KANSAS CITY — No two game plans are the same, they say. Each quarterback demands a different approach.
That’s perfectly fine.
It’s just that the Buffalo Bills probably didn’t envision a rain-drenched, icy-cold Arrowhead Stadium resembling a tropical paradise for quarterback Alex Smith. He could’ve cracked open a Corona on his beach of a pocket in this 30-22 win. After flustering Tom Brady for stretches last week, the Bills didn’t register a single quarterback hit on Smith, who went a cool 19 of 30 for 255 yards with two touchdowns and another 35 rushing yards Sunday.
Despite the success vs. Brady, despite missing two stalwarts up front, coach Rex Ryan decided to let his front four rush and sit back in coverage throughout the game. ... and Smith still found cracks in Ryan’s defense.
In this 2015 season nearing the brink, blitzing was not an emphasis.
“No, no, no,” linebacker Manny Lawson said. “We wanted to keep him there and let our front four get the best of him and get to him and really try to limit his options in terms of who he can try to get the ball to. ...He just found windows. Early on, we did a good job of minimizing everything they did. They adjusted. They found some holes in our defense. And they exploited them.”
True, the Bills forced three straight punts to start the game. True, both safety Bacarri Rambo and cornerback Ronald Darby dropped potential interceptions. Darby’s drop with 11 seconds left in the third quarter was effectively a 10-point swing. Instead of high-stepping his way to the end zone for a pick-six, the Chiefs kicked a field goal to make it 27-22.
Players didn’t openly gripe at the approach by Ryan.
Brady prefers to stand in the pocket and pull the trigger in two seconds. Smith, they knew, preferred to hang onto the ball and either a.) give his receivers time to get open or b.) take off and run. So Ryan figured four was enough, even with defensive linemen Mario Williams (foot) and Kyle Williams (knee) sidelined.
“We have to play what’s called,” inside linebacker Preston Brown said. “They know what they’re doing up there. They want to play coverage — they were just finding ways to get the ball through. We tried our best. We had those guys rushing up front. We believe in those four. We don’t have to pressure with those guys. It just didn’t happen.”
Because, in time, Smith heated up.
He rainbowed deep balls of 32 and 41 yards to wideout Jeremy Maclin, testing both of the Bills’ starting cornerbacks. He threaded the needed often to tight end Travis Kelce. On Kelce’s score, a post route, Darby had no safety help inside. And when defenders backs were turned in coverage, Smith took off.
In the end, the Bills couldn’t get to Smith without blitzing and the coverage on the back end couldn’t hold up. Kansas City’s blend of screens and deep shots kept Ryan’s unit off balance.
“With that, whenever you generate a passing game,” Lawson said, “you start to get pass conscious and that opens up the running game. That’s what he does: he manages the game well.”
Still, why not keep pressuring? Mass confusion worked so well last week. Ryan and the Bills could’ve tried forcing the Chiefs to adjust to them. Instead, the defense mostly stuck to this coverage-first plan.
“With Brady, we knew that he was going to try to get rid of the ball quickly and we had to disrupt his routes,” Lawson said. “With Alex, he’s more of a mobile quarterback so he’ll hold the ball and allow his receivers to get open. So we had the coverage there, get more guys in his face and have guys who can keep him contained.”
Ryan said the Bills were “mixing it up” through the game and he loved the way Buffalo started the game. Then “a snowball” of bad plays struck.
“They came out and ripped us on some runs,” Ryan said, “and then they converted some big third downs on us and then they threw the ball overhead. Would I say it was disappointing? Yeah.”
Nobody in the locker room would call this outright demoralizing. At 5-6, Buffalo can still get hot, can still make a playoff push. But after so many signs of finally morphing into the defense everyone expected, playing like this absolutely hurts. Players thought they were turning a corner.
“We have to go out next week against Houston,” said Brown, “and try to get our mojo back.”
Added Lawson, “It definitely hurts. We know we needed this game to propel us to where we want to go. Losing this makes things even more difficult. So it definitely hurts. It’s something we’re going to learn from. We’re going to feed off this feeling and not let this feeling feed off us.”
They’ve got five games left.
Ryan’s game management was dreadful, too. He didn’t challenge some plays and challenged one he shouldn’t have.
On a second and 6 incompletion in the third quarter, Robert Woods bobbled one pass and believed he corralled it before the ball hit the turf. Woods encouraged the challenge, Ryan threw the red flag and a replay showed the nose of the ball clearly hitting the turf. The next play, quarterback Tyrod Taylor was sacked and fumbled the ball to Kansas City.
“I’m a receiver,” Woods said. “Of course, I’m going to feel like I caught it. I felt like I got my hands under it. But you never know in live action — I felt like I caught it.”
Still, afterward, Woods said he believed it was a catch, that he got his arm underneath the ball.
“I feel like I got under it with my other hand,” Woods said. “I’ll probably have to look close and zoom in, but in live action I feel like I caught it.”
In general, what constitutes a catch has been a storyline all season long. Chris Hogan seemed to make a clear catch on Buffalo’s final drive, a play Ryan didn’t challenge. The convoluted rules leave fans, players and the media in confusion weekly — controversy never too far away.
Woods puts it’s on the players.
“We can’t leave it in the referees’ hands,” Woods said. “That’s on us. Catch the ball. Finish the play.”
Three more players went down for the Bills in the loss. Defensive end Alex Carrington—in place of Mario Williams — left Sunday’s loss with a knee injury, while inside linebacker Nigel Bradham left with an ankle injury. Running back Karlos Williams also departed with a shoulder injury.
Bradham left the locker room afterward in a walking boot.
“Obviously all three of those guys are a big concern with us,” Ryan said, “but none of them came back.”
Cornerback Ronald Darby left briefly after getting blasted by running back Spencer Ware on a tackle. The team announced he was in the “concussion protocol,” and the rookie appeared on the field Buffalo’s next drive.