Here are my five takes on the Buffalo Bills at the bye:
1. Running on empty. Discussion about the struggles of the passing game are warranted, but they obscure the real problem with the Bills' offense. And that is the disaster that has been their rushing attack.
Until it improves significantly, the passing game and the offense as a whole will continue to be a (non-running) joke.
The Bills' offensive scheme is designed to set up the pass with the run. That hasn't come remotely close to happening since the season-opening victory against the New York Jets. Therefore, opponents can freely crowd the line on early downs, often put the offense in unfavorable down-and-distance situations on third down, and clamp down on sub-standard passing by Tyrod Taylor and a receiving corps that has gone from bad to worse due to injuries.
Harsh realities about the Bills' ground game have surfaced through the 3-2 start, beginning with the fact that although the talent is mostly the same, this is a different offense than the one that led the league in rushing the past two seasons because:
- The line isn't built to handle the wide-zone blocking implemented by offensive coordinator Rick Dennison. Asking the group to mainly move laterally in unison to create cutback lanes for LeSean McCoy to find is trending toward a bad fit rather than something that simply needs more time to learn. And that goes for McCoy as much as it does for the linemen.
- At 29, McCoy seems to be showing some natural decline as a featured runner. He's also showing natural frustration that is only going to intensify as long as the hard times continue. His backup, Mike Tolbert, is a power runner limited to short-yardage/goal-line situations. The Bills need another explosive alternative to help give McCoy a blow and keep opponents off-balance, and they don't have one.
- There isn't a whole lot the Bills can do to make their offensive line stronger. Replacing Cordy Glenn with rookie Dion Dawkins at left tackle might be a step in the right direction for the run game, but he's a liability in pass protection, at least in the early stages of his career. John Miller was losing too many one-on-one battles at right guard, but Vlad Ducasse didn't represent all that much of an upgrade. When do the Bills start doing something with the offseason investment they made to retain Ryan Groy, who seemingly couldn't do much worse at right guard?
2. Who steps up at tight end? The indefinite loss of Charles Clay to a knee injury he suffered in last Sunday's loss at Cincinnati is going to make the already difficult challenge of trying to move the ball through the air that much harder.
Nick O'Leary has shown that he has reliable hands and runs excellent routes. One of the knocks on him early in his career was a lack of bulk and strength, which allowed even smaller defenders to have little problem handling him physically as he came off the line.
He has since added weight and while that has helped him deal with blocking and getting into his routes, it also has taken away from his speed. O'Leary isn't going to give the Bills that breakaway threat Clay provided on seam routes and in one-on-one matchups outside.
Logan Thomas has the size, speed and athleticism to eventually become a pass-catching factor at the position as he grows more comfortable in the NFL. After all, he only had his first catch in the league last Sunday.
3. Is the defense really good or really fortunate? It's a little of both.
You have to be good to consistently keep opponents out of the end zone, and the Bills are doing that. But there is no denying the Bills benefitted from some favorable calls against the Atlanta Falcons (Matt Ryan being charged with a fumble on what should have been ruled an incomplete pass and Micah Hyde getting to keep an interception that should have been overturned because the ball moved as he hit the ground). The Falcons also failed to capitalize when the Bills' defense had 10 men on the field on that final play from the Buffalo 10-yard line.
And let's face it. The Bills were repeatedly torched through the air by Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, especially when he targeted A.J. Green. Getting three takeaways was a tremendous accomplishment and should have resulted in a Buffalo win. The reasons it didn't were: the Bills' offense made hardly any plays and their defense (as members of the unit readily admitted) gave up too many big ones.
This isn't to say the Bills' defense lacks what it takes to allow the team to be competitive in most games. It's just to lend some perspective to the success it has had so far. Hyde and Jordan Poyer are excellent safeties. Tre'Davious White is an outstanding rookie cornerback who will have more good days than his bad one against Green. The secondary needs its other starting corner, E.J. Gaines, who missed the Cincinnati game with a groin injury.
The defensive line is good, especially against the run, but has to be more consistent in applying pressure on the quarterback. The same unit that sacked Carolina's Cam Newton six times had only one sack each against Ryan and Dalton. The linebackers are also playing well, with rookie Matt Milano giving an impressive performance in place of injured Ramon Humber last Sunday.
4. The Marcell Dareus and Cordy Glenn situations are going to linger and cause increasing awkwardness for coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane. It's all well and good that McDermott and Beane have continually placed their definitive stamp on this team. That's what they were hired to do.
However, in undoing what was here before them, they are treating the two highest-paid players on the roster as a couple of minimum-salaried nobodies. McDermott has made it clear that money is never a factor when deciding who plays and who doesn't, but the players who are getting far more snaps than the two whose combined cap hit is nearly $31 million aren't thinking that way.
The defensive linemen who have replaced Dareus as a starter the past two weeks have to be wondering what gives. Dawkins was supposedly drafted to take over for Jordan Mills at right tackle, but even with Glenn back from ankle and foot issues, the rookie was in his place on the left side.
I'm asked over and over about why the Bills aren't actively trying to trade Dareus and Glenn. My standard answer: I think they'd happily give them and their massive salaries away in a heart beat, but who wants to add those cap hits to their payroll? Why would another team that sees the Bills finding ways not to play guys who cash the biggest paychecks in their building be motivated to have them for the same pay?
5. Zay Jones has to change his label from pass-dropper to play-maker. Like it or not, that's the burden the rookie is carrying after five games.
Shedding it won't be easy, because for one thing, it is something about which he is constantly reminded by the media. For another, the loss of Jordan Matthews to a broken thumb and the minimal contribution of Andre Holmes puts more defensive attention in his direction.
But as a second-round pick and uber-prolific pass-catcher at East Carolina, Jones must show that all of the faith McDermott placed in him from the start of offseason workouts wasn't misdirected.