After a tumultuous week that included a record-breaking snowstorm and a city-wide effort to dig the Buffalo Bills’ players out of their homes, the Bills continued what had been a really difficult week by holding onto a 31-23 win in an uneven performance.
Buffalo won the toss and elected to kick, and then watched Cleveland drive 75 yards in nine plays for a touchdown. To make matters worse, Buffalo had gotten Cleveland into two straight 3rd-and-11 situations before allowing the Browns to convert on both of them.
The Buffalo offense then responded by gaining 18 total yards on nine plays in their first three drives combined.
Josh Allen looked gun-shy after weeks of turnover issues and was way off the mark on multiple passes in the first half. Gabe Davis had a big drop in the red zone, and Stefon Diggs didn’t even have a target until the final play of the half. To make matters worse, the Buffalo offensive line was repeatedly beaten by the Cleveland defensive line, which pressured Allen relentlessly.
For stretches in the first half, Buffalo didn’t even play like a playoff team.
However, Cleveland continued to let Buffalo hang around, allowing the Bills to start on their own 40-yard line or better on three first-half drives. Yet, it was the final drive, with Buffalo starting on their own 22 with 1:54 left where the momentum of the game changed.
Just like at the end of the first half last week, Allen looked looser and more instinctive in the two-minute drill, guiding the Bills down the field. He was able to hit Diggs, who was left wide open, for his first catch of the game, and Buffalo had a 13-10 lead at the half despite being thoroughly outplayed.
The second half saw more of the same.
In the third quarter, the Browns ran two straight quarterback keepers on third and fourth and one with Jacoby Brissett instead of giving the ball to Nick Chubb. Brissett lost yards on both. The Bills’ defense also blocked a field goal, and the offense continued marching into scoring range with ease after that late first-quarter drive. They just weren’t always able to punch it in.
Buffalo built a 28-10 lead and then would allow some garbage-time touchdowns. It was certainly not a flawless game, but Buffalo came away with a 31-23 win to cap off a tiring and dramatic week off of the football field.
Now let’s get into my five key takeaways from the game
1. Josh Allen is Not Himself
Last week I mentioned that Josh Allen hadn’t been playing bad football as much as he’d been making bad decisions in the biggest moments. That wasn’t the case today.
While Allen’s final line wasn’t too damning, the quarterback absolutely didn’t look like himself on Sunday.
Allen finished the day 18-of-27 for 197 yards and a touchdown while adding only eight yards on two carries (before the kneel-down).
That’s your first sign that things are not right for Buffalo’s quarterback. Yes, Allen did have one good scramble called back by a holding penalty, but he was also playing tentatively for much of the game. He seemed hesitant to pull the ball down and run, but he also seemed too cautious about taking shots deep. In fact, Allen literally stopped mid-throw on multiple potential deep shots and chose to check down instead.
The hesitation didn’t suit him. He made good throws to the intermediate part of the field during the game, but he also overthrew too many receivers in the flat and simply just looked off for much of the day. Maybe it was the drama and fatigue of battling out of a snowstorm, but he was absolutely not the fearless leader Buffalo fans have come to know.
Perhaps some of it is a lack of confidence in his offensive line. Browns defenders were in his face for much of the game, and Allen seemed to have happy feet in the pocket. Whatever it is, he’s going to have to get out of his own head and get back to playing loose or the Bills are going to have trouble against better opponents.
2. Jordan Poyer Returns but the Bills’ Secondary Needs Help
Jordan Poyer returned for Buffalo on Sunday, and he made an immediate impact, sniffing out a screen and breaking up a deep pass to Donovan Peoples-Jones in the first half. The veteran leads the team in interceptions and has been a steadying presence in a chaotic secondary all season.
However, it’s clear that his return isn’t enough.
Amari Cooper absolutely torched the Bills on Sunday with eight catches for 113 yards and two touchdowns. The problem is that he did it mostly against Buffalo’s starting nickel cornerback Taron Johnson. The Browns also used Cooper on quick hitters over the middle of the field to take advantage of Buffalo not having starting linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. (While the Bills’ lack of linebacker depth is a concern, it’s also a discussion for another time).
In addition to Johnson’s struggles, Buffalo continued to see cornerbacks Dane Jackson and Christian Benford get beat in good coverage. Both players have been able to stick with their receivers but have consistent issues with getting their heads around and making plays on the football. Benford was even replaced for stretched by veteran practice squad call-up Xavier Rhodes, which shows the Bills’ concerns.
As a result, Jacoby Brissett threw for over 300 yards for the first time this year, finishing 28-for-41 for 324 yards and three touchdowns.
Considering the Detroit turf is similar to the New Orleans turf where Tre’Davious White tore his ACL last year, it’s highly unlikely the Bills put White back on the field until Week 13 against the Patriots. They desperately need him.
3. James Cook emerges but why trade for Nyheim Hines?
After fumbling on his first career rush, James Cook has slowly started to integrate himself into the Buffalo offense even more. On Sunday, we saw his full breakout, rushing 11 times for 86 yards. He showed good burst and explosion through the hole and was a great complement to Devin Singletary.
However, it also brings up the question of why Buffalo traded for Nyheim Hines.
For the third straight week, the new running back has been non-existent. Hines had one target in the passing game and took one carry, on a reverse, for negative eight yards. Considering the Bills gave up a fifth-round pick to bring Hines in, it’s shocking how little they are using him. At this point, I’m honestly not sure why they traded for him if they only want him to return punts.
4. The Bills Defense Shuts down Nick Chubb
It was not a flawless game for the Buffalo defense. They allowed multiple third-and-long conversions early in the game and, as we discussed above, made Jacoby Brissett look like a Pro Bowl quarterback, but this run defense absolutely showed up.
Buffalo held Nick Chubb, who came into the game as the NFL’s third-leading rusher to 19 yards on 14 carries. his 1.36 yards per attempt is the second-lowest of his career, but really is the lowest since the other time in question was when he was a rookie and rushed for two yards on three carries in one game.
Ed Oliver was an absolute stud on Sunday, and Tim Settle Jr. was in the backfield multiple times. Those two defenders but always impressive Matt Milano provided a few bright spots in an otherwise ho-hum game.
5. Buffalo Makes Red Zone Changes But Struggles Remain
After struggling in the red zone coming into today’s game, the Bills made a noticeable change, choosing to run the ball more than in weeks past.
Given the freak athleticism of Josh Allen, it’s not a surprise that the Bills have relied on him an overwhelming amount to punch in touchdowns; however, it just hasn’t been working this year, so Ken Dorsey finally decided to change it up.
On their first red zone trip, Devin Singletary took two red zone carries, using one of them to convert a third and short. On the red zone trip that ended in a field goal, Singletary had two carries (plus a third called back on a holding penalty) and James Cook had one. On the second touchdown drive, Singletary took two more carries and punched in a touchdown.
In all, Devin Singletary had six red zone carries for 26 yards and another carry for 13 that was called back. He and Cook were also able to gain chunk yardage late to help drain the clock; however, the Buffalo offense as a whole still wasn’t great in the red zone.
On the day, the Bills made five trips to the red zone and were able to score just two touchdowns. Conservative playcalling, penalties, and sacks continued to haunt Buffalo, even in the second half when they were moving the ball with ease. It’s especially concerning since the Browns were allowing touchdowns on nearly 60% of their red zone trips coming into this game.