August is ideally the time for chemistry-building between quarterbacks and wide receivers in the NFL.
But extenuating circumstances have pushed that process past training camp and into September for the Buffalo Bills.
A three-way quarterback competition lessened the number of reps eventual winner Tyrod Taylor got with the starting wide receivers during the summer, as did injuries to Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods and Percy Harvin that cost each of them significant practice time.
As a result, the Bills have been playing catch-up in that regard the first two weeks of the season.
“You’ve got to build trust,” Watkins said. “You’ve got to build chemistry. We’re in Week Two, so you can’t really say that we’re not good. It might take until Week Five or Six for everything to get clicking. It just takes time.”
Through the first two games, the Bills have just 384 receiving yards, a total that ranks 27th in the league. To put that in perspective, Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown has 328 yards by himself.
Despite that, there have been glimpses of big-play potential. The Bills have nine receptions of 20 or more yards, which is tied for second in the league.
Watkins, though, would like to see even more of an attacking style. Last week against New England, the Bills’ biggest gain in the first three quarters was a 23-yard scramble by Taylor. The team did not complete a 20-yard pass until the fourth quarter, which started with New England leading, 37-13.
“We need to attack a little bit more, but you can’t blame the offensive coordinator,” Watkins said. “There are a lot of emotions in the game. You don’t want to make a bad decision, go deep and he takes a shot, gets a sack. Any situation, you’ve got to pay attention to the whole game. … You’ve got to leave that up to the offensive coordinator. I think now he understands that and once he gains trust in everybody, he’s going to take more shots. Like I said, it’s early in the season, you don’t want to show your hand to everybody, we’ve just got to keep playing.”
Taylor was sacked eight times against the Patriots. What’s unusual about that is he averaged 3.39 seconds to throw, the most time in the NFL in Week Two, according to analytics website Pro Football Focus. That means for whatever reason, Taylor was hesitant to let it fly. Watkins said it’s up to the receivers to convince him to give them a chance.
“You’ve got to prove it to the coaches – prove it to the guy that’s really got the ball in his hands every play, throwing that ball,” he said. “If he don’t have that trust in you, he’s not going to throw it. As a quarterback, you don’t want to make the wrong decision, you don’t want to throw a pick, you don’t want to turn over the ball. We’ve got to gain his trust. I think once we make those big plays … he’ll start throwing the ball a little bit more and giving us a chance. Once you throw the ball it’s a 50-50 chance. Either you catch or you don’t, just don’t let the ball get intercepted.”
Watkins said the Patriots did a good job of mixing up their coverages against him, which he’s come to expect.
“I’m going to get that all year,” he said. “I can’t worry about what type of defense is going to be thrown at me. I just got to out there and make plays, whether it’s triple coverage or double coverage.”
Harvin’s 126 receiving yards leads the Bills through the first two weeks, but ranks just 38th in the NFL.
Watkins is actually fifth on the team with 60 receiving yards, behind fellow receivers Harvin and Robert Woods (87 yards), running back LeSean McCoy (73 yards and tight end Charles Clay (62 yards).
“I think every athlete on the field should touch the ball, and that’s going to help us out,” he said. “I don’t think it should be a one-man show or two-man show. The more people catch the ball, the more opportunities we’ll have with coverages and with other guys getting open. I think everybody should touch the ball.”
With that many places to go with the ball, it’s understandable that Taylor is still getting comfortable with each of them. That grace period, however, won’t last forever.
Staying patient will be a challenge for all of the Bills’ skill-position players, particularly in games when things aren’t going their way.
“I know I might not get a lot of balls one game, it may go to Sammy, or vice versa,” Harvin said. “Robert may get a lot of balls, McCoy may run 30 times a game. Hopefully, it can be a good balance. … That’s the fun thing about it. It should be impossible for a defense to shut everyone out. There are three, four, five playmakers who can take it the distance.”
Harvin echoed Watkins’ sentiments about the offense just needing time to come together.
“I don’t think there’s any team in the NFL right now that says everybody is hitting on all cylinders right now,” he said. “It’s no different with us. … Tyrod’s still learning about us, we’re still learning about him. As receivers, we’re still learning about each other, how to mesh routes together.”
An example of that came on the Bills’ last offensive play against New England. Taylor’s pass looked like it could have been targeted for Woods, but Watkins made an attempted leaping catch that tipped off his hands and was intercepted by New England’s Logan Ryan, sealing the Patriots’ victory.
“Some of those picks that was thrown was on the wide receiver dropping the ball or the tight end dropping the ball, so you can’t put those turnovers on him,” Watkins said. “We’ve just got to keep doing the things we’re doing, and that’s getting better in practice. … For us, the wide receivers, we’ve got to make any play that’s presented to us. Make every play, whether we’re double covered, triple covered, if the ball’s in the air, make that play.”
While it would be easy to dismiss the Bills’ big plays in the fourth quarter against New England as the Patriots sitting back in a prevent defense, Taylor insisted their defensive game plan didn’t change. So Watkins and Co. are taking that as a sign of what they hope are things to come for the offense.
“We moved the ball up and down the field,” Watkins said. “Tyrod did a great job of managing the ball, throwing the ball, running the ball. He was putting us in great situations. That’s something to move off of and build off of.”