Progress is in the eye of the beholder - The Buffalo News
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Progress is in the eye of the beholder

The numbers don’t seem appreciably different.

The vibe does, though.

At the halfway point of their first season under new head coach Doug Marrone and new General Manager Doug Whaley, the Buffalo Bills look better to the eye.

The players also seem to feel better about their situation. Co-captain and center Eric Wood said this week the Bills are smarter and tougher than they’ve been in the past.

But cast a glance at the standings or statistical rankings and the Bills don’t look much better than before.

Results haven’t improved yet. The Bills are 3-5, same as they were after eight games last year and trending toward a third straight 6-10 campaign.

With this afternoon’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs opening the second half of the Bills’ season, let’s review each unit’s performance to date on a five-star scale.

Quarterbacks (2 stars)

A potential problem with EJ Manuel is that he still captures the imagination. That’s because we’re still wondering how good he is.

Two knee injuries have limited Manuel to a sample size of five games. He might be a franchise quarterback. He might be average. He might be injury-prone. Two months into the season we don’t know nearly as much as we’d hoped.

The position would be a royal mess had the Bills not traded for Thad Lewis. The multi-team castoff has exceeded expectations with his grittiness and charisma and kept undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel safely on the sideline.

Manuel, Lewis and Tuel have committed 11 giveaways (six interceptions, five fumbles). Nine teams have committed fewer than those three quarterbacks.

Running backs 4 stars

Fred Jackson’s relentless running style is a substantial element of his allure. He has done nothing but underscore that this season. But Jackson wasn’t supposed to be a workhorse.

Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett famously declared C.J. Spiller would get the ball until Spiller puked. Injuries have nagged Spiller, but even when healthy, Hackett wasn’t able to deploy him effectively. Spiller has 362 rushing yards and only 36 receiving yards.

Jackson, at 32, won’t be inspirational forever. But for the first half of the season, he was the offensive MVP. He leads with 425 rushing yards and six touchdowns. His 223 receiving yards are third.

The Bills rank seventh in rushing yards per game, but 15th in average gain per carry.

Wide receivers 2 stars

Buffalo’s receiving corps hasn’t met expectations. Stevie Johnson, slowed by injuries, is headed toward career-low numbers as a starter. He’s way behind pace to record a fourth straight 1,000-yard season. Johnson still is a go-to target and has a team-high three TD catches.

The rookies haven’t been impact performers yet. Robert Woods’ production has been erratic and slipped after Manuel got hurt in Week Five. Marquise Goodwin missed four games with a broken hand. They’ve combined for three touchdowns.

Sophomore T.J. Graham has shown flashes and is averaging 13.9 yards a catch, but he hasn’t found the end zone.

Tight ends 3.5 stars

There were doubts Scott Chandler’s reconstructed knee would be ready for the start of the season. That concern evaporated quickly. He has 29 catches, already 14 away from matching a career-high and on pace to be second-busiest for any Bills tight end.

Lee Smith is a rare target, but he has fulfilled his role as Buffalo’s best blocking tight end. Buffalo thought it had a draft steal with Chris Gragg, but the seventh-round pick has played only 2 percent of the snaps so far.

Offensive line 2 stars

The offensive line was considered a strength under previous head coach Chan Gailey and assistant Joe D’Alessandris. When Marrone, a former NFL O-lineman and O-line coach, was hired and brought in veteran O-line assistant Pat Morris, galvanization was anticipated.

Buffalo has been just OK as a unit. Wood reiterates his importance every week, and left tackle Cordy Glenn has been proficient. But left guard Colin Brown was a disaster and got released.

Buffalo has allowed 28 sacks, fourth-most in the NFL, plus a league-high 71 quarterback hits even though the offense ranks just 25th in pass attempts per game.

Opposing defenses have tackled Buffalo runners behind the line of scrimmage 27 times, second-most in the league.

Defensive line 4.5 stars

There’s no denying Buffalo’s refurbished pass rush under defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. Defensive end Mario Williams is off to a screaming start with 11 sacks. Defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus already are close to matching career-bests in sacks. The trade for defensive end Jerry Hughes has been beneficial.

Confetti all around for the pass rush.

But the Bills continue to have problems against the run. Despite strong play from Dareus in particular, the Bills have been shabby at times. They rank 26th in run defense and 16th in average per carry. They’ve allowed nine runs of at least 20 yards, second-worst in the NFL.

Defensive end Alex Carrington’s absence has mattered. The Bills wanted to re-sign him before he suffered a season-ending quadriceps injury in Week Three. Carrington’s replacement, Alan Branch, has been adequate.

Linebackers 3.5 stars

Rookie middle linebacker Kiko Alonso didn’t need long to catch our attention. His 81 tackles are tied for second in the league regardless of position or experience level. He also has five tackles for losses, a sack, four interceptions, a forced fumble and a recovery.

Manny Lawson wasn’t considered a high-profile free agent, but he has been superb on the strong side.

Nigel Bradham hasn’t been a factor on the weak side. His season began with a marijuana charge in the Town of Tonawanda, and then he lost his job to Arthur Moats. Add backup Jamaal Westerman and the weak-side trio has combined for a half-sack, one tackle for loss and zero takeaways.

Defensive backs 2 stars

The secondary projected to be a team strength. Circumstances have prevented that from fruition. Top cornerback Stephon Gilmore missed the first five games with a broken wrist. Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd missed the first five games with foot problems.

Leodis McKelvin, disappointing throughout his career, has provided relief as their best defensive back. That’s saying something. Aaron Williams’ versatility has been valuable. Undrafted rookie cornerback Nickell Robey is an emerging player.

But opponents are charring the Bills in general. They’ve surrendered a league-worst 20 passing touchdowns and a league-worst 12 pass plays of at least 40 yards.

They’re on pace to allow 4,214 net yards (most in team history by 400 yards) and a franchise-worst 210 first downs through the air.

Special teams 4 stars

What luck that Dan Carpenter happened to be unemployed when rookie Dustin Hopkins hurt his groin right before the season began. If Carpenter can duplicate the first half of his season, then he’ll approach the club scoring record. He converted 15 straight field goals, including three longer than 50 yards.

Kickoffs haven’t been a problem. Opponents have started at the 19.9-yard line on average after a kickoff. Only three teams have fared better.

The Bills cut unreliable punter Shawn Powell and brought back fan favorite Brian Moorman, who has been consistently good. Moorman’s punts have averaged a half-yard longer than Powell in gross average, but 7.1 yards longer in net average.

McKelvin and Goodwin have been immaterial on returns. Marcus Easley has been a coverage fiend, with a team-high 15 tackles.

Coaching 2.5 stars

Marrone and his young staff need time to grow into their roles.

Discipline has been a concern based on penalty tallies. The Bills are headed toward bottom-10 team rankings in flags, yards and first downs awarded. Marrone has failed on all three of his in-game challenges.

Hackett’s anticipated up-tempo offense has been more predictable than revelatory. There has been a dearth of in-game adjustments. Spiller was supposed to be the chief weapon, but the Bills have been unable to ignite him. Johnson’s production is down.

Pettine’s defense is dramatically more entertaining than predecessor Dave Wannstedt’s. The Bills’ defense isn’t static anymore. Pettine blitzes from the secondary. He has found ways to turn Mario Williams into a predator and has helped turn Dareus into a difference-maker.

Front office 2.5 stars

Buffalo did well in the draft. The first four picks brought a starting quarterback, starting middle linebacker, a receiver who has played 95 percent of the offensive snaps and a deep-threat receiver who returns kicks.

Whaley, probably not knowing it at the time, saved the offense from disaster by trading special-teamer Chris White for Lewis, a quarterback who wasn’t going to make the Detroit Lions’ roster. He hasn’t been Frank Reich, but Lewis has given the Bills a fighting chance to win in Manuel’s stead.

That said, a robust argument can be made the Bills should’ve been more prepared at quarterback than injury-prone Kevin Kolb and the undrafted Tuel long before Lewis needed to enter the equation.

The Bills also bungled Byrd’s contract situation and miscalculated the importance of a left guard by letting Andy Levitre walk and sliding an overwhelmed Brown into his spot.


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