The Buffalo Bills will look for any edge they can find Saturday in the wild card game.
With rough weather on deck, the Bills will need a clean day on special teams against the Patriots in Orchard Park. They've had consistency in some cases throughout the season, with kicker Tyler Bass being reliable. Other decisions are still being made.
If the Bills beat the Patriots, it pretty much makes the entire season. Two victories over Belichick in the same year – and sending the Pats packing in the playoffs? That would be a great way to remember the 2021 campaign.
Bills safety Micah Hyde said Wednesday he’s not sure yet who will be on for punt returns come Saturday.
“I’m really not sure, and, ultimately, I want to win,” Hyde said. “So if comes down to me or it comes down to whoever else, I have faith in everyone else, too.”
Hyde handled punt returns with running back Matt Breida on kick returns when the Bills hosted the Patriots in windy Week 13. Hyde also took over punt returns from Isaiah McKenzie toward the end of the second quarter Sunday against the New York Jets. McKenzie muffed his first punt return of the game, losing a yard.
People are also reading…
Starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn (ankle) and key linebacker Jamie Collins (hip and ankle) did not practice.
Hyde compared punt returns in Buffalo to when he played baseball in Ohio in February when it was still freezing. Regardless of exact conditions, he thinks this aspect of the game is underrated in how difficult he can be.
“I would say that punt returning is one of the hardest things in sports,” Hyde said. “Just because you’ve got the weather element, you’ve got the ball all the way up in the sky, you’re the only one back there to catch it. But it’s an awesome feeling. It’s an awesome feeling knowing that you can make a huge play.”
Elsewhere on special teams, the Bills are confident in Bass, and he’s earned it. The second-year kicker was 28-of-32 on regular-season field goals, and perfect on extra points. The most recent of his four misses was in the Monday night game against the Patriots, wide right from 33 yards out, but into the wind. His other three misses were on attempts of 49 yards or more. Bass has been consistent, even in tougher conditions.
“Yeah, tremendous amount of confidence in Tyler,” coach Sean McDermott said. “He's had a nice year, and the work that he's done with (long snapper) Reid (Ferguson) and (punter) Matt (Haack) has been outstanding in a lot of ways.”
McDermott has mentioned the chemistry between specialists throughout the season. It why McDermott looks at “the total package” – punts and holds included – for Matt Haack when evaluating games.
“They beat us at home, we beat them at [their] home. It's a playoff game, Buffalo, New York, on Saturday night,” Bills safety Jordan Poyer said. “I mean, it's just really everything you asked for in a football game, football season, this type of game right here.”
The fifth-year punter, who signed a three-year contract with the Bills ahead of this season, is coming off a game where he’d like a few punts back. After two games where he did not punt, he punted seven times in eight drives during a chunk of the game where the Bills offense struggled to stay on the field against the Jets.
All seven of his punts Sunday were into the wind, averaging 33.9 yards per punt, with a long of 53. After the game, McDermott said he thought there were multiple factors at play, and that Haack “had a bad day, combined with the wind.” Monday, McDermott added how the wind affected every detail of the punt.
“Even with the snap, the snap and the drop with the wind and how significant the wind was, the wind can move the snap, and it can move even the drop,” McDermott said Monday. “So those were tough conditions to punt in for Matt. But I'm super proud of how he worked through it.”
Haack had a streak of short punts in the second quarter, including a 21-yard punt immediately after offsetting penalties erased a 28-yard punt. His next attempt after that went 22 yards before bouncing out of bounds.
The shortest of the day, though, was a seven-yard punt in the third quarter, which could have been a lot worse. After bobbling a snap that seemed off, Haack was able to recover the ball, scramble left and still get a punt off, though with Jets players in his face. While maintaining responsibility for the play, he did note the wind was a factor, catching what was a clean snap coming out.
“The snow-covered gridiron reduced the effectiveness of the power running of (Cookie) Gilchrist,” The New York Times said in its report, “but did not seem to hamper Ron Burton or Larry Garron,” the Patriots’ running backs.
“It was,” he said of the wind. “It's actually a great snap. It's coming right at my left side of my hip, the left side of my body, and about the last two or three yards, the wind got it just right and pushed it out to the left. I didn't have time to be able to shuffle over to get in front of it, so I thought I could reach and grab it. The point hit my hand just right and bounced right off. So, obviously, it's something that can't happen, and I take full responsibility for. I mean, I should be able to catch that. It's definitely harder, the wind makes it tough, but it’s something I should have been able to handle.”
The Jets took over at the Buffalo 22, but were only able to get a field goal out of it.
On his next punt, his last of the night, Haack punted 43 yards to pin the Jets on the two-yard line, with Taiwan Jones downing it. He had three earlier punts of 42-yards or more, but to end on that note was helpful.
“It was valuable. I think I had three or four punts that, actually, I was happy with in that game, going into that gusty wind of – I don't know what it was – 30 miles or whatever,” he said. “Obviously, the ones that people remember are the bad ones. Those are the ones that stick out, and those are ones I gotta fix. But the way I took that game, I was frustrated, obviously. I’m my harshest critic. So I expect a lot out of myself, and I don't want to let my team down.
“But to be able to finish on a high note like that and put together some good punts, I think it's big. It shows I didn't let those few bad mistakes into the whole game. I understood, in those moments, that game wasn't over, I’d probably have to punt again, and I had to put my team in good position to win.”
“I feel like that Tampa Bay game kind of got us back to where we needed to go, as far as having confidence, playing free, and playing like we know what we can play,” wide receiver Stefon Diggs said in late December.
In the first meeting between the Bills and Patriots this season, Haack punted five times, averaging 46.6 yards per punt. Patriots punter Jake Bailey averaged 42 yards across six punts. That game was 36 degrees with 27 mph winds at kickoff and varying throughout the game. Sunday’s game against the Jets was 34 degrees and had 21 mph winds at the start with, again, fluctuating speeds.
Saturday’s playoff game is expected to be less windy, but significantly colder, perhaps even below zero with wind chill at the start of the game.
Haack compares it, in a way, to hitting a baseball or golf ball when it’s freezing, the bat or club stinging after. A frozen ball straight to the foot isn’t just harder, it also changes the feel of the motion itself.
“I'd imagine it’d feel like kicking a rock – I don't kick rocks, but that's how I imagine,” Haack said. “Cause normally on a warm day or indoors, the ball isn't frozen, so when your foot hits it, the ball compresses. When it's cold, it doesn't, so that contact, that compression on your foot doesn't happen, so you feel every bit of that ball.”
While the Bills practiced inside Wednesday, Haack and the other specialists still practiced in the stadium to keep getting reps in as close to Saturday’s forecasted weather as possible. Wednesday’s conditions were a little different though, both warmer and windier, but Tuesday brought a closer feel, temperature-wise.
“I was out there yesterday (Tuesday) in the stadium punting, and the wind chill was negative 2 or something,” Haack said. “So, we put ourselves in that environment during the week as much as we can.”
The Bills did sign punter Jamie Gillan to the practice squad on Dec. 24, and he has been on the practice squad since. It seems to be a move more for insurance than for roster turnover. McDermott said Tuesday it’s due diligence at any position.
Haack finished the regular season averaging 42.9 yards per punt. Bailey of the Patriots is averaging 47.3 yards this season.
Even after the last game, Haack feels that the Bills are confident in him. He aims to carry that into Saturday’s frigid matchup.
“My teammates see how I work at practice and the things I can do, and coaches see that, and I think they believe me. They were showing me a ton of support during the game and after the game,” Haack said. “So just sticking with it, really. Trusting my technique, trusting my ability and that definitely helped having guys rally around me.”