Execution by elite players trumps scheming much of the time in the NFL.
The Buffalo Bills’ offensive players will spend all offseason lamenting a string of plays that were there to be made in Houston -- but that they failed to execute on the field.
It’s one of the obvious stories of the Bills’ season. The offense operated on a thin margin for error all year and wasn’t quite talented enough to win the AFC East . . . or get the team into the final eight of the NFL’s playoff bracket.
Buffalo managed to get to the 21-point mark in just six of 17 games. The NFL average was 22.8 this year. Twenty points in regulation would have beaten the Texans.
Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll can be second-guessed on a few counts. A couple more carries for Devin Singletary in the second half would have been nice. There were a couple conservative calls in the fourth quarter.
But Daboll schemed up a lot of good plays in NRG Stadium. His play-calling did not cost the Bills the game.
“We’re right here, and we didn’t make enough plays today,” said receiver Cole Beasley. “But just one or two plays goes the other way, we win this game. So it’s frustrating, but we’re right there.”
As was the case all year, the lack of a top-end third receiving target cost the Bills. The inexperience of quarterback Josh Allen was costly in a few key situations. And the Bills young blockers missed a few key assignments.
Here’s an assessment of some key offensive plays that went wrong. The Bills might have won if any one of them went right.
1. The failed QB sweep. The game arguably is over if the Bills execute this play in overtime. On first down from the Houston 43 with 11:21 left, the Bills had a quarterback sweep all set up. Allen had a convoy of center Mitch Morse, tackle Cody Ford and tight end Dawson Knox in front of him around right end.
It was going to break big, for 10 or 15 yards, easily. Both Ford and Knox had the only unblocked Texan, linebacker Zach Cunningham, in their sights. The two rookies didn’t execute the block. Ford took an inside line upfield. Knox thought Ford was going to block the linebacker and went outside. Knox should have picked up Cunningham. If he had, Ford had a safety blocked downfield. The sideline would have been wide open for Allen. Good call, bad execution.
As an aside, Cunningham made a helmet-to-helmet hit on Allen that the officials missed.
2. Frank Gore gets stuffed. Late in the first half, the Bills faced first down from the Texans’ 23 with 30 seconds left. It was a three-receiver set against a light Texans’ box. Allen audibled – probably out of a pass – to a Gore run off left tackle. The Bills had the numbers at the point of attack to make the play work, behind left tackle Dion Dawkins and tight end Lee Smith, with Duke Williams cracking back. But given the audible, it looked like there was a communication mixup, and none of the three picked up safety Mike Adams, who was unblocked off the edge. If Adams gets picked up, that play breaks for good yards. Allen was forced to spike the ball, bringing the clock down to 14 seconds.
3. End-zone fade. On the next play, Allen made an excellent throw on a fade to the end zone for Williams. The big receiver leapt but didn’t have both hands close enough. He only got one hand on the ball and couldn’t bring it in. It was the kind of catch a team expects a big wideout to make once in awhile.
4. Third-and-3 failure. The Bills drove to the Texans’ 38 on their first drive of the third quarter. But on a third-down handoff to Singletary, nose tackle D.J. Reader bulled Morse into the backfield and fouled up the play. Singletary was tackled for a 2-yard loss and the Bills punted.
5. Allen’s fumble. The Bills’ QB obviously needed to protect the ball better on a scramble up the middle on the second play of the fourth quarter. Whitney Mercilus tipped it out of his hands, leading to a Texans' field goal.
6. Two misses to Brown. The Bills settled for a field goal early in the second quarter after reaching the Houston 22. On first down, Allen made a good throw on a post pattern for Brown, who was a yard past Gareon Conley. Conley just barely deflected the pass. On third down, the Texans rushed seven, and the Bills kept seven in to block. Allen’s throw to the right sideline was excellent, but Brown caught it out of bounds. A receiver 2 inches taller might have been able to drag the toes, not leap for it, as Brown did.
7. No Devin? Here are two situations in which the Bills might have given their rookie back the ball, instead of passing. On a second-and-5 play from midfield on the last play of the third quarter, Tyler Kroft was flagged for holding in pass protection on Mercilus (a bad matchup for Kroft). On first and 10 from the Texans’ 25 with 2:22 left in regulation, the Bills called a play-action pass that Allen was forced to throw away in the end zone for Patrick DiMarco. Brown was running an over route to the left. That’s likely who they wanted. But J.J. Watt beat Jon Feliciano with an inside juke off the snap to blow up the play and force the incompletion.
8. Playing for the tie. On second and 10 with 2:15 left in regulation, the Bills ran Gore off left tackle from a tight formation. He ran right into the slot defender, Adams, who crashed the backfield. Watt beat Morse inside, too. The coaches looked like they wanted to avoid a sack. But Allen was hurried into an intentional grounding on the next play, when Singletary missed a dog-pickup on Mercilus.
9. Red-zone blocks. The Texans ranked 32nd in red-zone defense. But much of that ranking was without Watt. On first down from the Texans' 14 in the third quarter, Ford couldn't get out quick enough on the edge to block Brennan Scarlett, who forced an incompletion for Kroft. On third down, Watt beat Ford off the snap for a sack. The Bills settled for a field goal.
10. Blindside block. The foul on Ford two plays after Allen’s failed QB sweep was a controversial call. However, even if no penalty is called, the Bills would have faced fourth and 5 from the Texans’ 38. That means a 55- or 56-yard field goal, depending on the exact spot. It’s likely McDermott would have punted. It still matters. The Bills would have had a better chance to pin the Texans deeper than the 17 (which is where the ensuing punt was downed).