Here are my five takes on Sunday’s game between the Buffalo Bills and Washington Redskins at FedEx Field:
1. Play as if it still matters, even if this is extremely close to being a meaningless game. The players are going to have to work up some enthusiasm for these final three weeks of the regular season. They were a pretty dispirited bunch early in the week, reeling from an ugly loss at Philadelphia that was loaded with penalties and other silly mistakes and especially from the fact they’re on the absolute fringes of postseason contention. That game felt like a knockout punch, which it essentially was. The high expectations that followed the hiring of Rex Ryan, aggressive offseason moves and a strong draft have whooshed out of One Bills Drive like air from a giant balloon. With little or no prompting, some players already have begun talking about what needs to be done for the team to improve next season.
Yet, on Friday, there was a noticeable upbeat atmosphere in the locker room, with music blaring, some players showing off dance moves, and everyone seemingly loose and carefree. Does it mean the Bills have recovered from the bitter disappointment of the Eagles’ game and are ready to bounce back with a strong showing? Does it mean they are happy about knowing the end of a long season is near? Does it mean nothing at all? We’ll see.
2. Let’s see something on defense that shows that Rex Ryan really does know what he’s doing. There was a long conversation between Ryan and the media Wednesday about the fact that this is going down as the worst defense he has coached in the NFL. Ryan sarcastically referenced a problem with coaching, making it clear that he doesn’t think for a millisecond the issue is with him or his scheme. He also wasn’t buying into the observations of Marcell Dareus and Manny Lawson that it takes more than one season for players who have been used to a different system to learn how to operate in a new one.
Nevertheless, something has gone sideways, especially with a pass rush that ranks 30th in the NFL, and the blame game isn’t going to stop any time soon. At some point, it will be made clear that the problem is either with coaching or with players. And Ryan, without directly throwing his players under the bus, has strongly hinted that they are the ones falling short. The players seem to like having him as their coach, and if that is truly the case, then Sunday (as well as the two remaining regular-season games) would be a good time to show it – especially on defense. Kirk Cousins is a good, but far from great, quarterback. The Bills cannot allow him to make as many big plays through the air as they allowed the mediocre-at-best Sam Bradford to make last week.
The Bills’ defensive line also has to figure out how to avoid neutral-zone infractions. They were called for four at Philadelphia. This week’s practice plan included having the linemen focus on the movement of the man in front of each of them rather than on the ball. Scout-team quarterbacks EJ Manuel and Josh Johnson also did their best to provide hard counts in their cadences.
3. The offensive line stands up to another huge defensive line. Buffalo’s O-linemen have had a hard time living down the fact they were basically overwhelmed by Fletcher Cox and the rest of the Eagles’ defensive linemen. That had pretty much not happened in any other game this season. But Cox is an exceptionally talented player. He’s one of the strongest and quickest defensive tackles in the league. Still, guard Richie Incognito, who fully acknowledged after the game that it was his worst performance of the season, is a far better player than he showed. He will be determined to make amends, as well as rookie guard John Miller, who struggled even more.
The Redskins are going to try and generate most of the pressure on Tyrod Taylor with their defensive line and utilize maximum coverage to minimize his targets. That should give Taylor opportunities to scramble for decent gains. He also shouldn’t hesitate to fire in the direction of Sammy Watkins, regardless of how well the Bills’ No. 1 receiver is covered. As Watkins has made clear, with words and with his performance, good things happen when he’s targeted.
4. Get over it, LeSean. McCoy can’t allow himself to remain in the funk he seemingly has been in from the final gun in Philadelphia. OK, the loss to his former team was bitterly disappointing. He wanted that win more than anyone, but he needs to remind himself that there are 52 other players who are strongly motivated to win every game – not just the ones that have deeper emotional significance. Ryan made McCoy a captain last week, but he hardly demonstrated good leadership in the way he conducted himself, especially with his refusal to address the media after the game. Leaders face the music. They set the tone for everyone else. You can be frustrated, but still share your perspective with the public. McCoy can make up for a lot with a strong performance against the Redskins – on and off the field.
5. Tyrod Taylor continues to enhance his standing as the Bills’ long-term answer. He received glowing endorsements from Ryan and General Manager Doug Whaley. Now, it’s up to Taylor to deliver by having the type of game he had two weeks ago against Houston. He needs to be the consistently effective pocket passer he is capable of being. And he needs to mix in his running ability more effectively, especially in third-and-long situations when people are covered. Taylor was right when he said after last week’s loss that “every game is a money game.”
But he is playing for even higher stakes through these last three weeks, as he moves closer to the final year of his contract. Taylor is in an advantageous bargaining position that he can only improve by being the mostly efficient and effective passer he has been through 11 starts. And if he can take his game to an even higher level, winning for the first time when he attempts more than 30 passes, that would be even better for him and the Bills.