Some impressions taken away from the Bills 38-7 loss to Pittsburgh Saturday night:
Linebacker Good, Linebacker Bad:
I’ve been concerned with the linebackers for a few weeks now. Mostly concerned about their ability, as a group, to stop the run. With the aggressive defensive line the Bills now have, those backers will be asked to plug more holes and make more 1-on-1 stops at the line of scrimmage. Saturday, I thought they did an excellent job of doing that. They were helped a lot by the defensive line collapsing holes and making running backs move down the line to find a new opening, but they did a much better job than last week at Minnesota of scraping down the line, fighting through blocks, and getting to the ball carrier before he could get through the small seam he had.
The problem in this game was something we’ve seen year after year with that position in Buffalo. The linebackers weren’t good in space. Against the Steelers, they struggled to get to running backs and tight ends running pass routes, and as opposed to making the stops when they were able to climb down the line against a back going east-west, they weren’t good at getting to the ball carrier quick enough if he had a nice gap to run through. In that situation, the linebackers don’t always have to make the tackle, but they at least need to either force the back to make another move (into another defender) or slow him down enough to allow his teammates to get there. That didn’t happen well enough or often enough for me.
An Easy Choice:
Tashard Choice made a statement for the #3 running back spot. A good, positive statement for himself. He hit the hole hard, showed excellent burst when their was a small opening, and fought for extra yards. He finished with 50 yards on seven carries. That’s a 7.1 yard per carry average. He also added an 18 yard reception. Granted, Choice played predominantly against Pittsburgh’s second and third string defenders, but so did a whole lot of other Bills players who didn’t perform well at all. Choice had to have solidified his spot on the roster with his performance.
If there’s one facet of this team that is already in regular season form, and has given fans plenty of reasons to feel confident, it’s the special teams. All special teams. Bruce DeHaven’s units have been terrific since they stepped on the Ralph Wilson Stadium turf against Washington in preseason game number one. And they’ve not only continued through the next two games, but maybe even got better. DeHaven was in charge of the special teams in Buffalo during the Super Bowl run of the early 90s (1987-99). During that time, his group was consistently one of the top special teams units in the league. Guys like Mark Pike and of course Steve Tasker (seven Pro Bowls, Hall of Fame nominee) became special teams stars under his watch. But now, thirteen years and three cities in between (he’s been back in Buffalo since 2010), he once again has his Bills units putting the team’s offense and defense in great positions. Punter Brian Moorman may be having his best preseason ever at the age of 36. He had another four punts downed inside the 20-yard line Saturday. That’s now eight out of thirteen this preseason. A pretty remarkable rate. The gunners have been terrific at running down the field and being in good position to down that ball before it hits the end zone, or making tackles before return men can get out of trouble. A rookie kicker, John Potter, has kicked off eight times (twice Saturday night). And all eight times the ball has sailed through the end zone, forcing the opponent to start at their 20 yard line with no chance for a return. Leodis McKelvin was very consistent as a punt returner Saturday night, coming very close to breaking a couple, and continues to show he still has a valuable role on the team.
As Good As Advertised:
Last week in Minnesota, the starting defensive line began to show exactly what most people expect out of them. Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams both had a sack early. In this one, Mario Williams had two sacks on his own, but it was Dareus and Kyle Williams who really made things happen and gave the Steelers run game and QB Ben Roethlisberger headaches for most of the first half. The two defensive tackles’ pressure up the middle caused Big Ben to flush out of the pocket and the entire defensive line did a great job of standing the Pittsburgh offensive line up at the point of the attack and collapsing holes on run plays. Read Joe Buscaglia’s take on how dominating Kyle Williams was while he was on the field. Chris Kelsay even dropped into coverage a couple times and made a big tackle on third down after doing it. And all of this was without Mark Anderson, who’s expected to make a big contribution as a pass rusher. (Related note looking ahead to week one: the Jets have allowed nine sacks already through their first two preseason games heading into Sunday night).
A Much Lighter Load of Laundry:
Bills penalties the first two preseason contests: Vs. Washington – 14 for 134 yards (Ouch! Who are these guys? The Raiders?) At Minnesota – 7 for 55 yards (That’s better, but only because they were so bad the week before. Still not good enough).
Then, Saturday night, only four flags against the Bills for a total of 44 yards. This team isn’t good enough to make up for being undisciplined. Every drive counts and every yard matters. Chan Gailey doesn’t want ANY penalties, but those numbers are a lot easier to overcome than what they had the previous two weeks. And it’s of course a huge improvement, which is a very good sign. Gailey took it upon himself for the high number of flags the first week. The Bills were one of the least penalized teams in the NFL last year, averaging only 5.3 flags tossed against them per game. Saturday they were even better than that. So whatever Gailey did to get it corrected, it’s worked. But it needs to stay that way, too.
"Our backup crews played horrible tonight."
Those were Chan Gailey's words after the game. There's not much I could add to that. You saw it for yourself. And you should be concerned about that. Because in this league, backups not only have to play, many of them have to start at least a game or two or six due to starters getting banged up throughout the season. After the great offseason the Bills had signing key freee agents, re-signing important players, and drafting players at needed spots on both sides of the ball, a lot of the talk was how much more depth they'll have in 2012 and how much improved the talent level of that depth will be. Well, that depth needs to start showing up and meeting those expectations. It didn't Saturday night against Pittsburgh.