The Bills put away the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, 37-20, sweeping the season series and taking another step toward the playoffs. Several big steps remain ahead of them.
Wins over the 2019 Dolphins, of course, are not the measure of a playoff caliber team. The Dolphins don’t score many points and they give up a lot (second last in the league in both categories). In fact, most of the games the Bills have played this season have been against teams in the bottom half of the league in both points scored and points allowed, and that’s one reason why the Bills have for weeks been number 3 in the league in both categories. But as many people keep saying, all you can do is play the games on your schedule. It’s a one-game-at-a-time league: prepare for this week’s opponent, win, and move on.
The game wasn’t as close as the first go-round with the Dolphins in Buffalo. The Bills took the lead early and never gave it up, scoring in every quarter. It was one of the most consistently effective offensive performances of the season for the Bills. Particularly satisfying was that the Bills shook off their usual third-quarter stumbling.
The Dolphins opened the quarter with the ball, trailing by 9. The Bills stopped them on six plays, and then the Bills went on their own nine-play TD drive to widen the lead. The Bills coasted to the victory from there. The TV announcers made a big deal out of the fact that the defensive stop was aided by a questionable holding call against the Dolphins, but they ignored the fact that the Bills actually had just forced a three-and-out but for an even more questionable spot on third down.
The game is best seen as another step in a process, a multi-year process to build a consistent winner. There was plenty of room for improvement. The Bills’ first two offensive drives, and three of their first four, stalled. The Bills settled for field goals, leaving the score much closer early in the game than it should have been.
When the Dolphins scored to make it 16-7, the Bills compounded their early inability to find the end zone by being totally surprised by the Dolphins’ onside kick. The Bills were saved from that gaffe when the Dolphins turned the ball over on an unforced fumble, and the Bills took control again with another touchdown to go up 23-7. That comfortable lead was short-lived, as the Bills immediately coughed up a 101-yard kickoff return.
The first-half problems on special teams demonstrated, again, that the Bills are not fundamentally sound in all aspects of the game. A fundamentally sound team is prepared for everything, and the Bills were unprepared for both the onside kick and the kickoff return.
Every week the Bills make some big mistakes, and every week Sean McDermott says they have some mistakes to clean up. The process is supposed to correct the problems and assure that the mistakes don’t recur.
All teams, including fundamentally sound teams, get beat on one play or another occasionally, but it doesn’t happen week after week to the best teams. It seems to happen week after week to McDermott’s Bills, and that is one of his on-going coaching challenges.
There were other issues with the Bills on Sunday, but there were a lot more positives than negatives.
1. Josh Allen once again showed the kind of quarterback he can be, even if he isn’t yet that quarterback as consistently as he needs to be. Sunday he took another step in the process.
He threw the ball effectively, including no really bad decisions, and he stung the Dolphins with a 36-yard option run. Most impressive, perhaps, was his control of the team on the field. Allen was in charge throughout, running the huddle efficiently, directing and redirecting teammates to the proper position in the formations.
Allen understood what he was looking at and he executed against it. His command on the field was noticeably different from a week ago in Cleveland. Does it mean he’s now a master field general? No. Miami’s defense isn’t Cleveland’s, let alone New England’s. But it means he’s learning and he has the ability to do what the job demands. It was an excellent outing for him.
The best quick measure of how a quarterback is doing is the passer rating; the best quarterbacks usually have the best passer ratings. Last season, Allen’s passer rating was below EJ Manuel’s rookie year. I said coming into this season (as I said about Manuel as he entered his second season) that Allen needs to make a comfortable improvement in his passer rating, to get someplace around 15th to 20th in the league, and then he needs to improve beyond that.
Manuel improved, but not enough. Ten games into the season, Allen’s almost doing it. His rating is 85.4, ten points higher than last season and 23rd in the league. 85 used to get QBs into the top 20, but as the passing game around the NFL continues to improve, 90 seems to be the new 85, so Allen still has a way to go.
Allen had only two games over 100 in his rookie season; he’s already had four this season, once again demonstrating that he can be the effective QB the Bills have been looking for. Whether he can stay at, let alone improve on, 85 is an open question, as he faces winter weather and some tough opponents in the coming weeks.
2. John Brown isn’t the best receiver in the league, but his game is sweet to watch. He runs so effortlessly, with speed and quickness. He’s sure handed. He fights for the ball and to break up potential interceptions. It was nice to see him have the kind of day he had against the Dolphins.
3. It was nice, too, to see the Bills return to attacking over the middle in the passing game. Allen throws those short and intermediate balls over the middle really well, and Brown, Beasley and Knox all are good at the crossing patterns attacking that space.
4. Edmunds seems to be becoming the special play maker that made him a first-round pick. Edmunds and Milano together are becoming a formidable tandem. Edmunds reads and attacks, especially in the passing game. His break up of the pass to Gesicki on 4th and 16 was spectacular, running with the tight end down field and then finding and making a play on the ball. He’s a serious problem for quarterbacks in the middle of the defense.
5. Singletary. Nothing much to say, except nice job, don’t fumble.
6. Ryan Fitzpatrick had another solid outing, but the Bills wouldn’t let him find the end zone. Talk about in control on the field; Fitzpatrick lets nothing bother him. He seems to understand everything that’s going on out there. Fitz’s body just can’t quite deliver what his brain can see. He must look at Allen’s arm and running ability and just wonder what he could have accomplished with that kind of physical talent.
7. My wife insists that watching games at the Harp in Boston is better than watching live at New Era Field. I won’t go that far, but the Bills Backers in Boston throw a great party at the Harp. The place was packed and raucous, as it almost always is. The beer was flowing, the food was good, and we all had a good time singing the shout song, over and over. Great afternoon.
8. The Bills defense is good, but all you needed to see to understand how much room they have to improve was to watch the Patriots throttle the Eagles, the same team that ran the Bills out of the stadium a few weeks ago.
The Pats pass defense looks like they have 14 guys playing back there. Receivers rarely seem to get open, and when they do, they are tackled immediately. The Pats defense is unspectacular, in the sense that they don’t have a Watt or a Mack or a Clowney, but it is so fundamentally sound, so full of guys who just execute, that it is stifling That’s McDermott’s goal, but the Bills aren’t there yet.
9. One thing the Patriots do, and it’s something we saw more of from the Bills against the Dolphins, is blitz. The Patriots don’t get great pressure from their front four, and the Bills don’t either.
The Patriots aren’t afraid to send an extra rusher, and they benefit a lot from doing that. They benefit in two ways: (1) they get better pressure and (2) they create a lot of uncertainty for the QB and the O line, because they know the Pats may very well send an extra rusher or two, but they don’t know who’s coming.
We saw the effectiveness of that approach by the Bills yesterday. The Bills kept Fitzpatrick off balance with an array of blitzes, coming at different times from different rushers. They didn’t always get home, but they created enough uncertainty and enough pressure to force the ball out quickly.
I expect the Bills will stick with this approach, especially because Milano and Edmunds have the talent to cover a lot of ground in the defensive backfield when the Bills send an extra rusher.
There are some tough games down the road, but it’s one game at a time. The Broncos will be a test, even though they are another team in the bottom half of the league in scoring. Their defense is stingy, and to win the Bills will need a quality performance from Allen. He’s still young and has a lot to learn, but it would be great to see him deliver a quality win when the Bills need it.
The Rockpile Review is written to share the passion we have for the Buffalo Bills. That passion was born in the Rockpile; its parents were everyday people of western New York who translated their dedication to a full day’s hard work and simple pleasures into love for a pro football team.
Editor’s babble: Thanks to Mark Korber for his terrific contributions to our blog. You won’t find Mark on Twitter but you can find him posting on twobillsdrive.com’s Stadium Wall.