Week 4 started out rough for the Buffalo Bills as they trailed the Baltimore Ravens 20-3 and looked incapable of moving the ball on offense. However, the defense kept them in the game long enough for the offense to shake the cobwebs and mount the team’s biggest comeback since Ryan Fitzpatrick rallied them from 21 points down against Tom Brady and the Patriots back in October of 2011.
While we take stock of the win and what the performance on the field means for the rest of the season, we’ll dive into another edition of Studs and Duds.
As a reminder, this column looks simply at the performance in the most recent week, identifying who stepped up and who struggled and what those performances might mean for the Buffalo Bills going forward. Some heroes will just have one-off great games while some struggles could signal major issues, so we’ll make sense of that together here.
Let’s get the bad news out of the way first.
We’ve covered the offensive line issues a lot so far this season, but they absolutely remain. After Week 3, Pro Football Focus ranked the Bills as the worst run-blocking unit in football, and not just by a little. Look at this graph:
Woof. That is awful.
According to PFF, their starting offensive line has the following run-blocking grades, out of 100: Dion Dawkins (60.3), Spencer Brown (61.1), Rodger Saffold (41.3), Ryan Bates (53.8), and Mitch Morse (57.7).
The interior of the line has been particularly bad, which was evident again against the Ravens when you see Zack Moss get hit the second he touches the ball when he tries to run up the gut.
The team is hopeful that guard Ike Boettger will be able to return to a starting role, but he has yet to be activated from the PUP list, so it will likely be weeks before that happens. In the meantime, the interior players continue to get no push in the running game, which has led to Josh Allen being the team’s leading rusher in three of the first four games.
Now, we need to give credit where credit is due. The Bills’ offensive line had a solid day when it came to pass-blocking. They only allowed seven pressures and a pressure percentage of 17.1%. Since the team will likely keep throwing more than they run, this isn’t inconsequential, but if this offense wants to be firing on all cylinders, they absolutely need to figure out what’s going on with the run-blocking.
Maybe it’s a change in the starting lineup or the overall blocking scheme, using more outside stretch runs with Devin Singletary, but you can’t win the Super Bowl if you are this far-and-away the worst at something in the entire league.
Wide Receiver Health
Buffalo came into this season with a deep and talented receiving corps. In the preseason, they lost return specialist and deep threat Marquez Stevenson to foot surgery. Last week against Miami they lost Jake Kumerow to an ankle injury. Still, those were bottom-of-the-depth chart losses that the team was positioned to weather.
However, on Sunday, the Bills lost Jamison Crowder to an ankle injury, and Isaiah McKenzie to a concussion. It left them with just three healthy receivers for the majority of the second half of the game. Crowder has since been diagnosed with a broken ankle which will keep him out indefinitely, and we all know that concussion recovery is tricky to predict, especially after we saw Miami handle it the wrong way with Tua Tagovailoa.
On top of those injuries, Gabe Davis continues to battle an ankle injury and simply hasn’t looked like himself the last two weeks. He dropped a touchdown in the loss to the Dolphins and dropped two of his three targets against the Ravens last week.
That leaves just Stefon Diggs and Khalil Shakir as fully healthy wide receivers for Josh Allen. It’s likely that preseason darling Isaiah Hodgins will be elevated from the practice squad for next week, but if either McKenzie or Davis can’t go, they may also need to bring up Tavon Austin to man the slot or sign somebody (Will Fuller or Odell Beckham Jr. perhaps?), which is not quite what the team had in mind four weeks ago.
Run Defense (on stretch runs)
While the numbers for the run defense have been solid this year, it’s another instance in which the Bills graded out below average, according to PFF, ranking 18th in the NFL. Defending Lamar Jackson is certainly no easy task, but the run defense also struggled at times against JK Dobbins and Justice Hill, particularly when the Ravens ran stretch runs to the outside of the line. That could be why Shaq Lawson played more snaps than usual this week.
In total, the Bills allowed 162 yards on the ground against the Ravens and may have been fortunate that Dobbins was on a pitch count while coming off of injury and that Justice Hill left the game in the fourth quarter with an injury of his own. The impending returns of Ed Oliver and Jordan Phillips will likely help, but the performance was not quite there on Sunday.
Now for the good news.
Halftime Coaching Adjustments
Whatever was said at halftime worked. The Bills rattled off 20 unanswered points, and the defense put a vice grip on the Baltimore offense, allowing 127 total yards and picking off Lamar Jackson twice.
But it goes beyond just this week for the defense. In the first four games of the season, the Bills have allowed just seven total second-half points. That marks the fewest second-half points allowed by a team through four games since the 2009 Denver Broncos. That’s damn impressive, and you have to credit the coaching staff for being able to identify what opposing offenses are doing and make the appropriate adjustments.
It was more of a mixed bag for the offense. On one hand, Josh Allen looked like a totally different quarterback in the second half, and, for the most part, offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey leaned on his stud with both his legs and his arm. However, there were still moments, like after Jordan Poyer’s interception at mid-field, where Dorsey kept trying to establish runs up the middle, which had poor results and stalled out drives.
It’s clear that Dorsey doesn’t want to be a one-dimensional offense, and that’s great, but the Bills are going to have to find other ways to get the running game going. On defense, the coaching staff appears to be clicking on all cylinders.
What’s there to say about Poyer? The veteran has four interceptions in just three games. He battled a shoulder injury in the preseason and then missed Week 3 against the Dolphins, but his impact was apparent consistently throughout Sunday’s win.
The strong safety made the game-altering interception of Jackson in the end zone after his back was completely turned to Devin Duvernay, the intended target. Poyer was covering his zone in the middle of the end zone and just read Jackson perfectly in time to make the interception. It’s the type of awareness and instinct that the Bills were missing last week when they allowed a 45-yard pass to Jaylen Waddle on 3rd-and-22 in the fourth quarter against the Dolphins.
It’s not a stretch to say the Bills could be 4-0 if Poyer had been healthy for all games, and he is a true difference-maker for this defense.
We covered the Bills’ wide receiver injuries above, but the positive side of those is that they gave Khalil Shakir a chance to shine. The fifth-round rookie has been inactive on most game days until the receiver injuries hit. Then, on Sunday, he was on the field and making clutch catches to keep key drives alive.
In particular, on the game-winning drive, Allen was scrambling against pressure when Shakir came back to the ball and made a tremendous toe-tapping grab on the sideline to pick up the first down.
It’s the type of grab that immediately gives a quarterback confidence in a young receiver. When you factor in how well Shakir played during the preseason, it’s fair to wonder whether the next couple of games might give the Boise State product a chance to cement a consistent every-week role in this offense, even when they are finally fully healthy.