The Bills lost to the Tennessee Titans on Tuesday night – yes, Tuesday night – by a score of 42-16. In some respects, the game wasn’t as lopsided as the score, and in other respects it was.
Sean McDermott’s Buffalo Bills seem to have some of these games, games where all of the progress of the previous weeks vanishes, games where you wonder how this team will ever win another game. There probably is some explanation, and the explanation probably has something to do with how McDermott’s process works.
I understand. I trust the process. That doesn’t make it any easier emotionally as Bills fan to go through another mid-season blowout. It’s distressing every time it happens.
The story of the Bills’ loss to the Titans is filled with all of the usual reasons for the collapse: Turnovers, penalties, game planning, injuries, rookie mistakes. Everything went wrong and still, to the Bills’ credit, they kept fighting and weren’t all that far from a win.
Huh? 42-16 and they weren’t far from the win? I mean it. Beneath all of the bad things that contributed to the loss was a good football team. The Bills ran more plays than the Titans, gained more yards than the Titans, and were more efficient on third down.
Early in the game, things looked good for the Bills. After the early turnover and Titans’ touchdown, the Bills showed they could take a punch. They came back with a beautiful drive of their own, converting multiple long third down challenges to get into the end zone. It looked like they were imposing their will on the game. Instead, the Titans kept punching, and the Bills just couldn’t match them.
The Bills often seemed like they were ready to break out and take over the game, but the Titans defense never let them. The Titans defense was textbook bend-don’t-break. They forced the Bills to dink and dunk all the way up the field, to play errorless football for long drives if they wanted to score. Sometimes the Bills made it to paydirt, but often some mistake killed the drive.
For their part, the Bills defense forced the Titans into the same game. The Titans just didn’t make the mistakes the Bills did. And the Bills couldn’t stop the Titans. After the Bills went three and out from their own ten and got, effectively, an 80-yard punt from Bojo, the Titans did what the Bills couldn’t – march 90 yards for the TD. (Bojo, of course, also contributed to the loss, badly outkicking his coverage earlier in the game, giving up a 40-yard return that led to a score.)
Fundamentally, the Titans shut down the Bills mid- and long-range passing game. They kept “everything in front of them,” as the saying goes, and forced the Bills to succeed in the short passing game and the running game. And, in fact, they did succeed, pretty well, in the short passing game. Allen completed 63% of his passes and would have completed a half dozen more with a little more help from his receivers. Diggs, Davis and Knox all missed catchable balls, and Roberts could have bailed Allen out on his first interception. That’s not to say that Allen was sharp; he wasn’t, but he wasn’t so bad that with a little bit better execution the result couldn’t have been different.
The running game is what killed the Bills. Whatever it was the Titans were doing in the defensive backfield, it was designed to stop the Bills’ downfield passing game. The only way to do that is by committing players to defend downfield, and that commitment is an invitation to run the ball. The Bills couldn’t do it. Without an effective running game, the Bills were forced into a short passing game, which they did pretty well, but not well enough.
Look at those keys to the loss:
Turnovers: It may be too simplistic to say the Bills lost because of the turnovers, but it’s true. Three turnovers, three touchdowns, three missed scoring opportunities. The first put the Bills in an immediate hole. The second ended a productive drive that could have made the game 21-17 in the middle of the third quarter. Instead, the Bills quickly were down 28-10, and the situation was desperate. Roberts’ fumble just was the beginning of the Titans’ celebration.
The Bills may still have lost, but the game would have been completely different without the turnovers.
Penalties: The Bills looked like their heads were not in the game. Presnap penalties; one per game is not good, but you can live with it. Multiple presnap penalties is unacceptable. Two pass interference penalties on Norman. Frankly, I liked what I saw from Norman. I wasn’t at all sure about the first PI, and CBS didn’t replay the second one, but they weren’t killers. Roughing the passer on third down, on the other hand, was a four-point mistake at a critical time.
Game planning: Brian Daboll, what happened to your passing game? The Bills were unprepared to be shut down like that. They didn’t have answers to get the ball deep, and they didn’t have answers on the line of scrimmage to get the running game going. The game was close until late in the third quarter, but already by then the Bills were passing on two plays for every one run. There had to be opportunities to run, but Daboll couldn’t find them or hadn’t prepared his team for them.
Injuries: The Bills pass defense is not the same without Milano and White. Taron Johnson was exposed, I suspect because he wasn’t getting the help he usually could expect from the linebackers and safeties, because they were trying to help the corners deal with the wideouts. It was a mess back there. And Brown’s absence probably explains some of the problem with the passing game. Roberts and McKenzie, for whatever reasons, aren’t credible deep threats. The Titans focused on stopping Diggs, and no one else was able to run free anywhere in the middle of the defense. Eventually, the Bills got around to finding Beasley short, but that wasn’t going to change the outcome. That was taking what the Titans were happy to give.
Rookie mistakes: This category is reserved for Josh Allen (although Epenesa gets honorable mention for getting drawn offside. Pure lack of focus.) Allen actually played pretty well, including an absolutely beautiful run for a first down, but his second interception, probably the play that decided the game, was a classic rookie mistake. CBS didn’t show enough replays, but it looked like Davis may actually have been open up the sideline. In other words, the decision to throw to Davis may not have been bad, but Allen never should fail to see the defender underneath. He has to see that guy and adjust the throw – or not throw it at all. That was the point in the game where everything changed, the point where the kid pulls his team back into the game or puts his team in a big hole. Allen was a rookie on that play.
A couple of comments about the Titans.
It’s hard not to be impressed with Mike Vrabel. His team always is full of fight, and always is well prepared. I hate saying it, but he clearly learned from the master, and his teams will continue to be competitive in the NFL.
I’ve always liked Tannehill. He’s smart, he’s athletic, and he can throw. He did an excellent job against the Bills – not spectacular, but effective all night long.
Derrick Henry. I’ve noticed this and said this before: in terms of running style, Derrick Henry looks more like Jim Brown than any runner I’ve seen. He runs straight up. He has relentless power, always moving forward, always challenging the defense to get him to the ground. He has the speed to get to the edge. He’s a big-time threat.
The Bills stopped Henry from beating them, but it was their commitment to stopping Henry that allowed Tannehill and others to get outside the tackles for easy gains or pass completions. The Titans commitment to the run gave them the run-pass balance that the Bills lacked.
It’s a long season. It’s a process. For some reason, the process includes a mid-season meltdown or two. In the past, McDermott somehow has been able to get everything back on track, to continue to improve the team and how it competes. He’s faced with that problem again.
The Chiefs are waiting, and they are hungry.
Editor’s babble: Time to move on from this stinker. Hopefully we’ll see a better performance against the Chiefs, who will be licking their chops looking at the film from this game. Thanks, as always, to Mark Korber for his contributions to our blog. You cannot find Mark on Twitter, but you can find him posting on twobillsdrive.com’s Stadium Wall message board.