A look at the AFC standings represents the jarring reality for the Buffalo Bills, a team beset by injuries on defense and sudden inconsistency on offense.
Shocking, right? Surprising, isn’t it? Concerning, don’t you think?
If the playoffs started following Week 7, the Bills would squeak in as the last seed and play a first-round game at Miami. They enter Thursday night’s game against Tampa Bay tied in the loss column with Houston, which has rookies at quarterback, head coach and offensive coordinator; the New York Jets, which lost starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers four plays into the season; and Cincinnati, which started 1-3.
Yes, the Bills are only one game behind the Dolphins in the AFC East and won the teams’ first head-to-head meeting (48-20 back in the good, old days of Week 4). But who would pick the Bills in a rematch? Since then, they have lost cornerback Tre’Davious White, linebacker Matt Milano and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones to Achilles, leg and triceps injuries, respectively, and most alarmingly, the offense has nosedived after averaging 34.8 points during a 3-1 start.(tncms-asset)ab18c246-72a8-11ee-96d1-e751eefc57ce(/tncms-asset)
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The angst has ratcheted up. The margin for error has evaporated. The turnaround needs to happen now.
“Every week is a crossroads in the NFL,” coach Sean McDermott said. “Every week is another opportunity to get a win and over the years, we’ve shown that we know how to win, know how to figure things out and know how to develop players and find answers and find solutions.”
The pressure falls on everybody in the building. But specifically, the spotlight should be shining the brightest on six select individuals:
Why the pressure is on: In times of overall pro football crisis, we look to the head coach. In times of a crisis defensively, we look to the coordinator. McDermott checks both of those boxes for the Bills – his seventh year as the big whistle and first as defensive play-caller.
These are unique times for McDermott. The Bills’ seven-game records during his tenure are 5-2, 2-6, 5-2, 5-2, 5-2, 6-1 and 4-3. The only losing record was quarterback Josh Allen’s rookie year when the Bills hit the reset button after making the 2017 playoffs.
Other than that, the Bills have sprinted out of the starting gate, creating a cushion that allowed them to withstand the inevitable dip – a three-game losing streak in ’17, the final two games of ’19, a 2-4 skid in ’21 and last year’s midseason two-game burp.
Who knows what McDermott is thinking and plotting. His emotions reside under several layers of sleeves – as much as we would have liked for him to spend Tuesday’s press conference sounding the bugles and pounding the drums, that isn’t his approach.
Behind the scenes, though, this is the time for McDermott to lean on his experience to grab this season off the cliff’s edge.
“That’s what we’re here for,” he said. “If you’re here at this point of your career, you don’t get here without facing adversity and overcoming adversity. It’s what we do.”
Why the pressure is on: He’s the quarterback. Period.
The Patriots scored on their opening drive to lead 3-0. The Bills schemed up a semi-shot play to tight end Dawson Knox on the right side. But Allen was intercepted and New England turned that into a 10-0 lead. The Bills, the usual jump-out-to-a-lead, front-running Bills, were in chase-the-game mode.
No offense with Allen at the peak of his powers should be laboring like this, but he also needs help. The Patriots had too many free-run pass-rushers, forcing Allen to escape trouble and throw on the move. There wasn’t enough of an emphasis on challenging the Patriots’ linebackers and safeties with middle-of-the-field throws. But Allen also missed his “hot” receiver (quick throw with the defense blitzing).
The answer isn’t using Allen more on quarterback keepers – he is taking enough punishment when dropping back to pass. The answer is going back to what worked early in the year – emphasizing the run game, playing under center and using play-action.
Why the pressure is on: Davis, the Bills’ No. 2 receiver, has four catches for 27 yards in the last two games.
“Everything has to fall in line,” Davis said. “Things didn’t fall in line for me the last few weeks.”
Davis was credited with five targets at New England, but that is misleading – two of those were throwaways. Davis enters Thursday with 22 catches (third on the team) for 347 yards (second) and four touchdowns (second).
Do the No. 2 targets now go through rookie tight end Dalton Kincaid, who had eight catches against the Patriots? Sure seems as if he’s the only player working the short-to-intermediate part of the field.
In Weeks 2-5, Davis averaged one touchdown for every 5.5 targets and 3.8 catches. He did have a key drop at Jacksonville and a fumble against the Giants.
“Obviously, it’s a little frustrating when you don’t get what you want,” he said. “You talk about the first four, five games, things were falling in line and I was on a streak. Nobody to blame – there’s a lot of football left.”
Why the pressure is on: The Bills’ offense operates best when Cook is utilized – they are 3-0 when he has at least 14 carries. It’s time to put the onus on Cook to carry this running game.
Earlier this week, the gambling outfit OddsChecker listed the Bills as the favorite to acquire Tennessee Titans tailback Derrick Henry. The Bills don’t need to acquire a back. Cook ranks 16th in the NFL in carries (88) and yards (419) and his 4.8-yard average is tied for fourth-best among backs with at least 75 attempts.
“Like any running back, the more reps you get, you get into a rhythm,” McDermott said. “He’s another young player we’re developing and he’s done some things for us that, quite frankly, he didn’t do at Georgia in terms of carrying the ball as much as he has and being as successful as he has. Really proud of James and his development.”
McDermott is spot-on – Cook’s usage rate laps the track compared to Georgia. In 46 college games, Cook had at least 11 carries in only three games; he has at least 11 carries in six Bills games this year. It’s time to lean on Cook more. Damien Harris (neck) is on injured reserve, his status for return not revealed by the Bills.
Using Cook, who is showing an ability to turn his speed (to hit the crease) into power (to break tackles), in the range of 17-20 carries could also pull a defense out of their two-high safety shell to provide run support, creating a greater potential for downfield passes.
Why the pressure is on: Check out the receivers on the Bills’ upcoming schedule – Mike Evans/Chris Godwin (Tampa Bay), Ja’Marr Chase (Cincinnati), Garrett Wilson (New York Jets), A.J. Brown/Devonta Smith (Philadelphia) and CeeDee Lamb (Dallas). The Bills will need Jackson to play like a No. 1 or 2 cornerback.
Tre’Davious White tore his Achilles in Week 3, moving Christian Bedford to No. 1 status and returning Jackson to the starting lineup. Jackson has held off 2022 first-round pick Kaiir Elam and has played all 148 defensive snaps in his last two games (Jackson missed the Giants game with a foot injury).
A free agent next March, Jackson has 23 tackles, but The News has charted him for four missed tackles. The Bills aren’t apt to have a corner travel with a player so they will cover who is lined up across from them.
“I try to approach every game with no pressure,” Jackson said.
“I’m just saying,” he said with a laugh. “I tell myself that because there’s too much to think about (already).”
Much is at stake for Jackson over the season’s final half. White’s future should be up in the air because of his recent injury history (ACL in 2021 and the Achilles this year) and next season’s cap hit ($16.6 million). Jackson is showcasing himself for the Bills as a re-sign option or another team.
Why the pressure is on: When the offense is laboring, blaming the coordinator is convenient.
The Bills’ offense in Weeks 1-4: A 3-1 record and averages of 34.8 points, 391 yards, 138 rushing yards and 253 passing yards. They had 29 explosive plays (rush of at least 12 yards, pass of at least 16 yards) and converted 51% of their third-down chances.
The Bills’ offense in Weeks 5-7: A 1-2 record and averages of 19.7 points, 341.3 yards, 79.3 rushing yards and 262 passing yards. They had 18 explosive plays and converted 44.4% of their third-down chances.
A reminder for the Anti-Dorsey Crowd – the Bills still rank fifth in yards, fourth in yards per play, third on third down, second in the red zone and second in scoring. The offense isn’t broken, not by a long shot. But they are in a rut. They can’t score in the first half (10 points in the last three games). They can’t establish Davis (noted). And they need to work too hard to score (average touchdown drive is 9.5 plays in Weeks 5-7 compared to 7.1 in Weeks 1-4).
“As an offense, we can go out and execute at a high level – I think we showed that (at New England in the second half),” Dorsey said. “We have to build and continue to build off those things and make sure we keep growing and keep putting ourselves in position to be successful.”
Success for this franchise, at this stage of Allen’s career, is reaching the Super Bowl. The time to get out of the ditch and back on the road to Las Vegas starts Thursday night.