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Plays that Shaped the Game: Clay fumble started Bills on road to ruin

The Buffalo Bills’ offense greased the path to a blowout loss Sunday by playing its sloppiest game of the season.

The Bills lost the turnover battle, 5-0. It was a reversal of fortune for both teams. The Bills entered the game tied for sixth in the NFL in takeaways. The Colts entered tied for third most in giveaways.

The pivotal play of the game was the first turnover. The Buffalo offense has such a slim margin for error that a turnover in the red zone is almost impossible to overcome, especially on a day when the Bills’ defense is struggling.

Here’s a review of the ugly plays that shaped the 37-5 loss in Indianapolis:

1. Charles Clay’s fumble. Trailing by 6-0, the Bills responded with a nice drive. They marched 62 yards in five plays early in the second quarter.

Clay caught a 9-yard pass over the middle at the Colts’ 13-yard line. But safety Mike Mitchell punched the ball out from behind, and the Colts recovered at their 26. It wasn’t a perfect throw from Derek Anderson but it was pretty good, considering blitzing linebacker Matthew Adams hit the quarterback as he released the ball.

Clay caught the ball cleanly and had time to bring it to his body. Then Mitchell punched it out from behind with his left hand while making the tackle. It was a bang-bang play. The Bills need their top tight end to hang onto that kind of catch.

Instead of having a second-and-1 play at the Colts’ 13, Indianapolis took over at the 26 and drove to a second touchdown.

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2. Coverage breakdown. The Colts took a two-TD lead just 1:29 later on a coverage bust, likely by Bills linebacker Matt Milano.

Milano and Tremaine Edmunds were in underneath zone coverage. Milano chucked tight end Mo Alie-Cox as he ran a shallow cross to the left and passed him onto Edmunds. But Milano was late to notice running back Marlon Mack come out of the backfield after chip-blocking edge rusher Lorenzo Alexander. Mack was wide open in the right flat and easily scored on a 29-yard play. Micah Hyde was the single-high safety. Underneath safety Jordan Poyer also left the right side of the field to chase Alie-Cox.

3. Unforced error. Down 14-0, the Bills offense could not afford a self-inflicted error. That’s what happened on the next possession, as receiver Kelvin Benjamin was flagged for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for shoving safety Quincy Wilson in the face while blocking at the end of a running play. It was a retaliation shove but a dumb error by the veteran wide receiver, and it caused a three-and-out when the game was slipping away.

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4. Coverage minus rush equals trouble. The Bills gave Andrew Luck too much time on the 5-yard TD pass to T.Y. Hilton that made it 21-0. Trent Murphy got penetration on right tackle Braden Smith and got a hand on the QB. But Luck pushed him away and scrambled to the right sideline.

The No. 1 target was tight end Eric Ebron, running a shallow cross to the right. Poyer covered him and passed him off in underneath zone coverage to Tre White, on the far right side. White had passed off Hilton to the middle. But Poyer lost track of Hilton, who came back toward the sideline behind the safety. Luck made a fine throw on the move.

5. A rusty INT. The Bills had a chance to get a little momentum before the half – and they were getting the ball to start the third quarter. Again they were in Colts territory.

But Anderson threw an interception, trying to hit Benjamin on a 20-yard in-cut at the Colts’ 23. Zay Jones was wide open for 10 or 15 yards on a shallow cross. But a good tight-window throw probably could have hit Benjamin just in front of the two-deep safety coverage. Unfortunately, the pass led Benjamin a bit too far and was too high.

Anderson has participated in only six full practices in 2018 and only three working with the Bills’ starting receivers. It’s unrealistic to expect him to be in consistent sync with the wideouts.

6. First strike. Credit the Colts with attacking the Bills’ zone coverage with a good scheme on the first score of the game. And Poyer failed to execute a tough coverage situation. It was a two-deep safety look. Micah Hyde was helping on the left side, where the dangerous Hilton went to the corner of the end zone.

Poyer and Phillip Gaines had coverage on the right side on the Colts’ two tight ends, who ran a vertical crisscross, which is a zone beater.

Gaines stayed outside as Ebron ran to the corner. Poyer was just a tad late as Erik Swoope broke to the post. Luck’s pass was on time, made easier by the fact his play-action fake sucked up Edmunds and gave him a giant window.

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