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Inside the Bills

Quarterly report card shows glowing marks on defense

Jay Skurski

NFL teams are fond of looking at the schedule in quarters.

When the Buffalo Bills do so, they’ll come away feeling awfully good about the first one of the 2019 season – even if it ended on a sour note.

The Bills went 3-1 in the first quarter of this season, a record that has them in a postseason spot if the season ended today. The one loss came Sunday against the New England Patriots in a most disappointing fashion. Despite a stellar defensive effort, the Bills’ numerous blunders on offense and special teams were too much to overcome in a 16-10 loss.

“We want to win every game, right? We’re highly competitive people, and I believe we’re changing a mindset here as well as the culture,” coach Sean McDermott said. “Part of changing the culture is changing the mindset of expecting to instead of hoping to. I believe that’s the direction we’re headed. … It’s important that you keep your mind about yourself and you take ownership of your part, your 1/11th of it, and then you apply it next week to grow stronger. Then again, it goes back to the growth mindset, that we get stronger each and every week with that in mind.”

Here is a position-by-position report card for the Bills after the first quarter of the season:

Quarterbacks: C

The numbers do not paint a pretty picture for Josh Allen.

He’s 22nd in the league in passing yards (903), tied for 26th in touchdown passes (3), 33rd in passer rating (69.6) and tied for the league lead in interceptions (6). That doesn’t tell the entire story – Allen’s three rushing touchdowns don’t factor into his passer rating, for example – but they are a starting point for a discussion about Allen’s performance. In short, he will not become a franchise quarterback until he takes better care of the football. It’s troubling that Allen said he would learn from his awful interception against the Bengals only to come back the following week against the Patriots and do the exact same thing.

The game against New England represented a serious step back in Allen’s development. As troubling as the poor decisions with the ball were his issues with accuracy. Even when receivers were open, Allen was way off the mark. A concussion suffered in the fourth quarter prevented Allen from getting a chance to lead his third fourth-quarter comeback of the season, following wins over the Jets and Bengals.

Allen’s ability to rise to the occasion in the moment has been the most promising part of his start to 2019 and raises the overall grade to passing.

Matt Barkley wasn’t able to lead the Bills to victory in the fourth quarter against New England despite getting the ball inside the Patriots’ 3-yard line. Barkley also did not take good care of the football, fumbling once (the Bills recovered) and throwing the game-deciding interception.

Running backs: B

Frank Gore never ceases to amaze. The 36-year-old, future Hall of Famer is 11th in the NFL with 273 rushing yards. His 61 carries ranks 12th. Gore has been the Bills’ lead back all season following the release of LeSean McCoy (who has 214 rushing yards for Kansas City, by the way). It’s expected that he will eventually turn over that role to Devin Singletary, but a hamstring injury suffered late in the Week 2 win over the Giants has sidelined the rookie for the past two games. In just 10 carries, Singletary has gained a whopping 127 yards – an average of 12.7 yards per rush. That has produced plenty of excitement about his potential with an expanded role.

Third running back T.J. Yeldon lost a bad fumble against the Bengals in Week 3 inside the red zone. He did not carry the ball at all against New England in Week 4, and has just eight carries for the season. Yeldon’s biggest contributions, not surprisingly, have come through the air. He’s got six catches for 87 yards – a strong average of 14.5 yards per reception.

Wide receivers: B-

John Brown and Cole Beasley have been exactly as advertised. The two veteran receivers have been reliable targets for Allen.

Beasley had a bit of a slow start against the Jets (he was charged with two drops by analytics website Pro Football Focus), but has rebounded to lead the team with 24 catches for 246 yards.

Brown is just one catch behind and leads the team with 315 receiving yards. He’s shown since training camp he is more than just a deep threat, while Beasley has been the safety valve for Allen. Brown has picked up a first down on 18 of his 23 catches, while Beasley had gained 120 yards after the catch. They’ve been the good.

There has also been some bad, starting with the production of third receiver Zay Jones. He has just seven catches for 69 yards in four games, despite being targeted 16 times. Not all of those targets have been catchable, but even so, more should be expected from a former second-round draft pick that the Bills moved up to acquire. Jones has fallen out of favor with a vocal group of fans on social media. They are eager to see the team move on, but that’s not likely at this point. Jones is a good blocker. It’s not that he is without value, it’s just that he’s not living up to the expectations that come with his draft status – and may never get there.

Wide receiver Robert Foster, who was so impressive over the second half of his 2018 rookie season, does not have a catch on just two targets. He missed last week with a hamstring injury. Foster is an early candidate for “biggest disappointment” of 2019.

Isaiah McKenzie has three catches for 49 yards and one touchdown.

Andre Roberts has one catch for 6 yards. He missed the first two games of the season with a quad injury. His primary role is as a return man. In that job, he’s averaging a stellar 31.3 yards on kick returns, but just 5.8 yards on nine punt returns.

Tight ends: C+

Tyler Kroft, who was expected to start when he was signed as a free agent, has yet to play because of foot and ankle injuries. That’s opened up a spot for rookie Dawson Knox, who leads the team’s tight ends in playing time (171 snaps – 58% of the team’s total), catches (8), yards (144), and touchdowns (1). He’s had some issues with drops, leading the team with three, but has also made some highlight plays, like the catch he had in the second quarter against New England as he fell to the turf. It’s been a long time – some would argue forever – since the Bills had a tight end other teams had to legitimately worry about. It’s early, but there have been signs Knox could develop into that player. Blocking tight end Lee Smith has played 48 percent of the snaps. He’s got one catch for 8 yards, but that’s not what he’s here for. Smith provides a solid veteran presence in the tight ends room, but his three penalties against the Patriots are inexcusable. Rookie Tommy Sweeney has three catches for 38 yards. Sweeney’s playing time may drop when Kroft is able to return to the field.

Offensive line: B+

The early returns on what is almost an entirely new offensive line have been positive. The line is third in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards rankings, at 5.02. That statistic is the analytics website’s way of assigning responsibility to the offensive line for running back carries.

One area the line needs to be stronger is at the point of attack. The Bills have a “power” success rate of just 40%, which ranks 28th in the NFL. Those are runs on either third or fourth down with 2 yards or less to go for either a first down or touchdown.

Center Mitch Morse has taken every snap in the regular season after missing nearly all of training camp with a concussion. Morse has allowed just one quarterback hit and two pressures, according to PFF. Morse is the offensive line’s highest-graded pass blocker, but has not fared as well in run blocking.

The story has been the opposite for rookie Cody Ford. He’s struggled as a pass blocker, giving up three sacks and four quarterback hurries, according to PFF, but has the line’s highest run-blocking grade.

The rotation between Ford and Ty Nsekhe has continued through most of four games, with the exception being when Week 3 when Ford moved inside to replace injured right guard Jon Feliciano.

Left tackle Dion Dawkins and left guard Quinton Spain have held down their spots through four games. Dawkins has allowed three sacks and eight quarterback hurries. Spain has actually allowed the most pressures, being charged with three quarterback hits and 10 hurries against.

Feliciano has allowed just four pressures – two hits and two hurries.

Defensive line: B

Coach Sean McDermott continues to rotate heavily along the defensive line. Trent Murphy has played 65 percent of the defensive snaps to lead all defensive linemen. Murphy has an interception that came in a Week 2 win over the Giants.

Edge rusher Jerry Hughes leads the Bills with 12 quarterback hurries, according to PFF. His 1.5 sacks are also the most on the team, an indication that the pass rush up front has not gotten home as much as it would like early in the year. In addition to Hughes, defensive end Shaq Lawson has one sack, defensive tackle Jordan Phillips also has one and defensive tackle Harrison Phillips has been credited with a half sack. That’s it for the defensive line.

Harrison Phillips might have been the best defensive lineman on the team before he suffered a torn ACL against the Bengals in Week 3. He had started to get more snaps than veteran Star Lotulelei. Jordan Phillips, meanwhile, did the same in Week 4. Does that say more about his performance, or that of Lotulelei? The Bills are paying Lotulelei $11.5 million against the salary cap. That’s a boatload of money for a player who is consistently playing less than 30 snaps a game.

First-round draft pick Ed Oliver has yet to record a sack, but he’s second to only Hughes with nine quarterback hurries. His time is coming soon. One area the defensive line has excelled is batting down passes at the line of scrimmage. As a group, they’ve combined for 10 of those.

Linebackers: A

Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano can do it all for the defense. Edmunds leads the team with 30 tackles, three of which have went for losses, and also has three passes defensed. Milano has 26 tackles, two quarterback hits, one pass defensed and one fumble recovery. Milano does have five missed tackles, but that’s going to happen when you’re around the ball as much as he is. The Bills should be thrilled to have both of them in the middle of the defense for years to come.

The same can’t be said of Lorenzo Alexander. The 36-year-old announced before the the start of this season that he plans to retire after the year. Alexander is going out in style. He’s playing about 40 percent of the defensive snaps, and has 13 tackles, one sack and four passes defensed, which is tied for the team lead. He also has six quarterback hurries, which is fourth on the team.

The durability of Edmunds and Milano along with the production of Alexander means the Bills haven’t had to use backups Julian Stanford, Corey Thompson or Maurice Alexander for a single snap on defense. All three of those players are key contributors on special teams.

Secondary: A+

There isn’t a better safety duo in the NFL than Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer. Hyde has 13 tackles, one huge interception of Tom Brady in Week 4, two passes defensed and one forced fumble. Poyer is second on the team with 27 tackles, one sack, one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. He’s been flat-out awesome in run support. Hyde and Poyer are the Bills’ two highest-graded defensive players, per PFF, for good reason.

The starting cornerback duo of Levi Wallace and Tre’Davious White is challenging to be considered one of the NFL’s best, as well. White’s two interceptions were huge plays in the Week 3 win over the Bengals. Teams rarely even throw at him any more. Wallace, meanwhile, was never seriously challenged for his starting job. He’s tied with Alexander for the team lead with four passes defensed.

Slot cornerback Taron Johnson has missed the last three games because of a hamstring injury, but the Bills have used a combination of Siran Neal and Kevin Johnson to adequately fill that hole. As a team, the Bills rank fourth in passing yards allowed per game (196.5) and third on a per-play basis (4.88).

Specialists: D

Punter Corey Bojorquez owns the worst net punting average in the NFL, at just 31.7 yards per punt. Some of that can be explained away by field position. Some of it can’t. Bojorquez is tied for the NFL lead with three touchbacks. He also had a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown against the Patriots in what was one of the worst plays of the season. The snap from Reid Ferguson was low, and the Bills didn’t make the necessary adjustment when New England brought their gunners in to rush. Later in the same game, kicker Stephen Hauschka missed an important 49-yard field goal. Hauschka gets a pass on his other miss this season, which came from 62 yards away.

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