CINCINNATI – There is a short list of players the Buffalo Bills can least afford to lose this season, and tight end Charles Clay is near the top.
Unfortunately for the Bills, that’s what happened Sunday in a 20-16 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. Clay suffered a left knee injury in the second quarter when he was hit by Bengals safety Shawn Williams at the end of a 24-yard gain. Clay stayed down after the hit, then was assisted by trainers to the sideline medical tent. A short time later, he was transferred by cart back to the Bills’ locker room, with the team eventually announcing he would not return.
“It’s never easy to lose a player like that – like Charles – but you adjust,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “You adjust, and it’s the next man up.”
For the Bills, that’s Nick O’Leary. He finished with five catches for 54 yards in the loss – both career highs for a single game.
“Nick played his butt off,” quarterback Tyrod Taylor said. “He got twisted up on one of those plays that looked scary from my viewpoint, but he battled, he competed and he did what we asked him to do. I’m proud of him.”
If Clay’s absence is long term – McDermott said after the game that “it’s still under evaluation” – the Bills will be down to O’Leary, Logan Thomas and Khari Lee at the position.
Thomas made his first career catch in the second quarter, while Lee has been inactive for every game this season.
McDermott juggled his offensive line, benching right guard John Miller in favor of veteran Vlad Ducasse.
“Just looking at combinations,” the coach said of why he made that move. “Just looking to find the best combination. You try to find out your team, and you don’t at times know your full team until mid-October or late-October. So, when you’re playing in late November and December you’ve got your guys. We were just looking at a combination there with Vlad.”
The Bills also started rookie Dion Dawkins at left tackle for the third straight game, even though Cordy Glenn was active.
“Before what we did with Cordy was we brought him back, put him in the starting lineup, and he had some setbacks,” McDermott said. “Right now it’s about taking a step. We felt a step was getting him in uniform, being the third tackle, warming up, getting his mind right about playing, and then we’ll go from there.”
Asked whether Glenn – who has battled ankle and foot injuries dating back to the spring – would return to the starting lineup when the team felt he was healthy enough to do so, McDermott said “we’ll evaluate that moving forward.”
Also inactive for the Bills on Sunday were: wide receiver Jordan Matthews (thumb), linebacker Ramon Humber (thumb), cornerback E.J. Gaines (groin), offensive tackle Conor McDermott and Lee.
Rookie Matt Milano started in Humber’s spot and made three tackles, while Shareece Wright got the start in place of Gaines. He led the Bills with 11 tackles, but struggled at times in coverage.
Cornerback Leonard Johnson suffered a hamstring injury during the game and did not return, leaving the Bills with just three healthy cornerbacks and forcing rookie Greg Mabin into his NFL debut. Mabin, who was promoted from the practice squad Saturday, finished with one pass defensed, but took a costly pass interference penalty that gave Cincinnati a first down after a pass on third and 10 fell incomplete. The Bengals went on to score the go-ahead touchdown later on the drive.
Mabin’s penalty wasn’t the only costly one for the Bills, who were flagged six times for 71 yards. Buffalo’s penalties came at inopportune times:
• Defensive end Jerry Hughes was called for roughing the passer in the second quarter on a third-and-21 play in which the Bengals were stopped short of the first down. Cincinnati went on to get a 30-yard field goal that extended their lead to 10-3.
• Dawkins was called for holding in the third quarter, erasing Taylor’s 10-yard scramble that would have converted a third-and-10 play. The Bills were forced to punt.
• Adolphus Washington was called for an illegal blindside block during Jordan Poyer’s fumble return in the third quarter. The Bills lost 18 yards of field position because of the penalty.
• Thomas was called for offensive holding in the fourth quarter, wiping out a 44-yard run by LeSean McCoy. The Bills punted three plays later.
“When we execute, guys stay in rhythm,” McDermott said. “When you get penalties, it’s never good. I don’t know if there’s a good time or a bad time, but to your point, it breaks up the rhythm of the offense. We’ve got to do a better job there.”
None of the Bills or Bengals elected to conduct a silent protest during the playing of the national anthem. That comes two weeks after the Bills had a dozen players kneel prior to a Week Three game against the Denver Broncos and six players do so against Atlanta in Week Four.
Three of those players who knelt last week – Mike Tolbert, Wright and Kaelin Clay – stood together behind the rest of the team.
Story topics: Adolphus Washington/ Charles Clay/ Conor McDermott/ Dion Dawkins/ E.J. Gaines/ Greg Mabin/ Jerry Hughes/ Kaelin Clay/ Khari Lee/ Leonard Johnson/ LeSean McCoy/ Logan Thomas/ Mike Tolbert/ Nick O'Leary/ Ramon Humber/ Sean McDermott/ shareece wright