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Upon further review

Change at coordinator hasn't helped Bills' special teams enough

A new year has so far not brought new results for the Buffalo Bills’ special teams.

The “third phase of the game” was one of the main reasons the team lost to New England on Sunday.

The Bills gave up a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown and missed a 49-yard field goal at the end of the first half, plays that proved pivotal in a 16-10 loss at New Era Field.

“Those plays are mistakes we can’t make,” said cornerback Siran Neal, one of the Bills’ key special-teams players. “We see that can be the outcome of the game, winning or losing. We’ve got to fix those mistakes. That punt block score — Lord knows what would have happened in that game, what would have been the outcome if we didn’t allow that. We’ve got to take it and learn from it.”

The Bills made significant changes to their special teams after the 2018 season, starting with firing former coordinator Danny Crossman. His unit ranked 31st last year in longtime NFL writer Rick Gosselin’s special-teams rankings, which are accepted as the league standard.

Heath Farwell was hired to replace Crossman, but so far, there hasn't been much improvement. The Bills entered Week 4 ranked 26th in analytics website Football Outsiders’ special-teams rankings, and that promises to go down after Sunday’s dreadful showing.

“It's a big change for the team,” kicker Stephen Hauschka said of the change at coordinator. “We didn't get the results today that we wanted, but we're right where we need to be. We're growing. We'll learn from this and move on and get better moving forward.”

"I don't look at it as a step back. I never do," Farwell told The Buffalo News on Monday. "It's things we can learn from, things we can grow from. Really, just being a coordinator in my fourth game, I'm continuing to grow. So I always look forward. I mean, yes, there's corrections, yes, we have to improve, but I don't ever try to look in the past of taking a step back. No, no, no. We got something out of that game and we'll continue to get better with it."

The Bills' biggest gaffe of the season came with 6:22 left in the first quarter, when Corey Bojorquez's punt was blocked by New England's J.C. Jackson and returned 11 yards for a touchdown by Matthew Slater. On the play, Bills cornerback Kevin Johnson was the gunner on the far left of the punt formation opposite Jackson. When Jackson left his outside position to rush the punt, the Bills didn't adjust.

"I don't really want to get into the specifics. We obviously didn't execute, and that's something I've got to fix," Farwell said. "We looked at it today. I looked at it last night as well. We met with the guys today. We're moving forward with just making the corrections."

Punting has been the primary problem on special teams. Bojorquez has the worst net punting average in the NFL at 31.7 yards. Part of that is based on field position, but the Bills have the most touchbacks in the league with three, so that doesn’t explain all of it.

“You always want to do what you can to help the team,” Bojorquez said after Sunday’s loss. “We fell a little bit short of that. We’ll get in tomorrow, watch the tape and just learn from it. There were a lot of things that could have been different. You never want to get blocked. Whether they score on it or not, punting really affects the field position. It hurt us, but we’ll bounce back from it.”

Bojorquez won a competition with Cory Carter during training camp, but neither player was particularly impressive in the preseason. The Bills have conducted workouts with other punters, but so far have been resistant to making a change.

"I think he's done some good stuff.," Farwell said. "He had two balls yesterday that were inside the 5-yard line. ... At times, we'd like to have some of those punts back, just like everybody. I'd like to have a couple calls that I did yesterday back. We're evaluating everything and it starts with me, starting with what I've got to do better. Like I said, he's got things he's got to work on, but we all do."

Farwell is correct in that it's not just Bojorquez who is struggling. The Bills are allowing 16.6 yards per punt return, which ranks last in the NFL. The kickoff coverage has been better, allowing 18.6 yards per return to rank sixth in the league, though the unit was fortunate that a Cincinnati return for a touchdown in Week 3 was called back on a penalty.

The absence of Pro Bowl returner Andre Roberts the first two weeks has affected the team, too. The Bills rank 21st in punt-return average, at 5.5 yards. They are third in kick-return average at 31.3 yards, but with only three attempts, that’s not all that impactful.

Roberts is healthy now after a quad injury slowed him at the beginning of the season. Farwell believes he's close to making a big play.

"His energy, the way he sets up the returns, his ability to break tackles, it's impressive," he said of Roberts. "He's the most talented returner in the game and we're trying to highlight him as much as we can and trying to get him loose. We weren't able to break one yesterday, but we were able to get some decent field position especially in the kickoff return game. He had two pretty good returns. We'll just continue to try and highlight him and try to figure out ways to get him free as much as we can and hopefully we can break one."

Hauschka has made 4 of 6 field goals. His success rate of 66.7% ranks tied for 25th in the league. One of Hauschka’s misses came from 62 yards against the Bengals, so that can be excused. Missing a 49-yarder at the end of the first half Sunday, however, was costly.

“There was a little bit of a right-to-left wind, and I didn’t really start it on the right line for that wind, so it took off a little left,” he said. “It’s too bad, because we felt like we were getting rolling on special teams (before Sunday). That’s how important each play is on special teams.”

"We trust Stephen. He's been a talented kicker in this league for a long time," Farwell said. "He'd love to make that kick. That's something he makes the majority of the time. ... Every person on special teams, we've got room to improve. He'll continue to improve as well. Like I said, he's fine."

It's not always wise to play the "what if" game, but it's hard not to after Sunday. If the Bills get Bojorquez's punt off and Hauschka made that field goal, perhaps the Bills are in first place in the AFC East.

"You take points where you can get points in this league, especially against a team like this, so we'll live and we'll learn, move on to next week and hopefully get stuff cleaned up that need to be cleaned up," fullback Patrick DiMarco said.

The change at coordinator was not the only significant one. Linebacker Deon Lacey and cornerback Lafayette Pitts led the Bills a year ago in special-teams snaps, but both of them failed to make the team this year. Returning linebacker Julian Stanford and newcomers Kurt Coleman and Maurice Alexander have taken over as core special-teams contributors.

“I'm confident in everything we're doing, in the way they're coaching stuff,” DiMarco said. "We've just got to keep plugging along. We had a few big returns today, obviously didn't get the win, so that's all that really matters. It's unfortunate, especially a divisional opponent like this. It's a close game. Defense played so well, it stinks. It's going to hurt for a little bit, but we've got another game in seven days, so got to move on.

Game ball: Frank Gore

The 36-year-old running back became just the fourth player in NFL history to rush for 15,000 career yards, hitting the milestone on a classic, 41-yard run right up the gut of the Patriots’ defense. Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders are the only other players to reach 15,000 yards. Gore has 273 rushing yards this season, which is the most in NFL history for a player 36 or older through four games. His 109 yards Sunday were the fourth most for a player 36 or older in a single game behind MacArthur Lane (144 yards in 1978) and Hall of Fame fullback John Riggins (114 and 112 yards in 1985).

Playoff picture

Yes, it’s early. The Bills, though, hold the first wild card in the AFC through four weeks with a 3-1 record. There are six teams at 2-2, including Buffalo’s next opponent – the Tennessee Titans. That sets up a big game in Week 5.

Quote of the day

“I just know where we’re headed as an organization and I’m confident in that. We’ve got to continue to grow, continue to learn from these type of opportunities and these type of challenges.” – Coach Sean McDermott, on whether Sunday was a "measuring-stick" game for his team.

Snap-count notes

1. With Josh Allen and Dion Dawkins missing snaps Sunday, center Mitch Morse and left guard Quinton Spain are the only offensive players to take every snap through four games. Allen played 59 snaps (71%) before leaving in the fourth quarter with a concussion, while Dawkins missed two of the team’s 83 offensive snaps.

2. Running back T.J. Yeldon actually played more snaps than Frank Gore, 45-38. Yeldon, though, had just four touches, all of which came on receptions. Gore rushed 17 times, producing 109 yards. It was a quiet game for wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie, who got just one snap, and tight end Tommy Sweeney, who got just nine.

3. Defensive tackle Kyle Peko played 18 snaps in his first game on the 53-man roster. Peko was promoted from the practice squad to replace Harrison Phillips, who suffered a torn ACL in the Week 3 win over the Bengals. Jordan Phillips played 30 snaps (46%) and Star Lotulelei played 27 (42%).

4. A couple Bills made their season debuts on special teams. Rookie safety Jaquan Johnson played 16 snaps on special teams (57%), while guard Ike Boettger played three snaps (11%).

5. Tre’Davious White missed four defensive snaps after appearing to roll an ankle. He played 61 defensive snaps (94%), while linebackers Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds, safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde and cornerback Levi Wallace took all 65 defensive snaps.

Coming attractions

The Tennessee Titans are 2-2 after an impressive 24-10 road win over Atlanta on Sunday. Here are three things to know about the Titans.

1. Marcus Mariota is taking care of the football. The Titans’ quarterback has not turned the ball over this season. He’s the only quarterback in the league who has started every game who has not turned the ball over. Mariota went 18 of 27 for 227 yards and three touchdowns in the win against the Falcons. Two of those touchdowns went to rookie receiver A.J. Brown, who had three catches for 94 yards. Brown leads the Titans with 223 receiving yards through four games.

2. The offensive line had a better performance Sunday. Mariota was sacked an NFL-high 17 times in the first three games. Part of that was holding onto the ball too long – a problem that Mariota corrected against the Falcons by doing a better job of knowing when to throw the ball away. Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith also deserves credit for calling pass plays that got the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quicker. As a result, Mariota was not sacked for the first time in his last 18 games.

3. Derrick Henry can wear out a defense. The 2015 Heisman Trophy winner at Alabama, Henry has rushed for at least 80 yards in seven of his past eight games. That includes 100 yards against the Falcons on Sunday. Henry gained just 29 yards on nine carries in the first half, but he got double that number of carries in the second half, producing 71 yards. At one point in the fourth quarter, Henry carried the ball seven times in a row.

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