The Buffalo Bills looked like they were on the verge of blowing out the New York Jets early in Sunday’s game at New Era Field.
Then Andre Roberts happened.
After the Bills had taken a 14-3 lead, the Jets’ star return man took a kickoff return 51 yards to set up a field goal.
After the Bills went ahead, 17-6, Roberts returned a kickoff 86 yards to set up an easy touchdown.
Those were the two biggest negative plays in a rotten day for the Bills’ special teams. The Bills’ special teams also saw a field goal blocked, missed a field goal and had an illegal formation penalty on a key kickoff.
“Nobody really cares about special teams until something bad happens,” said Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, a former Pro Bowl special teamer. “It just shows you how important it is as far as field position."
"We gave up really three big returns," Alexander said. "One of them got called back because of a penalty on their part. But we didn’t do a good job today as far as covering, getting off blocks and making plays. Andre Roberts is having probably a Pro Bowl caliber year on returns. You can’t let a guy get started like that, then he feels like he can do anything. That hurt us.”
Roberts now has an NFL-best eight returns this season of more than 40 yards.
Here were the plays that shaped the game, starting with special teams:
1. Getting New York started. Roberts fielded a kickoff straight down the middle of the field and raced 51 yards up the left side to the Buffalo 46. Bills coverage men Julian Stanford and Corey Thompson had no penetration on the right-middle of the Bills coverage unit. Robert Foster and Lafayette Pitts got sealed up on the outside as Roberts blew by them.
2. Game-breaking return. Midway through the second quarter, Roberts’ 86-yard return went to the Bills’ 4. One play later, the Jets were in the end zone and within 17-13.
This time Roberts fielded the ball on the left side of the field. Siran Neal had Roberts lined up but missed the tackle at the Jets’ 17. Roberts cut to the right sideline and was too fast for the coverage, which had “pinched in” toward the middle of the field and lost containment to the outside.
“We just didn’t do a good enough job keeping our coverage lanes, setting the edge, getting off blocks – shedding,” said Bills fullback and coverage man Patrick DiMarco. “A very poor effort by us on kickoff coverage. We’ve got to watch the tape and get better because teams are going to be doing the same stuff they just did.”
“They were doing a lot of field returns,” DiMarco said, referring to the returner running to the wide side of the field. “Usually with these new rules, the back side is squeezing pretty hard. They were able to pin the edge. We didn’t get any penetration inside and we didn’t set the edge outside.”
3. Squib kick turnover. The Bills’ special teams redeemed themselves a bit to start the third quarter, when Roberts muffed a squib kick down the middle of the field. Neal forced the fumble, and the Bills got a turnover.
“We came in and wanted to target a different directional kick and we didn’t get that done,” said Bills coach Sean McDermott, referring to a first-half kickoff that wasn’t placed properly. “After we started off the way we did on special teams, it was trying to make an adjustment within the game. You try, like we did after half, squib the ball a little bit. At the end of the day, we weren’t good enough.”
Bills kicker Stephen Hauschka had taken a big blow at the end of the first half on a hit by the Jets’ Henry Anderson.
“I landed on my pelvis, and I’m pretty sore through there,” Hauschka said. “It tightened up a lot.”
Asked if the squib kicks were because he wasn’t at full strength or because of Roberts’ returns, Hauschka said: “Probably a combination of both. We need to do better on kickoff coverage for sure, and it starts with me.”
4. The final squib kick. After taking a 23-20 lead with 2:31 left, Hauschka squib-kicked again. Roberts fielded it at the Jets’ 12 and returned to the 34. But Jordan Poyer was penalized for lining up illegally, which gave New York 5 more yards to the 39.
That was a good drive start at a time when the Bills needed a touchback or a good coverage play.
5. Darnold dime. The Jets’ winning score was set up by a 37-yard pass, dropped perfectly over the outside shoulder of Robby Anderson, who was covered by Tre White.
“That was a great throw by Sam,” said Alexander. “I thought Tre had great coverage. It was just better offense on that play. They’re going to make plays. At the end of the day we’ve got to figure out a way to get a stop.”
6. Fourth-down conversion. The Jets’ winning score was a 1-yard run by Elijah McGuire on a fourth-and-goal play with 1:22 left.
The Jets had two tight ends on the left side of the formation but ran to the weak side, off right tackle. Leading the way were pulling guard Brian Winters and 313-pound guard Dakota Dozier, lined up as a fullback. Tremaine Edmunds almost got to McGuire, then Alexander, coming from the back side, dove but couldn’t make the tackle.
“They just ran a lead weak,” Alexander said. “They just continued to bounce further and further outside. I just gotta take a little bit better angle to the ball. It’s a play I can make and should have made.”