One of Sean McDermott’s stated goals this season is to build a football team that peaks in November and December.
The Buffalo Bills’ rookie head coach has failed so far in that regard. After opening with a 3-1 record in the first quarter of the season and sitting at 5-3 at the midway point, the Bills have dropped to 6-6 at the quarter pole. A three-game losing streak came to an end in Week 12 against the Chiefs, but the Bills couldn’t build on that momentum Sunday against New England, losing for the fourth time in five games.
Blame can be shared by both sides of the ball.
“No one’s more disappointed in a result on the scoreboard where we don’t come out on top than I am and our players,” McDermott said Monday, a day after his team’s 23-3 loss to the Patriots. “If you don’t build on the good parts and correct the other parts, what are you doing really? That’s what we do – we go back to work. We go back to build on what we do well and the things we didn’t, we’ve got to get them fixed.”
Here is The Buffalo News’ quarterly report card:
It’s been nothing short of a disaster in the second half of the season. Starter Tyrod Taylor has failed to lead the offense to a single touchdown and been held to less than 70 passing yards in home games against New Orleans and New England. He was benched by McDermott in Week 11, but rookie Nathan Peterman clearly wasn’t ready to play, throwing five interceptions in the first half of a blowout loss to the Chargers. It’s the worst run of quarterback play we’ve seen here in quite some time, which is really saying something.
Running backs: B-
In two of his last five games, LeSean McCoy has averaged less than 2.2 yards per carry. In the other three, he’s averaged more than 6.1 yards per attempt. That’s why it makes sense that last week he said, “I could be more consistent. Some games lights out, and other games, it’s kind of ‘ahh’. Some plays, I’m doing really, really well, some plays I’m not. So, it’s not really consistent.” Travaris Cadet has provided a modest boost in replacing the injured Mike Tolbert as the No. 2 running back. Cadet, though, is in the league’s concussion protocol, so Tolbert might once again fill that role in Week 14 against Indianapolis.
Wide receivers: F
The trade for Kelvin Benjamin can’t accurately be judged because he’s played just one full game since being acquired. Benjamin had three catches for 41 yards against the Saints, but hurt his right knee on the first offensive series the following week in Los Angeles and has been out ever since. Rookie Zay Jones has done some good things, but has a lot of uncatchable passes come his way. Over the last two weeks, Jones has been targeted 17 times, but that has resulted in only five receptions. Jordan Matthews was placed on IR Tuesday. He had all but disappeared from the offense, as has Andre Holmes, who has become primarily a special-teams player. Deonte Thompson is a decent veteran depth player, but isn’t going to scare opposing defenses.
Tight ends: D
Since coming back from a knee injury that kept him out for three games, Charles Clay has 12 catches for 120 yards in four games. He’s been on the injury report as questionable the last two games, but been able to play. While he should be given credit for fighting through an injury, Clay still isn’t producing at a level that matches his salary, which has been the story since he signed with Buffalo in 2015. Nick O’Leary, Logan Thomas and Khari Lee are all small parts of a struggling offense.
Offensive line: B-
The rushing offense has risen to the top 10 of the league, ranking eighth overall at 122 yards per game. Buffalo’s quarterbacks have been sacked 35 times, which is tied for eighth most in the NFL. Both of those statistics don’t fall directly on the line, but clearly the players up front play a big part in both of them. Rookie Dion Dawkins has taken over for the injured Cordy Glenn at left tackle. Glenn’s future after this season will be a topic of debate.
Defensive line: D
The Bills have fallen apart against the run, allowing an average of 120.4 yards per game, which ranks 25th in the league. Some will point to the trade of Marcell Dareus as the reason for that. That might be a part of the problem, but it’s far from the only reason. The coaching staff has used “football guy” terms like gap integrity to explain what’s happening up front, which is a nice way of saying other teams have simply been better. Defensive end Jerry Hughes has been the team’s best player up front, but his maddening tendency to take dumb penalties continues. On the other end, Shaq Lawson has done well against the run, but his pass rush isn’t where the team needs it to be yet. And he was also placed on injured reserve Tuesday . Defensive tackle Adolphus Washington played a good game against New England, but has otherwise been mediocre.
The analytics website Pro Football Focus gives the Bills’ base starters – Lorenzo Alexander, Ramon Humber and Preston Brown – three of the five lowest lowest grades among all players on the defense. The team in recent weeks has used Alexander in a lesser role, replacing him with rookie Matt Milano in certain packages. Humber hasn’t looked like the same player since coming back from a thumb injury. There could be significant changes here in the offseason, with Humber and Brown both unrestricted free agents.
Cornerback Tre’Davious White continues to be a contender for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Hopefully the concussion he suffered as a result of a cheap shot from Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski in Week 13 won’t keep him out long. Fellow cornerback E.J. Gaines has quietly done a nice job since coming back from a hamstring injury. Another pending unrestricted free agent, he would be one of my top priorities to re-sign. Safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer continue to play well. The Bills rank sixth in the NFL with 13 interceptions, with Hyde’s five tied for second in the league. Buffalo’s 10 touchdown passes allowed is tied for the best in the league with Jacksonville.
Special teams: B
Punter Colton Schmidt and kicker Stephen Hauschka have been solid all year long. The coverage units have also done well. Returner Brandon Tate hasn’t gotten much going on kickoffs, but ranks sixth in the NFL in average punt return, at 10.4 yards. There have not been any serious penalty problems, either, unlike in past seasons.
McDermott has a mess on his hands at quarterback. Even if there were reasons to bench Taylor, the head coach grossly miscalculated Peterman’s readiness for the job. The move turned the Bills into a laughingstock nationally – just the type of thing the team wanted to get away from after firing Rex Ryan – and potentially cost the Bills a game in a tight AFC playoff race (although there is no way to know that Taylor would’ve beat the Chargers). McDermott’s defense also went through a historically bad three-game stretch of giving up 135 points, while the offense under Rick Dennison has been downright painful to watch for weeks on end. Credit McDermott for not completely losing the team over the botched quarterback call, but make no mistake – this has been a brutal stretch for the first-year coach.
Story topics: Adolphus Washington/ Brandon Tate/ Charles Clay/ Colton Schmidt/ Cordy Glenn/ Deonte Thompson/ Dion Dawkins/ E.J. Gaines/ Jerry Hughes/ Jordan Matthews/ Jordan Poyer/ Kelvin Benjamin/ LeSean McCoy/ Logan Thomas/ Lorenzo Alexander/ Matt Milano/ Micah Hyde/ Mike Tolbert/ Nathan Peterman/ Nick O'Leary/ Preston Brown/ Ramon Humber/ Rick Dennison/ Sean McDermott/ Shaq Lawson/ Stephen Hauschka/ Travaris Cadet/ Tre'davious White/ Tyrod Taylor/ Zay Jones