The Buffalo Bills' offense needed the pass game to open up the run game in Sunday's loss at Carolina.
The pass game wasn't open.
It's no shock that Carolina held LeSean McCoy to just 9 yards on 12 carries. Carolina ranked sixth in the NFL last year against the run and fourth in 2015.
McCoy skewered the Jets in Week One with outside zone-scheme runs. Those runs weren't prominent in the game plan this week for good reason. Carolina's linebackers flow too fast to the sideline to get beat outside. The Panthers also have a star defensive tackle tandem in Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei who clog the middle.
The Bills had 11 drop-backs on first down in the game, and Tyrod Taylor completed just five passes on them for 33 yards. There were nine called runs on first down. Those managed just 10 yards. With first-down plays going nowhere, the Bills' attack was on its heels all day.
Here's our unit-by-unit grading of the Bills' 9-3 loss (on a scale of 1 to 5).
Quarterback (1.5): The quarterback needs to step up and get the offense going on a day when the run game is struggling. Again, Tyrod Taylor didn't make enough plays. Let's focus on a few opportunities. The Bills had first and 5 at the Carolina 48 on the first drive of the third quarter. Taylor left a clean pocket early with Nick O'Leary going down the seam and ran into a sack by Julius Peppers. Taylor might have hit O'Leary over the middle two plays later but threw to Patrick DiMarco, who dropped a tough catch. Maybe a little more aggressive game plan to open the game was in order.
The plus side: It was good to see Rick Dennison let Taylor run a read-option keeper that gained 4 yards in the third quarter. Let's see a little more of that. On the Bills' field-goal drive, Taylor was patient in the pocket to hit Jordan Matthews for 14 yards. Two plays later he took a hit in the chest and completed to Charles Clay for an 11-yard gain. Three plays later he was cautious and checked down to McCoy rather than hit Matthews underneath. Not a bad time to cautious, but that's Taylor for you. The last-ditch pass for Zay Jones: An inch high.
Offensive line (1.0): It was a rough day for Bills tackles Cordy Glenn, Dion Dawkins and Jordan Mills. Glenn looked shaky on his injured foot from the start and lasted only 17 snaps. Glenn was beaten cleanly for a sack by Daeshon Hall in the second quarter and was relieved by Dawkins (37 snaps) in the second half. Dawkins gave up a couple pressures. He also ran into O'Leary to help foul up a second-and-4 run in the third quarter. Mills whiffed on Peppers on a third-quarter sack. Carolina set the edge too well too often. The Bills' middle three of Richie Incognito, Eric Wood and John Miller didn't get much push.
Maybe Dennison could have used a little more motion and misdirection on run plays to try to get the Panthers' linebackers moving before the snap. The Bills only motioned on about five plays, but that may be due to the fact Carolina plays mostly zone and Taylor didn't need pre-snap hints.
Running back (1.0): The Panthers were geared up to make the Bills play "left-handed" (via the pass). Carolina got a big run stop on fourth and 1 from the Panther 44 early in the fourth quarter. Dennison called a weak-side pitch to McCoy. Get the playmaker in space. But Carolina had eight men in the box. Dawkins didn't get Mario Addison blocked enough but it didn't matter. Thomas Davis was all over it. On the field-goal drive, Peppers defeated Mills for a first-down stuff from the Panther 34 to put the Bills in a bad spot.
Receiver (1.0): The Bills' wideouts have just 11 catches in two games. Taylor targeted the wideouts 15 times and completed seven, with none longer than 15 yards. There was one deep shot and two others beyond 20 yards, all incomplete. It's hard to take deep shots when you're not getting first downs. The blitz didn't kill the Bills. They gained 99 yards on 12 blitz plays (Taylor scrambled on two of them). But the blitz kept Taylor from waiting for downfield receivers to get open. It's no surprise Clay wasn't a big factor with Kuechly patrolling the middle.
Defensive line (4.5): The entire defensive line was stellar. Jerry Hughes had two sacks and abused left tackle Matt Kalil. Lorenzo Alexander dominated right tackle Daryl Williams for a sack and a key penalty. He also had two hurries. Shaq Lawson had a sack and drew a penalty from Williams. Lawson was superb setting the edge against the run. On the goal line in the fourth quarter, Lawson had an unblocked run-stuff on first down and then stuffed the point of attack to create a tackle for loss on second down.
Kyle Williams played like a Pro Bowler. Two examples: On a zone drop, he chased speedy Curtis Samuel to the sideline; on Lawson's goal-line run stuff, he shot under Kalil and into the backfield to disrupt the play. Marcell Dareus tweaked an ankle in the first quarter and played only 17 snaps (out of 68). He was reasonably effective clogging the middle. Adolphus Washington was stout in Dareus' place.
Linebackers (4.5): The linebackers had enough speed and discipline to hold Christian McCaffrey to 44 yards on 12 touches. Preston Brown and Alexander caused havoc in the A-gaps, either shooting between the center and guard or backing off. With the four-man rush cooking, the Bills didn't blitz Cam Newton as much as other teams. On 11 Buffalo blitz snaps (counting two penalties), Carolina netted only 35 yards.
Secondary (4.5): Safety Jordan Poyer saved two TDs with pass breakups in the end zone, first on Kelvin Benjamin, then on Russell Shepard. He had a sack on a blitz off the edge. You love to see Tre'Davious White's awareness on a pass breakup in Cover 2 against Delvin Funchess. White also had Shepard stride for stride down the sideline on Lawson's sack. Nickel corner Leonard Johnson made the DB-run-force play of the day when he wiped out a toss sweep in the red zone. Micah Hyde's job got easier when Greg Olsen went out with a broken foot.
Special teams (4.0): Colton Schmidt had a net average of 44.5 (40-plus is excellent). The work of gunners Taiwan Jones and Andre Holmes in punt coveage was good against the dangerous McCaffrey.
Bills stars of the game: 1. Lorenzo Alexander. 2. Jordan Poyer. 3. Jerry Hughes.
Panthers stars of the game: 1. Julius Peppers. 2. Luke Kuechly. 3. Mario Addison.