The third quarter of the Buffalo Bills’ schedule played out exactly as the first two, with one key difference.
The Bills went 3-1 again, the same as the first two quarters of the schedule, improving their record to 9-3 on the season. The difference, though, is how they looked doing it.
There was no squeaking by the New York Jets or New York Giants, no second-half comebacks needed against the Miami Dolphins or Cincinnati Bengals. Instead, the Bills started the third quarter by smacking Miami, then followed with a beatdown of the Denver Broncos. The third quarter ended with the team’s most impressive showing yet, a 26-15 win over the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day in front of a huge audience on national television.
Before the game against Dallas, coach Sean McDermott was asked about a growing sense of confidence surrounding his team.
“It’s driven by the leadership, the player-driven leadership,” McDermott said. “They've done a phenomenal job, just steering this team in the right direction and then, when you can get your young players developing the way that we're getting our young players to develop, and then you’re getting all three phases contributing, I think that's a good thing.”
Here is The Buffalo News’ third-quarter report card:
Josh Allen has gone from “maybe he’s not the guy” to “the Bills might have their guy” in the course of four games. Allen was atrocious against Cleveland to start the third quarter, but that performance has long since been forgotten after the quarterback dominated against the Dolphins, Broncos and Cowboys. Allen was the AFC Offensive Player of the Week against Denver, but it was his performance against Dallas that has everyone swooning. Allen completed 77 of 123 passes in the third quarter of the season for 938 yards, six touchdowns and just one interception.
Running backs: B-
Rookie Devin Singletary has taken over as the lead back. He topped 100 yards for the first time in his career in the Week 12 win over Denver. In the same game, veteran Frank Gore passed Barry Sanders for third on the all-time rushing list. Gore, however, has not had an easy go of it lately. He gained 65 yards against the Broncos, but combined for just 50 yards in the other three weeks. Singletary is second to only Raiders first-round draft pick Josh Jacobs in rushing yards among rookies from Weeks 10-13. Jacobs has 321 yards and Singletary has 286 over that time. The Bills continue to go with just two running backs. Senorise Perry has been active, but played only on special teams. T.J. Yeldon has been a healthy inactive since the bye week.
Wide receivers: B+
It continues to be the John Brown and Cole Beasley show. The Bills’ two free-agent acquisitions combined for 39 catches on 57 targets for 577 yards and five touchdowns in the third quarter of the season. Beasley has come on strong lately, most recently putting up 110 yards against his old team on Thanksgiving. Isaiah McKenzie has established himself as the team’s third receiver. He made 10 catches for 87 yards in the third quarter. Robert Foster has started to carve out a role in the offense, which is good to see after he was invisible in the first half. Duke Williams has been a healthy inactive in the third quarter.
Tight ends: C+
Rookie tight end Dawson Knox’s 115 receiving yards over the last four games leads all rookie tight ends. Knox has firmly established himself as the starter, with veterans Tyler Kroft and Lee Smith seeing a steady decrease in playing time. That coincides with the Bills moving to an offense that primarily uses one tight end, one running back and three wide receivers as its base set. Knox’s development this season has been a positive, but he continues to have issues with drops. He had two more in the third quarter of the season and now has seven on the year.
Offensive line: A
Allen has been sacked six times in the last four games, but just three of those have been charged to offensive linemen, according to analytics website Pro Football Focus. Rookie Cody Ford has stepped in at right tackle on a full-time basis following an ankle injury suffered by veteran Ty Nsekhe. Ford has faced premier pass rushers in Denver’s Von Miller and Dallas’ Demarcus Lawrence and has been able to hold his own. The unsung heroes on the line are guards Quinton Spain and Jon Feliciano, both cheap, free-agent additions who have provided great value. Over the last four games, the Bills have rushed for an average of 155 yards per game.
Defensive line: A
The Bills have settled on three-man rotations at both defensive end (Jerry Hughes, Shaq Lawson, Trent Murphy) and defensive tackle (Star Lotulelei, Jordan Phillips, Ed Oliver). That group is getting after the quarterback better than it has all season. That’s especially true of Lawson, who has four sacks in the last three weeks. He’s putting up big numbers in a contract year. During the Bills’ three-game win streak, those six players have combined for 13 sacks in the last three games. After struggling against the run against Cleveland, the Bills have allowed 23, 85 and 103 yards on the ground, respectively, during a three-game win streak.
Tremaine Edmunds’ speech the night before the game against the Dolphins inspired his team and showed his growth as a leader. Of course, it helped that Edmunds went out and made 12 tackles in the win. Edmunds also had a safety against the Cleveland Browns, flashing the big-play ability that’s needed out of the former first-round draft pick. Matt Milano has seven passes defensed during the Bills’ three-game win streak. His ability to defend the pass provides a ton of flexibility for the Bills’ defense.
The Bills’ pass defense allowed just 49 net yards against the Broncos, the fewest allowed in a single game since 2005. The numbers against Miami and Dallas weren’t as prolific, but that’s because the Dolphins and Cowboys racked up a bunch of yards in garbage time. The big development in the secondary in the third quarter of the season has been a rotation forming between Kevin Johnson and Levi Wallace at outside cornerback opposite Tre’Davious White. That started after the Cleveland game, during which Wallace allowed a pair of touchdown passes. Nickel cornerback Taron Johnson has given up 17 catches over the last four weeks, according to PFF, which ranks as the second most in the league. Johnson, though, has been in coverage on 135 snaps, which is the most in the league.
Special teams: D
With the exception of punter Corey Bojorquez, who has really come on in the last month, it’s been a horror show. The Bills allowed a 101-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Dolphins. Kicker Stephen Hauschka melted down against the Browns, costing the Bills a game that was there to be won, and then struggled against the Cowboys, missing a 50-yard field goal and an extra point in the first half. Anything beyond 50 yards seems like a Hail Mary at the moment for Hauschka. It shouldn’t be that way for a kicker who has the highest salary-cap hit in the league this year.
There are still some issues with when and how timeouts are used, but that doesn’t take away from the bigger picture. The Bills don’t have a two-game losing streak this season. They appear to be finding themselves at exactly the right time. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll is onto something with his no-huddle approach. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier is picking and choosing when to blitz beautifully. Head coach Sean McDermott is overseeing it all. He’s got his team bought into the idea of nobody believing in them – even if they are making believers out of even their most hardened critics.
Story topics: Brian Daboll/ cody ford/ Cole Beasley/ Dawson Knox/ Devin Singletary/ Duke Williams/ Frank Gore/ Isaiah McKenzie/ John Brown/ Jon Feliciano/ Josh Allen/ Kevin Johnson/ Lee Smith/ Leslie Frazier/ Levi Wallace/ Matt Milano/ Quinton Spain/ Sean McDermott/ Senorise Perry/ T.J. Yeldon/ Taron Johnson/ Tremaine Edmunds/ Ty Nsekhe/ Tyler Kroft