In all the fuss over EJ Manuel's encouraging debut against the Patriots last weekend, I forgot to gush about the play of the Bills' defense.
The D looked good in its first test under the aggressive new coordinator, Mike Pettine. They blitzed Tom Brady more than a dozen times and made him look ordinary for much of the day. They were effective against the run in their basic sets. The secondary actually played well.
Of course, they gave up 431 total yards. They allowed 158 rushing yards, which is worse than last year's average and 30th in the NFL after one week. Shane Vereen ran for 101 yards, becoming the latest in a parade of obscure backs to have a career high against the Bills.
Vereen made some critical runs in the fourth quarter with a broken wrist. Danny Amendola made several clutch catches with a sore groin. Brady had two reliable skill players, both of whom were hurt, and still found out a way to beat the Bills' defense when it mattered most.
So I wouldn't get too carried away just yet. The D can't possibly be as bad as it was in the Buddy Nix-Chan Gailey era. But don't fall into the trap of low expectations. Buffalo fans used to be better than that. Don't hold them to a low standard and call it progress.
Pettine surely isn't settling. You have to give the guy credit. He won't shoot for a low standard. He had high expectations with the Jets, and he's not backing down from lofty expectations in Buffalo. If people want to take comfort in falling short against Brady again, that's their business. Pettine coached a Jets team that shut down Brady in a playoff game. That's the standard he brought to the Bills.
“There's no lowering standards,” Pettine said Friday. “This is the NFL. We're in a win-now business. We were just as sick as everybody else over the loss. We had a chance to win and we didn't make enough plays at the end.
“The staff we built here, starting from Doug Whaley through the defensive staff, that's not how we're wired,” he continued. “We're here because we're competitive and we hate to give up a yard. You hate to give up a point.”
You expect a good defense to be at its best in the fourth quarter, when many NFL games are decided. You expect it to finish. Finishing has been a consistent problem for Bills defenses since the start of the millennium.
Open up the memory banks and the ghosts fly out: The Jacksonville opener in 2004; the Monday night loss to Dallas in '07; the opener against the Pats in '09. Two home games from last year spring quickly to mind – the last-minute losses to the Titans and Rams.
“Sure, sure,” Pettine said. “And that's something we have to learn. It's a young group, and that's part of the process. As frustrating as it is, part of the process is overcoming the mentality of 'Here we go again. It's Brady, he's going to do it to us.' That's something we have to overcome.”
I'll get excited when they actually beat a quarterback of consequence. Sorry to beat this stat to death, but I can't resist: The six teams that lost to the Bills last season finished the year with quarterback ratings rankings of 26, 28, 29, 30, 31 and 32.
The Bills haven't won a game against a quarterback who rated 25th or better since the win here over Michael Vick and the Eagles two years ago.
So it's about time. They can start with a strong, winning performance today at The Ralph against Cam Newton, one of the league's rising young star quarterbacks. Don't ask rookie EJ Manuel to win a shootout with Newton. Shut down Newton and make it easier on the offense.
Newton is an extraordinary athlete, a rare dual threat. He broke Peyton Manning's record for combined passing yards (7,920) in his first two seasons. He has 22 rushing TDs in his two NFL seasons. Last year against Atlanta, he had 250 yards passing and 100 yards rushing in a game.
Containing Brady is a daunting task. But stopping Newton is an altogether different assignment. The Bills have to worry about Newton's cannon arm and his dynamic running skills. They made Brady move in the pocket; the thing with Newton is, he's likely to scramble for big gains.
“You're going from two extremes,” said Mario Williams. “When you've got somebody like Brady and now you've got a guy who is more mobile, more athletic and more liable to run, it's definitely a changeup.”
The Bills' linebackers will be put to the test. Rookie Kiko Alonso had a solid beginning against the Pats, but he has a tendency to overrun plays. He and the rest of the linebackers need to be disciplined. The entire team needs to shape up after being whistled for 13 penalties (10 were accepted) in Week 1.
The Panthers and Bills have similar issues after one week. Critics in Carolina are calling for a more assertive, vertical passing attack – same as they are in Buffalo. Both teams have suspect secondaries, so there's a good chance we'll see downfield passing this afternoon.
Carolina is a dangerous running team, too. DeAngelo Williams has a career 4.9-yard average. He and Newton, who has averaged 5.8 yards a rush during his career, pose the sort of challenge the Seahawks did last season with Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson.
That one didn't go so well for the Bills. Seattle rushed for 270 yards and ran the Bills right out of Toronto. Wilson had three rushing TDs of more than 10 yards in the first half. The Bills' defense had no answer for the read option.
No doubt, the Panthers will test the Buffalo defense on the edges today. There's a lot of talk about Carolina's formidable defensive front seven. But what about the Bills' defensive front? A defense with Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus is supposed to strike fear in the opposing offense, especially at home.
They can demand some national attention with a rousing performance against Newton, who for all his stats has yet to prove himself as an elite NFL quarterback and winner. Three rookie QBs made the playoffs last year. The heat is on Newton to show he can take a team there, too.
The Bills' defense has a chance to make Newton's life miserable and drop the Panthers to 0-2. They can show the world that this year really is different, and that they're finally becoming a D that can finish.
“I've been in this league long enough,” Pettine said. “It's a bottom-line business. As bad as the Patriots have played, they're 2-0 and they're 2-0 in the division. We're 0-1 with a division loss, and whether it was by 40 or by one, it's a loss. There's no moral victories.”
He's right. A moral victory is a polite term for an excruciating loss. God knows, the Bills have had enough of those. Let's see the defense finish for once. Beat someone who matters.