TORONTO — The Buffalo Bills defense didn’t carry its weight Sunday in the Rogers Centre.
Combine that with two terribly timed fumbles by Stevie Johnson and Scott Chandler, and you get a maddening, 34-31 overtime loss by the Bills to the Atlanta Falcons.
The offense could have sealed the victory at the end of regulation, if Johnson hadn’t fumbled at the Atlanta 30 to force overtime. The offense was rolling on its first possession of the fifth period when Chandler coughed up the ball near midfield.
Still, the offense put up 195 rushing yards and produced 31 points.
That should have been good enough to beat an Atlanta team (3-9) that entered Canada on a five-game losing streak.
It wasn’t because the Bills’ defense, which is supposed to be the stronger side of the ball in Buffalo, gave up six scores and 423 yards.
“This one hurts,” said Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso. “A lot of guys left some plays out there, including myself.”
“I’m hurting,” said a visibly upset Bills coach Doug Marrone. “I mean, I am. I’m mad. … I’m upset. There are words that I can’t use to describe how I feel.”
Buffalo fell to 4-8 and has not won back-to-back games since early in the 2012 season.
The defense, which entered the game ranked 15th in yards allowed and 21st in points allowed, has not been consistent enough this season.
Atlanta entered the game ranked 31st in the NFL in rushing, averaging just 74.7 yards a game. Against the Bills, the Falcons rushed for 151, double their season average.
It helped that Steven Jackson, a quality veteran who has more than 10,000 career rushing yards on his resume, was back to full health. Jackson had missed the better part of six games with a hamstring injury.
Jackson rushed 23 times for 84 yards and had a 27-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.
“It was the first time I got the ball 20-plus times, and that’s when I feel at home, when I’m able to wear down a defense and get in a zone,” Jackson said.
The Bills’ run defense keeps getting burned by over-aggressiveness.
Jackson’s TD run came on a third-and-1 play. Bills safety Jim Leonhard burst into a gap in the line of scrimmage and bolted straight past Jackson. Alonso got walled off on the weak side. But Leonhard should have at worst made contact with the running back.
“We missed a guy in the hole,” Marrone said. “We had a free hitter in the hole. We missed the first one.”
That pulled Atlanta within 14-7.
Another big scoring run pulled the Falcons within 17-14 late in the first half. Falcons third-string back Antone Smith took a toss sweep to the left around end and sprinted 38 yards into the end zone.
The Falcons outflanked the Bills’ defense on the strong side. Tight end Tony Gonzalez and receiver Roddy White were lined up tight to the left side of the formation. The Bills’ defensive line was shifted to the weak side.
White got a good block on linebacker Manny Lawson. Alonso flowed way over to the play side upon seeing the pitch and was too far outside when Smith cut up the numbers of the field. Ditto for safety Aaron Williams. He overflowed too far to the outside and never got a sniff of the running back when he cut up the field.
“We got caught inside on a defense where they ran a toss play and had us out-leveraged to the edge,” said defensive tackle Kyle Williams.
“We just gotta do better gap control,” Alonso said. “We gotta be better flowing and running to the ball. We shouldn’t be giving up big runs like that.”
“We had two of our players, they overran the play and we didn’t have enough good inside pursuit,” Marrone said. “That’s exactly what happened.”
The Bills got some good pressure on Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, sacking him six times.
That should be good enough to get the job done. It’s not when a defense is giving up 151 rushing yards and 5.0 yards a carry.
There were pass defense problems, too, however. Ryan was able to mount drives of 81, 71, 36, 55, 65 and 30 yards.
Atlanta ranks sixth in the league in passing yards. Star receiver White, who has been hobbled much of the year with groin and hamstring problems, was closer to 100 percent. White made 10 catches for 143 yards.
Still, Atlanta was without its best receiver, Julio Jones, who is on injured reserve. The Bills couldn’t come up with enough pressure and coverage to get the Falcons off the field often enough. Atlanta converted 10 of 18 third-down situations.
There was some good game-planning by Atlanta, despite the sacks allowed.
At times the Falcons used an extra offensive tackle to aid protection.
“When they brought in an extra lineman, they used him for protection and were able to double guys,” Williams said. “When they were in five-man protections he was getting the ball out quick. We knew he’d do that. We just had to stay patient and stay with it.”
All-time great tight end Tony Gonzalez beat the Bills for an 11-yard TD in the third quarter. He boxed out smaller cornerback Ron Brooks on the play.
The Falcons had been running pick plays with their wideouts against the Bills’ man coverage. That’s what the Bills were expecting and they went to zone coverage on that side of the field. Ryan picked the perfect time to exploit it.
Ryan marched Atlanta 65 yards in 11 plays in 2:58 near the end of regulation to get the touchdown that tied the game, 31-31. He hit four passes on the march and benefited from a pass interference penalty in the end zone on Nickell Robey on a third and goal from the Bills’ 16.
“Credit to them,” Marrone said. “There’s a reason why that team has won a lot of games in the past five years.”
And inconsistent defense is one of the reasons the Bills haven’t.