Here's some good news in the face of mounting concerns about the Buffalo Bills' passing game.
It can overcome the loss of wide receiver Jordan Matthews, out indefinitely with an injured thumb. And the fact it generated little in the way of high-impact plays by receivers before Matthews' injury. And the fact Tuesday's addition of another veteran wideout, Philly Brown, is unlikely to make it any stronger.
The reasons are: the structure of the Bills' offense, the strengths of their quarterback, and most of all, the fact they have Charles Clay at tight end.
Clay being on the receiving end of the Bills' two biggest offensive plays in Sunday's 23-17 victory against the Atlanta Falcons should serve as encouragement of where the team is headed with the ability to move the ball through the air.
His 44-yard reception in the second quarter, which set up Tyrod Taylor's nine-yard touchdown throw to Matthews, and Clay's 34-yard grab in the fourth, which helped lead to a 56-yard Stephen Hauschka field goal, have one thing in common: Taylor's movement in the pocket before each pass.
By design, the Bills' offense includes quite a few play-action passes as part of the basic philosophy of offensive coordinator Rick Dennison. Both of the big throws to Clay followed play fakes and half-rollouts by Taylor.
"And they can move the pocket a little bit, and Tyrod can throw those (deeper) routes really well," said former NFL quarterback and CBS NFL game analyst Rich Gannon.
On the 44-yarder, Taylor faked the handoff and first rolled to his left. Then, to avoid pressure, he scrambled to his right and hit Clay in stride as the tight end ran down the same side of the field past safety Keanu Neal.
On the 34-yarder, Taylor faked the handoff, did a bootleg to his right and threw back to his left to Clay, who beat two defenders on a corner route.
"There's a comfort level, when you study the quarterback," Gannon said. "I think when he needs a completion, his eyes come back to find 85."
Although Clay's production last season was a modest 57 receptions for 552 yards and four touchdowns, it still led the Bills. Through four games, Clay already has 227 yards on 18 catches — second on the team behind the 21 of running back LeSean McCoy — and two TDs.
The Bills aren't the NFL's only club whose passing game depends on strong tight-end production. The NFL's lone unbeaten team, the 4-0 Kansas City Chiefs, does the same with Travis Kelce.
"Based on the offense that Rick likes to run and based on what Tyrod is good at, it really fits with what Sean (McDermott) wants to do from a team standpoint and what Rick and Tyrod want to do from an offensive standpoint," said former NFL quarterback and CBS NFL game analyst Trent Green, who was on the call for the Bills-Falcons game.
When Gannon watches Taylor, he sees a quarterback who, especially when on the move, is more comfortable throwing to the tight end than outside the numbers to his receivers.
This hasn't changed a whole lot since Taylor became the Bills' starter in 2015 or during the past two years when he had Sammy Watkins in his receiving corps.
"Part of that is (Taylor's) height," Gannon said. "When you're 6-foot or 6-1, whatever he is, it's hard to see over those guys in front of you and be able to find lanes to throw the ball outside. So that's a scary throw if you don't have really good vision."
Even without dynamic receivers, the Bills' offense can continue to do enough to help the team win — provided their defense keeps performing at a high level, of course.
McCoy gives them a solid runner who, despite only one strong game so far, is capable of breaking out — and possibly as soon as Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, who rank 17th in the league against the run. Taylor? He won't put up flashy numbers. He will take good care of the ball, as he has in the past and so far this season, and make just enough completions to throw for just under or above 200 yards a game.
"If you look at what their offensive mindset is, they know what they have defensively," Green said. "And I think this is what I've seen Tyrod grow in just from a game-management standpoint, When you first get an opportunity to play — and it took him awhile to get on the field — you want to make an impact right away. You want big plays, you want the splash plays.
"And then you finally get to a point where you say, 'OK, let's see what I have on defense, what I have on offense, what we do field-position-wise, how are we on special teams,' and it gets into more of an overall understanding of the game-management of things. And I think he's in a really good place with that.
"He's only had the one interception, in Week One, and he's done a great job not being risky with the football. He has the ability to take off and run, which he shows, but he's not looking to take off and run. He's looking to buy time and throw the ball down the field."
But he needs someone to throw to down the field. Most of the time, that someone is Clay, who at 6-3 and 255 pounds, is big enough and athletic enough to match up well against most defensive backs.
The Bills don't ask him to be a blocking beast, although he can handle himself well in that area. They do, however, want him to be the main cog of their passing game.
"He's kind of a hybrid," Gannon said of Clay. "A lot of those guys are more like Antonio Gates. They're not in there to really maul people in the running game, that's not what they do best. They're in there to create separation, to work in the middle of the field, to be able to catch the ball, to run the vertical seams and do those types of things. And I think he does that well."
"I love what he’s doing," Dennison said. "I can’t say what was the difference between last year and this year. I just like what he’s doing. He’s done a great job, he’s an eager worker, willing to listen, and puts his time in every day."
Which is perfect for the type of culture McDermott has been striving to build on both sides of the ball. Individual stats don't matter. Have more points on the board than the opponent at the end of the game, and you've accomplished the only goal that counts.
"It all centers around team," Green said. "It all centers around not having those ego guys and, specifically, not having any ego guy at quarterback where he thinks he has to throw for 300 yards and three touchdowns every week."