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Sean McDermott tries to play it safe, but injuries still mar Bills' regular-season finale

Sean McDermott did his best to avoid them, but injuries still impacted the Buffalo Bills in their regular-season finale Sunday.

The team's head coach chose to sit several starters in a meaningless game against the New York Jets at New Era Field.

Cornerback Tre’Davious White, running back Devin Singletary, tight end Dawson Knox and wide receivers John Brown and Cole Beasley did not play in the Bills’ 13-6 loss, as McDermott tried to play it safe in advance of a wild-card playoff game against the Houston Texans.

“We'll be smart,” McDermott said during the week. “There's a delicate balance of rest and also continuing to grow and work on fundamentals and stay sharp.”

The workload varied for the Bills’ starters. For example, safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer and linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano played just one defensive series.

Starting quarterback Josh Allen got two series, going 3 of 5 for 5 yards before being replaced by Matt Barkley.

“I wish we had some more players, just in terms of bodies,” McDermott said last week. “You want to get some guys some rest, but at the same time, we've got to field a team out there. We've got a standard to uphold, as well, that these guys have developed and built.”

Once the game started, it became clear why McDermott wanted to dress more players.

2. Exhibit No. 1 of the case for resting starters came in the first quarter, when cornerback Levi Wallace went down with a non-contact, right ankle injury. Wallace went down after making an interception, with his right foot appearing to get stuck in the turf. He was not able to put any weight on his right leg as he was helped off the field, and a short time later was carted to the locker room. It was announced at the start of the third quarter that Wallace would be out for the rest of the game. Wallace left the postgame locker room in a walking boot.

With White inactive, that left just Kevin Johnson on the roster at outside cornerback. In response to Wallace’s injury, the Bills shifted things around in the secondary, taking Kevin Johnson out of the game and using usual slot cornerback Taron Johnson outside along with Siran Neal. When Neal went down with what looked like a stinger in the second quarter, Kevin Johnson came back into the game. Neal, however, was able to return to the game, making a nice third-down tackle on Jets receiver Robby Anderson late in the second quarter.

The injury issues in the secondary continued right to the very end. Taron Johnson went out with less than 4 minutes remaining in the game when he appeared to get spiked by teammate Jaquan Johnson.

Taron Johnson said after the game he got hit in the shin.

“It was a little bruised, but I’m good,” he said. “There's only so many guys you can have on a roster, so people gotta play. I just did what I had to do. I'm blessed. I'm healthy.”

Wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie briefly came into the game to play cornerback after Taron Johnson got hurt. McDermott said defensive backs coach John Butler talked to McKenzie during the game and relayed that McKenzie was willing to give it a try.

"He didn't blink, which is admirable at that point," McDermott said of McKenzie.

3. Right tackle Ty Nsekhe returned to the lineup after missing five games with an ankle injury. Nsekhe, who was listed as questionable on the final injury report, came into the game in the second quarter.

“He's done a good job,” McDermott said during the week. “He's worked. That's really what rehab is, it's the time on task of being able to commit to a process and he's done that.”

Unfortunately for Nsekhe and the Bills, the return was short-lived. He left the game in the third quarter after left guard Quinton Spain rolled up on Nsekhe’s right ankle, the same ankle that was injured against the Miami Dolphins in Week 11 and had kept him out until Sunday. Nsekhe was helped to the sideline and from there carted to the locker room. A short time later, it was announced he would not return to the game.

McDermott said he did not have an update on either Wallace or Nsekhe after the game.

4. The Bills’ injury troubles at offensive tackle continued in the third quarter when rookie Cody Ford left the game. Ford was examined in the sideline medical tent for what he said was a stinger.

After Ford went out, starting left tackle Dion Dawkins was forced to return to the game. Ford, however, was back in for the next possession. That's good news, because being without Nsekhe and Ford in the playoffs would have been a big problem.

“That’s always the goal, to come out healthy,” Ford said. “It’s unfortunate what happened to big Ty. We’ll pray for him. We’ve always got his back.”

Nsekhe and Ford split snaps nearly evenly before Nsekhe was hurt in Week 11. Since that time, Ford has been the full-time right tackle.

“Every week you learn from the week before and you try to improve,” he said. “That's been the goal every week.”

5. Frank Gore keeps going. Gore played in his 226th career game, tying Emmitt Smith for the most regular season games played by a running back in NFL history. Gore had six carries for 26 yards, his most production since he had 65 yards against Denver in Week 12. 

Gore, who is third in NFL history in rushing yards and attempts, finished the season with a career-low 599 yards. His 166 carries are the third-lowest of his career behind the 156 he had last season and the 127 he had as a rookie in 2005.

6. With McDermott resting starters, the Bills were able to give extensive playing time to a group of players who have become accustomed to being inactive. Tight end Tommy Sweeney and running back T.J. Yeldon played for the first time since Week 5 at Tennessee. Guard Ike Boettger played for just the second time this season. Safety Dean Marlowe played for just the second time in eight games and wide receiver Duke Williams ended a streak of being inactive for eight straight games.

“We try and do the best we can as a staff to follow up with them and make sure they know they're still a part of what we're doing and then after wins, make sure we congratulate them just like we congratulate the players that played the whole game,” McDermott said last week of the team’s list of usual healthy, inactive players. “I think that's a big part of our culture. Those players, at some point, you're going to have to count on them. It's a week-to-week deal, and they understand that for the most part.”

Of that group, Williams is the one who fans have most clamored for. He caught the go-ahead touchdown against the Titans in Week 5 and then played in the following two games, but has been inactive ever since. To his credit, he continued doing the right things in practice.

“It's been fun to watch him keep the right attitude and the right energy,” McDermott said. “Right body language, even though he has not been up on game day. That's a credit to him and just his resiliency, really.”

Williams finished with six catches for 108 yards.

“I thought it was a good opportunity to get the guys out there and get some quality reps from some of the guys that don’t get maybe as many line-of-scrimmage reps as they did today,” McDermott said. “It was a good look at some of the guys.”

7. Spain drew the short straw along the offensive line. With only nine offensive linemen on the roster, at least one of the starters was going to have to be on the field at any given time. That ended up being Spain, who played all four quarters and appeared to take every snap. In doing so, he passed Dawkins for the team lead in offensive snaps. Coming into the game, Dawkins had played 1,031 of 1,033 offensive snaps – 99.8%. Spain had played 1,028.

“If they called on me, I had to play,” Spain said.

On defense, Edmunds’ streak of playing every snap came to an end when he came out after the first series. He had played all 986 defensive snaps coming into the game.

8. Brown’s first season with the Bills was a big success. His 1,062 receiving yards ranks first in franchise history for a player in his first year with the team, while his 72 catches makes him the first Bill to surpass 70 since 2012. Brown’s 123 yards in the season opener also set a team record for a player in his Bills debut, and he became the first wide receiver in team history to throw a touchdown, which came on Thanksgiving against Dallas. With Beasley inactive, the Bills narrowly missed out on becoming the first team since 2015 to have a wide receiver tandem each make 70-plus catches in their first year with a team.

Singletary fell just 31 yards short of becoming the Bills’ first rookie since Marshawn Lynch in 2007 to have 1,000 yards from scrimmage.

On defense, the Bills allowed 259 points this season, their fewest since allowing a team-record 229 in 1999.

9. The Bills’ other inactive players were hurt: Defensive end Shaq Lawson (hamstring) and wide receiver Andre Roberts (foot). Neither player practiced during the week, although they were able to finish the Week 16 game against New England, so it’s possible that McDermott was simply playing it safe.

10. Steve Tasker, the Bills’ former special teams great and current co-host of the team’s daily radio show, was featured as Sunday’s “Legend of the Game.” A seven-time Pro Bowler and seven-time first-team All-Pro, Tasker made 51 catches for 779 yards and nine touchdowns in his career. Of course, his bigger impact was made on special teams. He’s the only special teams player to ever win Pro Bowl MVP (in 1993) and will find out Thursday if he is one of 15 modern-era finalists for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In addition to Tasker, Bills alumni Gary Baldinger, Ahmad Brooks, Steve Christie, Fred Jackson, Ken Jones, Andy Levitre, Lou Piccone, Bruce Smith, Brian Taylor, Will Wolford, Thurman Thomas and Eric Wood were in attendance Sunday.

Before the game, the Bills acknowledged the death of Wall of Fame wide receiver Elbert “Golden Wheels” Dubenion. He passed away Thursday at the age of 86 after battling both Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease in recent years.

Thomas wore a No. 44 jersey to honor Dubenion.

Thurman Thomas looks on during a moment of silence in remembrance of NFL Legend & Bills Wall of Fame WR, Elbert Dubenion. 🙏🏽 #nflbrotherhood

— Bills Legends Community (@BillsLegends) December 29, 2019

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