where they seemed to need a half of football to truly get settled.
The running game.
The plan for victory for the Bills once again in this game, as against Kansas City, was a heavy dose of a healthy C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson against the 28th ranked run defense. The Bills just one week ago against the 8th ranked run defense totaled 241 yards on the ground, but this week they only racked up a paltry 95 yards on 22 carries (Spiller 8-23, Jackson 12-55).
Why were there so few carries for the Bills running backs and why could they not break through against the Steelers defense? Despite their injuries and age, the Steeler’s defense has done one thing very well over the years (Geno Smith the exception) and that is beat rookie quarterbacks. The Steelers stuffed the box early and often, offering very little in the way of running lanes, thereby forcing EJ Manuel to beat them.
Knowing that Manuel would most likely be rusty after missing the last four games, the Steelers felt that they would be able to get away with this defensive scheme; and they were correct. The fact that Buffalo was unable to convert on many makeable third downs to extend drives also severely limited opportunities for the run game to establish itself. This aspect of the game however is where I, and perhaps many, would like to see Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett make an adjustment in their play calling/game plan. There was not one drive in which the Bills ran the ball on three consecutive plays, despite Jackson’s 4.9 yards per carry average and Spiller’s 2.9 average.
I would not pretend to be able to call plays in the NFL, but if one formula failed consistently throughout the game, why not try another approach?
Poor play in this game by EJ Manuel was something that was certainly not out of the question after missing four weeks with his knee injury. Although his knee appeared to be alright on his two carries, his timing and decision making was most certainly not where it was before he was knocked out in the Cleveland game. Perhaps in an effort to salvage the season the coaching staff rushed Manuel back a bit too early, but who wouldn’t rather have Manuel to lead the team over Jeff Tuel and Thad Lewis? In hindsight perhaps it was too soon, but the Bills need to see him play games, and he hopefully still offers them the best chance for victory.
Stephon Gilmore was also victimized often Sunday by Antonio Brown throughout the game. Although he seemingly has the talent to cover the league’s top receivers one-on-one (as evident by last year) perhaps he is not quite ready after his injury to take on that responsibility. On the bright side, the d-line once again played very well, despite Mario Williams not recording a sack, the line still ended up with all four of the Bills QB takedowns.
This was most certainly a discouraging game for fans of this team. It appeared to be one of those listless monotonous games that we have all been subjected to far too often. A grand total of one Bills drive in this game totaled over 35 yards, and it was the last drive in garbage time with Pittsburgh’s defense playing well off the line. It’s still too early to lose hope in Hackett’s offense, but next week against a team they have already played, we should expect a much better performance. Let’s hope EJ’s game today really was a result of being rusty, and that he finds a nice can of WD-40.
Oh, and yes, Kiko Alonso had 10 tackles and is second in the league in total tackles.