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COMMENTARY

Bills midseason report card: Average defines the offense

Jay Skurski

The second quarter of the Buffalo Bills’ 2019 season closely mirrored the first.

Once again, the team went 3-1. Once again, those wins came against lackluster competition.

And once again, media and fans have been left to debate, just how good is this year’s team?

Players, understandably, are growing tired of that line of questioning. After Sunday’s 24-9 victory over Washington at New Era Field, safety Micah Hyde said he was done apologizing for “ugly wins.”

He’s right. A win’s a win. The Bills don’t have to apologize for anything. They’ve taken care of business for the most part. How they’ve won and who they’ve beat should not diminish the fact they’re off to a 6-2 start – the first time any Bills team has done that since 1993.

“We control what we can control,” coach Sean McDermott said. “That's what we do. We don't make the schedule. We didn't make the schedule last year. There's probably good odds that we won't make it next year, either, so we're focused on who we play this week.”

That’s where the team’s focus needs to be. Fans and media members, however, are free to debate all they want what the Bills’ strength of schedule means, or anything else they desire. That comes with the territory. With that in mind, here is The Buffalo News’ midterm report card:

Quarterback: B-

First, the good with Josh Allen. He’s thrown 89 passes in a row without an interception, dating back to the Week 5 win over the Titans. He’s also thrown seven touchdowns and just one interception from Weeks 5-9.

“Just his development, his maturing on and off the field, that's all part of it,” McDermott said. “His understanding more and more each week, each rep of what we're trying to get done, both situationally and schematically. Really, I think he's taking a very unselfish, team-first approach, which is important for all members of our team, including our quarterback.”

Now, the bad. Allen has fumbled five times in that same stretch, and is lucky to have only lost one of them. Ball security remains a huge issue.

The last two games have been windy, even by New Era Field standards. That’s not to make excuses – the ability to throw through the wind with his superior arm strength is part of what made him a top-10 pick – but it’s fair to be mentioned. In what the Bills have asked Allen to do the last four weeks, he’s done it well.

“At the end of the day, he's asked to win games,” McDermott said. “That's what we're going to try and do, is win games. Develop the right game plan in order to do that. That's going to vary week to week the number of times he throws, the style of throws, the number of times we run, so we're always going to be trying to put our players ... in a position of strength. So there's some good there, and there's some things he has to work on, just like all of us.”

There will come a day, however, that Allen will be asked to do more. It remains to be seen if he’ll be up to the task.

Running backs: C+

Sunday’s win over the Redskins certainly felt like a changing of the guard. Rookie Devin Singletary received 20 carries and made four catches, turning those 24 touches into 140 yards from scrimmage.

Veteran Frank Gore, meanwhile, repeatedly ran into a brick wall, carrying 11 times for 15 yards. Singletary possesses an explosiveness that Gore understandably lacks at 36 years old. That doesn’t mean the veteran won’t factor into the game plans moving forward, however.

“We've got a lot of confidence in Frank Gore,” McDermott said Monday. “Frank’s a big part of what we're doing here and his personality on our football team is important – that toughness. He's played in a lot of important games over the course of his career. So, his role is an important one for us.”

Gore has had back-to-back quiet games, rushing nine times for 34 yards against the Eagles in Week 8. Before that, though, he helped close out the win against the Titans and averaged 5.0 yards per carry against his former team, the Dolphins, in Week 7.

Singletary missed the Week 5 win over the Titans as he recovered from a hamstring injury, then was eased back into action the next two weeks. Running back T.J. Yeldon has been a healthy inactive following the team’s bye week, with Senorise Perry serving as the third running back for special-teams purposes.

Wide receivers: C

John Brown continues to impress. He’s had at least four catches and 50 yards in every game this season. He might not fit the classic description of a No. 1 receiver, but he’s filling that role for the Bills. Brown has caught 70% of his targets and is on pace for more than 1,200 receiving yards, ranking 16th in the NFL with 603 yards through eight games.

Slot receiver Cole Beasley has just 18 targets over the last four games after having 36 in the first four games. Beasley has made 11 catches on those 18 targets, but his saving grace is making three touchdown catches in the past three weeks, the first time in his career he’s scored in three straight games.

A lack of a quality third receiving option is a glaring hole on the roster. The Bills tried Zay Jones in that job, but he failed and was shipped off to Oakland for the meager return of a 2021 fifth-round draft pick. Duke Williams’ debut against Tennessee included the go-ahead touchdown catch in the fourth quarter, but it’s been downhill from there. Williams was a healthy inactive against the Redskins on Sunday.

Robert Foster amazingly still does not have a catch this year. The Bills gave Isaiah McKenzie the second-most snaps Sunday against Washington, but he managed just three catches for 12 yards. McKenzie proved to be a good decoy with his jet-sweep action and should have a role in the offense, but he doesn’t project to be that third receiver the offense is lacking.

Tight ends: C-

Tyler Kroft finally made his Bills debut after the bye week following an extended absence because of foot and ankle injuries. Kroft made two catches for 32 yards against the Eagles. With Kroft back, rookie Tommy Sweeney has been a healthy inactive the last three games.

Rookie Dawson Knox has led the tight ends in playing time and targets. Knox has six catches for 48 yards in the last four games. Veteran Lee Smith, who primarily serves as a blocker, did catch a touchdown pass in Week 5 against Tennessee.

Given their minimal contributions in the passing offense, blocking has to be part of the tight ends’ overall grade. In 52 run-blocking snaps from Weeks 5-9, analytics website Pro Football Focus has given Smith an overall grade of 67.5, which ranks seventh in the NFL. Kroft has a strong pass-blocking grade of 79.0, which ranks tied for fifth, but it comes on just 12 snaps.

Smith leads the Bills with seven penalties in the first half of the season. That’s unacceptable for a player on the field 41% of the time.

Offensive line: B

Left tackle Dion Dawkins continues to put together a strong third season. Dawkins has a pass-blocking grade of 81.1 from Weeks 5-9, according to PFF. That ranks 13th in the league. He’s allowed two hits and two quarterback hurries in that time. Dawkins’ run-blocking grade of 65.6 ranks just 29th, though, so there is room for improvement.

Veteran right tackle Ty Nsekhe has fared better as a run blocker. His grade of 73.3 ranks ninth in the league. It might be time for the rotation between Nsekhe and rookie Cody Ford to end. Nsekhe, who played the entire game against the Redskins, has solidly outgraded Ford in PFF’s rankings in the second quarter of the season. Ford’s overall grade of 48.0 from Weeks 5-9 ranks 69th among 76 qualifying tackles. It’s fair to wonder if a permanent move to guard might be in the team’s best interest.

Center Mitch Morse has graded 12th out of 35 qualifying centers. That’s solid, but probably not exactly what the Bills had in mind when they made him the highest-paid player at his position. It’s worth noting that there is some subjectivity involved in PFF’s rankings, and the Bills may not necessarily agree with that assessment of Morse’s play. He’s been charged with allowing one sack and two quarterback hits.

The Bills’ guard play has been solid, if not spectacular. Left guard Quinton Spain ranks 25th and right guard Jon Feliciano ranks 38th among 79 qualifying guards in PFF’s rankings. Feliciano has been charged with allowing two sacks. Penalties were an issue for Spain against the Redskins, as he was flagged twice. Those were his only two flags of the season to this point, though.

Allen has been sacked 12 times in the past four games.

Defensive line: B-

Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips has been the most pleasant surprise of the 2019 season. He started the second quarter of the season with a three-sack game against Tennessee and ended it by making his first start of 2019 against Washington. He’s making himself a bunch of money as an impending free agent.

Phillips starting meant rookie first-round draft pick Ed Oliver played a season-low 18 snaps against Washington. Oliver has just one sack this season. It’s clear he’s got plenty of work to do to become the player the Bills expected to get with a top-10 selection. Starting Phillips should send a message to Oliver, who has had three of his four lowest-graded games of his rookie year come in the second quarter of the season. Again, that’s based on PFF’s somewhat subjective grading scale.

The run defense clearly misses defensive tackle Harrison Philips, who was on his way toward replacing Star Lotulelei in the starting lineup. Lotulelei, who has never been a favorite of PFF, ranks tied for 78th in run defense among 126 qualifying interior defensive linemen from Weeks 5-9. His tackling grade of 24.7 is last. Lotulelei is never going to put up big statistics, which is fine. After giving up 327 rushing yards in six quarters against the Eagles and Redskins, however, his performance is going to be scrutinized much more. It’s hard to believe the Bills can’t find someone else to do what Lotulelei is asked to do for a lot less than $10 million a year.

The Bills made a change to their fourth defensive tackle spot, swapping out Kyle Peko for Vincent Taylor ahead of the game against Washington. If the run defense continues to be an issue, the one-technique spot in their defense could be addressed from outside the organization.

Tackling among the Bills’ defensive ends has been brutal, based on PFF’s grading. Of 110 qualified edge defenders, the Bills’ three primary defensive ends – Jerry Hughes, Trent Murphy and Shaq Lawson – rank 99th, 97th and 105th, respectively. The sack production among those three has been minimal, as well, with just three combined in the team’s four games. The trio also has combined for six quarterback hits (two each) and 18 total pressures (nine by Hughes, five by Murphy and four by Lawson).

Linebackers: B

Statistics don’t always tell the whole story for linebackers. Matt Milano, for example, had 13 tackles against the Eagles in Week 8, including three that went for losses, but he appeared to be primarily responsible for a long Philadelphia touchdown run. Milano, who missed the Week 7 game against the Dolphins with a hamstring injury, gave up seven catches on seven targets against the Eagles.

Tremaine Edmunds leads the Bills with 61 tackles, 31 of which have come in the last four games. Edmunds has improved in pass coverage, making a pair of passes defensed in Week 5 against Tennessee. He struggled against the Eagles, but that was true of the entire front seven. He was better in Week 9, making four “stops” – tackles defined by PFF as offensive failures. The next step for Edmunds will be to come up with more “splash” plays – he does not have any sacks, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries or interceptions this season.

Lorenzo Alexander saw a big increase in his workload against Miami, playing 70 snaps with Milano out of the lineup. Alexander, 36, continues to do whatever the defense needs of him. His two sacks rank third on the team. One of those came in the Week 5 win over the Titans.

Secondary: A

If cornerback Tre’Davious White isn’t a Pro Bowler this season, there should be a congressional investigation. White has accounted for multiple second-half takeaways in a pair of wins this season, including against Miami in Week 7. His first career sack last week against Washington helped seal the Bills’ win. White has started to follow around the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver. That’s because teams have started to throw more at Levi Wallace. He was targeted nine times against the Dolphins and eight times against the Redskins, allowing seven catches in each of those games for a combined 170 yards and a touchdown. With White playing so well, Wallace can expect that to continue. Nickel cornerback Taron Johnson is back after missing four games with a hamstring injury. Johnson took a full workload at nickel cornerback against the Redskins, making two key plays in the second half with the Bills nursing a one-possession lead. Kevin Johnson has done a nice job in spot duty, backing up both inside and outside corner positions.

There isn’t a lot to say about safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, other that that they remain one of the NFL’s best duos. Both players do not have a noticeable weakness.

Special teams: C+

Andre Roberts finally provided a big play with a 66-yard kick return against Washington that set up the offense with a short field. There have been precious few opportunities on both kick and punt returns to that point. In his few opportunities on kickoff returns, Roberts has helped the Bills to an average of 33.0 yards, which leads the NFL. Kicker Stephen Hauschka missed a 52-yard field goal against the Eagles with the wind before halftime. That could have given the Bills some momentum. Outside that, Hauschka has been solid. He made all three of his extra points and a field goal in windier conditions Sunday against Washington.

Punter Corey Bojorquez is still struggling with consistency. He had a 15-yard punt into the wind against Washington, then boomed one 59 yards with the wind later in the game.

“I think there's probably some plays he’d like to have back,” McDermott said of Bojorquez. “There's a mental toughness component when you're kicking in Buffalo and I think it's in there with Corey. The same with Stephen, and so Hauschka is further along in his career and I thought he was extremely mentally tough (Sunday). And Corey, after he had the bad one, came back and had a very key punt for us late in the game as I mentioned. We're starting to see signs of that positive mental toughness.”

The Bills’ punt coverage ranks 29th in the league, but the kick coverage is second, allowing 18.3 yards per return.

Coaching: B-

McDermott has had his team ready to beat the teams it should have beaten. He deserves credit for that. The Bills are still struggling with pre-snap penalties, which has to drive the coach nuts. There are other fair criticisms of McDermott – his use of challenges tops the list – but it’s hard to argue at 6-2.

Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s play calling has really come under fire over the past two weeks. There’s no good reason Daboll didn’t get Singletary involved a lot more coming out of the bye week. It would also be nice if the offense can figure out what’s going on in short-yardage situations. Instead of loading the box, and putting so many big bodies in a tight space, why not spread the defense out with four receivers and then run? The refusal to try something different in short-yardage situations against Washington was frustrating.

Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier has seen his run defense go through tough stretches before. The Eagles’ game and the first two quarters against the Redskins certainly qualified, although things were much better in the second half against Washington. As the second half of the season begins and the weather gets worse, it’s a good bet teams will continue to try and run the ball against the Bills. Frazier has to come up with an answer.

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