- Any Bills fan needing a boost in the middle of the work week need only look at the NFL standings.
There at the top of the AFC East, alone in first place, are the Buffalo Bills. A 3-1 start has Western New York buzzing -- even if the team itself isn’t letting early success get inside their heads.
“We’ve got a lot of room to grow as a football team,” coach Sean McDermott said Monday. “That’s the encouraging part of this.”
That’s especially true on offense, which has struggled at times in closing out games.
“You guys have to understand we’re at the first week in October, and we have a lot of work to do between now, and what happens in November, December, and that’s what we have to continue to push towards, our quality of play every week,” McDermott said. “Handling winning is a big part of sustaining success, which is the key in this league.”
There is a big difference between the 3-1 start the Bills have gotten off to when compared to a 2-2 record. Since 1990, when the NFL went to a 12-team playoff system, teams that went .500 over their first four games advanced to the playoffs 36.2 percent of the time. Teams that start 3-1 made it 64.1 percent of the time.
So the numbers look good, but how about the grades? Here is The Buffalo News’ position-by-position quarterly report card:
• Quarterbacks: B
Here is a one-word review of Tyrod Taylor’s first four games: Good, bad, great, pretty good (Ok, I cheated on the last one). Taylor is using play action more, and making an effort to push the ball down the field in the last couple weeks. There have been some absolutely great throws, like the ones to Nick O’Leary in Week Three and Charles Clay in Week Four and a few he’d like back – particularly the ones to Zay Jones in Week Two and Week Four. Taylor ranks 28th in total passing yards (744), tied for 20th in passing touchdowns (five) and tied for seventh, with Aaron Rodgers, in passer rating (100.7). Backup Nathan Peterman has not played.
• Running backs: C
Facing a steady diet of seven- and eight-man boxes, LeSean McCoy has struggled to get going. His elusive rating – a measure of a running back’s success beyond the point of being helped by his blockers, as tracked by analytics website Pro Football Focus – is 15th in the NFL. That’s much lower than we’re accustomed to seeing. McCoy is averaging 3.2 yards per carry, which ranks 39th in the NFL. Backup Mike Tolbert is averaging 3.5 yards per carry. He has one touchdown and one fumble, which came Sunday against Atlanta. On the few occasions Tolbert has run wide, the play has been shut down quickly. That’s definitely not his game.
• Wide receivers: D
This has been a problem area all season. No. 1 wideout Jordan Matthews had 10 catches for 162 yards and a touchdown. That’s a game for some No. 1 receivers in the league. He’s also out now indefinitely with a broken thumb. Rookie Zay Jones has caught just four passes for 57 yards despite being targeted 17 times. He’s had trouble with outright drops (like in Atlanta) and been unable to make plays the Bills are counting on him to make on tougher balls (like in Carolina). No. 3 wideout Andre Holmes has just six catches for 35 yards, although he has scored two touchdowns. Especially without Matthews, the Bills need someone to step up from this group moving forward.
• Tight ends: B
Charles Clay plays in every situation and is starting to produce on a level commensurate to his $9 million cap hit. He has 18 catches for 227 yards and two touchdowns, ranking fourth in yardage at his position. He’s been a needed outlet for Taylor this year. Nick O’Leary has just two catches, but they’ve gone for 53 yards. No. 3 tight end Logan Thomas has played sparingly.
• Offensive line: C-
There have been growing pains adjusting to offensive coordinator Rick Dennison’s zone-based blocking scheme. The analytics website Football Outsiders ranked the Bills’ offensive line 31st in the NFL through Week Three. The Bills’ adjusted line yards, success in “power situations” – runs on third or fourth down needing 2 yards or less for a first down or touchdown – and “stuffed” percentage – runs for no gain or a loss – are all in the bottom five of the league. The team’s pass blocking, meanwhile, ranks No. 26 in Football Outsiders’ rankings. In short, there is plenty of room for improvement here. It would help getting left tackle Cordy Glenn back soon, as he’s missed the past two games with foot and ankle injuries.
• Defensive line: B
Defensive end Jerry Hughes is off to a Pro Bowl start. He’s got 15 tackles and three sacks, but those numbers don’t tell the story of just how often Hughes disrupts the opposing pass game. He’s been credited with 13 quarterback hurries, which ranks fifth among 4-3 defensive ends, according to PFF. Shaq Lawson’s run defense on at the opposite end spot is a bright spot as he develops as a pass rusher. Eddie Yarbrough and Ryan Davis have been capable backups. At defensive tackle, veteran Kyle Williams continues to produce, with 13 tackles and a sack. His leadership off the field is invaluable, too. The biggest disappointment on the team is its highest-paid player. Marcell Dareus has one tackle in three games.
• Linebackers: B-
Ramon Humber, a special teams player for most of his career, leads the team with 37 tackles, although he’ll now miss some time after having surgery to repair a broken thumb. He’s been a pleasant surprise to this point. Preston Brown won the starting middle linebacker job in training camp and hasn’t looked back, taking every snap so far. Lorenzo Alexander has two sacks in somewhat of a specialized role. Like Williams, his leadership is huge for the team. Rookie Matt Milano will have a big test going forward replacing Humber. Pass coverage against tight ends has been a trouble spot.
• Secondary: A
What’s not to like? Safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer have taken turns having huge games, most recently the former with his two interceptions against the Falcons. Starting cornerbacks Tre’Davious White and E.J. Gaines have developed into a solid pairing. White won the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Month for September and started October with a fumble recovery returned for a touchdown against the Falcons. Nickel cornerback Leonard Johnson has been somewhat up and down, but hasn’t drastically hurt the team. It’s hard to argue against a secondary that’s allowed just one passing touchdown.
• Special teams: A-
Kicker Stephen Hauschka has been incredible, making 8 of 9 field goals, including five of them from 49 yards or beyond. He’s a weapon for the team right now. Punter Colton Schmidt has bounced back from a down year in a big way. He’s averaging 46.1 yards per punt and has put six of them inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. The return game hasn't done much, both for or against the team, although the kick coverage unit was burned for a 61-yard return against Atlanta.
• Coaching: A-
Sean McDermott has his team believing. His team-bonding exercises have paid off, with several players mentioning the chemistry on the Bills being the best they can ever remember being a part of. The return to the 4-3 defense has been incredibly productive, while McDermott's in-game approach has been fine. I'd still like to see more aggressiveness, but in that regard McDermott is like every other NFL coach. Clock management is an area that can still use some work, but any errors in that regard haven't been egregious.