Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll pulled out a new wrinkle in Sunday’s 14-13 victory over Detroit.
The Bills used five wide receivers with an empty backfield on four plays. That’s a first in Bills history, from this reporter’s perspective. Of course, the Bills have used an empty backfield a lot over the decades, but never without a running back or a tight end on the field.
Why take Thurman Thomas, Fred Jackson, C.J. Spiller or LeSean McCoy off the field and lose a matchup advantage?
But with the Bills’ backfield depleted by injury, Daboll decided to improvise. The Bills completed two passes and gave up a sack on the four plays.
Overall, Josh Allen was 6 of 10 from empty-backfield sets for 101 yards, including the 42-yard winning TD pass.
Here are the position grades, based on video review and on a scale of 1 to 5:
Quarterback (3.5): Allen produced 220 yards and two TDs. Matt Stafford produced 208 yards and one TD.
Offensive line (3.0): The previous five games, Detroit allowed only 71 yards and 3.5 yards a carry. The Bills managed 117 and 3.2 a carry. Take away seven short-yardage runs by Allen and the average was 3.8 per carry. Not bad against a defense that played a stout, five-man front.
Center Ryan Groy had a tough assignment against Damon "Snacks" Harrison and played one of his better games. The Bills used a lot of double-team blocks to get Harrison moving with the flow of the play. Harrison still managed six tackles, but the run game was good enough.
“We were trying to run the ball, inside outside, get ’em moving and stay on ’em,” Groy said. “You’re not going to get too much vertical push, so you try to move them down the line and create a hole.”
John Miller, who struggled the past two weeks, rebounded. He had a couple shaky run plays early but was decent overall. Jordan Mills gave up a sack to Devon Kennard and a hurry to Ricky Jean Francois in the first half. But Miller hung in and did a reasonable job in pass protection. Dion Dawkins was a less solid than Miller, even though he didn’t give up any sacks. He allowed two hurries and didn’t get much push in the run game.
Receivers (3.5): Robert Foster has three 100-yard games in the last five, while Isaiah McKenzie had a career-high six catches. With those two signings, Brandon Beane has more than made up for whiffing on Jeremy Kerley. (Kelvin Benjamin is a separate discussion.)
Running backs (2.0): Marcus Murphy and Keith Ford ran north-south and combined to go a reasonable 20 for 74 (3.7 a carry) in the first three quarters. Daboll called the game as if he was confident the Bills’ defense was going to contain the Lions, and he was right. On first down, there were 19 passes and eight runs.
Defensive line (4.0): There were no sacks, but keep in mind the Lions play a short-passing style. Leslie Frazier had his biggest blitzing day of the season. The Bills rushed five or more on 14 of 30 drop backs, or 46 percent. Given the Lions’ depleted receiving corps, the Bills were not too fearful of the deep ball. Stafford completed 11 of 13 passes against the blitz but only for 81 yards, 5.8 per attempt. The Lions average 6.9 per attempt overall. Frazier blitzed Stafford into a check-down game, and the Bills did a good job of tackling and preventing yards after the catch.
Star Lotulelei was stout in the middle. He pushed center Graham Glasgow back on the key 2-yard tackle for loss by Jordan Poyer on the last drive. Shaq Lawson had a third-down QB hit and a third-down pass breakup. Jerry Hughes had two hurries.
Linebackers (4.0): Lorenzo Alexander’s amazing age-35 season continues. Filling in for Matt Milano, he made six tackles, two for loss and came up with key plays in the second half. He was averaging 34 snaps but played 53, his second most of the season. Tremaine Edmunds made eight tackles and showed off his speed to the sideline to stop a flat pass for no gain.
Defensive backs (3.5): Detroit receiver Kenny Golladay was as good as advertised. Four of his seven catches came vs. Tre White, including 31- and 40-yarders. Stafford threw 18 of his 29 passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage and only four 20-plus yards downfield. (Allen was 4 of 8 on 20-plus throws.) Poyer was one of the defensive stars, playing tough while filling running lanes.
Special teams (2.0): An uneventful day. At least ball security was good.