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Grading the Bills: Jay Skurski’s quarterly report card

One of the most overused clichés in the NFL is about how it’s a long season.

Compared to the other three major North American professional sports leagues, it’s by far the shortest.

So when the Bills played – and lost – 12.5 percent of their season in five days, it was easy to lose hope.

Two straight victories, however, have restored some of that.

“We’ve hit the quarter pole,” coach Rex Ryan said. “You can’t count out any team – and you can’t crown any team right now.”

So what can the Bills’ coach take away from the first month?

“I think we’re definitely finding ourselves,” he said. “We knew we need to improve as a team, but we know how to do it. We know it’s through hard work and it’s through preparation. That’s how this team’s going to get better.

Since 1990, 117 teams (of 312 to make the playoffs) have advanced to the postseason after starting 2-2 or worse.

Here is The Buffalo News’ position-by-position quarterly report card:

Quarterbacks

Grade: C. Starter Tyrod Taylor has taken all but two snaps. He’s 25th in the league in passing yards (773), 23rd in completions (74), tied for 20th in touchdowns (four) and tied for 20th in passer rating (87.3). As a team, the Bills rank 31st in passing yards per game, at just 183.8. Other than some goofy run calls, EJ Manuel has not been a factor. Calling the quarterback play average so far seems fair.

Running backs

Grade: B. LeSean McCoy earns that grade pretty much all by himself. He ranks ninth in rushing yards (297), tied for 14th in average per carry (4.4) and tied for fifth in touchdowns (three). No. 2 back Mike Gillislee didn’t get his first carry until Week Three, but against New England rushed three times for 25 yards. He probably deserves some more touches. Reggie Bush has been a non-factor.

Wide receivers

Grade: D. The injury to Sammy Watkins is a major blow to this group. He had just six catches for 63 yards before going on injured reserve. Robert Woods stepped up last week in Watkins’ absence, and leads the group with 18 catches for 170 yards. Marquise Goodwin caught an 84-yard touchdown against the Jets in Week Two, but has just three other catches. Greg Salas has missed two games because of a groin injury. One of those two will have to become a more reliable complement to Woods moving forward.

Tight ends

Grade: D. Charles Clay is asked to play in every situation, but 12 catches for 114 yards is not the type of production the Bills are paying him top dollar for. Nick O’Leary has been elevated to No. 2 tight end by Tuesday’s decision to release Jim Dray and promote Gerald Christian from the practice squad. O’Leary has three catches for 48 yards.

Offensive line

Grade: B. The running game’s league ranking is strong, at fifth overall in yards per game (123.3) and seventh in yards per rush (4.6), The eight sacks allowed is tied for 16th in the league. Penalties have been an issue – linemen have been flagged 12 times, with Richie Incognito leading the way with four.

Defensive line

Grade: B. Kyle Williams has made a successful return from a knee injury – he lived in the backfield against the Cardinals. Corbin Bryant filled in admirably for the suspended Marcell Dareus, as he usually does. Leger Douzable has 1.5 sacks and nine tackles as a bargain-basement free-agent addition. Third-round draft pick Adolphus Washington won’t rack up many statistics, but is a member of the rotation. The Bills rank 13th overall against the run, allowing 96 yards per game.

Linebackers

Grade: A. It’s hard to imagine a group of inside linebackers in the NFL playing better than Zach Brown and Preston Brown. Zach leads the NFL with 52 tackles, while Preston is tied for 12th with 35. They’ve combined for five forced fumbles or fumble recoveries and six tackles for loss. On the edge, Jerry Hughes and Lorenzo Alexander have four sacks each. Buffalo’s 13 sacks ranks third in the league.

Secondary

Grade: C+. Cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby got shredded in Week Two by Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Jets – a performance so bad it’s hard to forget. The secondary bounced back with four interceptions of Carson Palmer in Week Three, however, and contributed to a shutout of the Patriots in Week Four. Safeties Corey Graham and Aaron Williams have been a solid pairing. Overall, the Bills rank 17th against the pass, allowing 260.5 yards per game.

Special teams

Grade: B. Returner Brandon Tate has given a nice boost to both the punt- and kick-return units. He ranks ninth in punt-return average (12.3) and sixth in kick-return average (24.2). Kicker Dan Carpenter has missed two field goals – one against Baltimore and one against New England – that were important at the time. Punter Colton Schmidt has regressed. Buffalo ranks 24th in net punting average a year after ranking ninth.

Coaching

Grade: C. A 2-2 record screams mediocre, and that’s what Rex Ryan has been. The decision to fire offensive coordinator Greg Roman after two games at the time appeared to be a classic case of scapegoating, but so far has paid off. Ryan’s defense has looked good in three of four games. His clock management has left something to be desired at some points. Overall, he’s stayed true to himself. Depending on your view of him, that can be a good or bad thing.

email: jskurski@buffnews.com

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