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Posted: Sunday, 29 September 2013 6:55PM

Sideline Reactions: Bills 23 - Ravens 20



Orchard Park, NY (WGR 550)  -- Heading into their game with the defending champion Baltimore Ravens, it would have been a moral victory for this young Buffalo Bills team to bring a lead into halftime. For the second time in three weeks, the Bills bucked the trend of the normal western New York narrative and closed out a victory that not many thought they could attain.

It wasn't always pretty down the stretch of the game. In fact, at times in the second half, it was downright ugly. However, when the Bills needed a big play, they made one defensively. That, at its very core, is a stark difference from the 'utoh, here we go again,' mentality that has plagued the franchise for years on end.

It's only two examples in a very new tenure of a head coach, but despite all the injuries and adversity that they faced against the Ravens, the Bills were able to find a way to win.

Defense saves the day again…and again… and again
-After allowing 500 total yards of offense to a New York Jets team that, at least on paper, lacked the offensive playmakers, the Bills took that performance and completely flipped the script. If you include a pair of interceptions that were on the Ravens' third offensive play of the series, the Bills forced the Ravens into eight three-and-outs throughout the game. When they needed a stop down the stretch, instead they come up with a turnover. The offense was sputtering in the second half and the defense was there to pick them up. Whatever adjustments defensive coordinator Mike Pettine made for this week,  considering the hurdles they had to clear due to the injuries in the secondary, it makes the performance especially impressive.

No one saw that run defense coming
- Nine attempts, 24 yards. That reads like the typical stats of a running back through the first half or so against a particularly stout defense. The aforementioned stat line was the Ravens rushing output in whole. That's right. Both Ray Rice and backup Bernard Pierce struggled all throughout the first half, leading the Ravens to almost completely abandon the run game down the stretch. Of course Rice was just coming back from a hip injury, so perhaps he wasn't 100-percent. However, stopping a talent like him and a talented backup in Pierce is a hallmark day for a run defense that was run over by Bilal Powell the previous week.

Kiko Alonso early candidate for defensive rookie of the year
- What more can you say about the Bills rookie inside linebacker. Through four games, he has 32 tackles, one sack and four interceptions. Not even that, Alonso just so happens to be the player that captains the defensive huddle. Add it all up, and it's very impressive for a rookie to have the type of impact that he has through the first four weeks. His first interception against the Ravens was a bit of a gift, but the second play to seal the win for the Bills is a play that only a great athlete can make. To be in the right place at the right time, and to be able to complete the play is the type of play the Bills have been waiting for out of a linebacker for quite some time. To this point, not only has he been the most impressive rookie for the Bills and in certain consideration early on for defensive rookie of the year honors, but he has been the best player on the field for Buffalo. Now that's saying something.

EJ Manuel: one step forward, one step back
- Rookie quarterback EJ Manuel and the offense came out in the first half and had very impressive drives that resulted in points for the Bills. Although a pair of early chances didn't result in touchdowns, the Bills stuck with it for the rest of the first half and it really opened up some big plays down the stretch of the first thirty minutes. Manuel made a pair of throws that were the best of his season thus far. The one that stands out the most to fans is the 42-yard connection with Robert Woods on a play-action pass that had the receiver's man beat cleanly. Manuel delivered the throw with the right amount of touch and velocity to allow Woods to run under it and complete the scoring play. Throughout the game though, there was a bit of a different EJ Manuel that flew in the face of the flashes he was showing. There were fumbles, there were interceptions and there were some bad misfires on seemingly routine throws for NFL quarterbacks. His performance was clearly a step forward from what happened against the Jets. He looked more comfortable in the pocket than he had the previous week and found some open receivers down the field. It lacked consistency, and for all the chances the Bills had in the second half to put the game away, only managing to come away with three points in the finally thirty minutes cannot be repeated. The offense showed up in a big way in the first half, and the defense bailed them out in the second half.

A lesson in conservatism: How John Harbaugh cost the Ravens
- For the most part, this is a column wrapping up exactly how the Bills performed and certain decisions that were made. However, exceptions must be made when the head coach of the opposite team does more harm than good with his own decision making down the stretch of the game. Let's take a trip down memory lane. The Ravens were down 23-17 in the fourth quarter. They had the ball at the Bills' six-yard line on a 4th-and-5 with 4:08 to play. Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh elected to go for the field goal to cut the lead down to three, with all three timeouts to go. What most fans don't realize, is that despite eliminating three points for the deficit, kicking the field goal at that point of the game in that situation statistically was the worst possible decision Harbaugh could have made. Let's go through it, with the help of the Win Probability calculator at AdvancedNFLStats.com. By kicking the field goal, bringing the score to a 23-20 Bills lead and having Buffalo start on their own 20-yard line with 4:04 left, the Ravens left the Bills with an 80-percent chance of winning the contest. Now let's say the Ravens go for it on 4th-and-5 and throw an incomplete pass, giving the Bills with a first down on their own six-yard line with say, 3:58 to go on the clock. The Bills win probability? 75-percent. Heck, even if the Ravens took an eight-yard sack and had the Bills start at their own 14-yard line, the Bills still would have had a worse winning probability (78-percent) than they would have because the Ravens kicked the field goal. If the Ravens convert for a touchdown? The Bills win probability is 47-percent. What Harbaugh did is the worst statistical play, and cost the Ravens their best chance of taking the lead in the game. Playing to tie or playing not to lose is the absolute worst way to go.

Aaron Williams, Jim Leonhard stepping up in big ways
- The much maligned secondary had an afternoon that gave up some big plays throughout the day, but the play of cornerback Aaron Williams and safety Jim Leonhard to come away with three turnovers throughout the game, one being an end zone interception, really highlighted the secondary in a good way. Coming into the game, the fear was that the injuries and lack of depth at cornerback and safety would ultimately cripple the defense. While it had it's moments, those two were able to rise up and make a big impact on the game in a positive way for Buffalo.

Justin Rogers with continued struggles
- While Williams and Leonhard made their plays, the victimization of Justin Rogers continued in Week Four as it had the two weeks prior. First it was Ted Ginn of Carolina, then it was both Stephen Hill and Santonio Holmes of the Jets, and this week both Marlon Brown and Torrey Smith ripped off big chunks with Rogers as their direct adversary. The Bills were able to overcome his play and made plays in the secondary elsewhere, but both the Rogers/Brown and Rogers/Smith matchups were mismatches for the Bills' cornerback. This is an understatement, but the Bills need Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin to come back in the worst way, so that Rogers can resume a more appropriate special teams role.

Hackett bounces back
- If you were able to listen to sports radio throughout the week or if you saw some tweets from fans, one of the side effects from last week's loss to the Jets were some questioning offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, and wondering if he was in over his head. Against the Ravens, Hackett and the offense found big opportunities against the defense and took advantage of them for big chunk plays throughout the first half. The Bills set up the 42-yard touchdown pass on play-action after four straight, big-gaining runs that featured both C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. Later on in the game, Hackett put a new wrinkle of the wide receiver reverse they've been developing over the past four weeks, having EJ Manuel fake the handoff twice and a tight end flying free to the end zone. Manuel put the perfect touch on the ball, but tight end Lee Smith stumbled and couldn't get to the ball in time. Just as it is for both Manuel and head coach Doug Marrone, it's a constantly evolving process for Hackett. He admits there are plays he wants back, but he struck some of the right chords in the team's victory over Baltimore on Sunday.

Bills' MVP: LB Kiko Alonso - Two interceptions, and one of the early leaders for defensive rookie of the year honors, Alonso has been a star player for the Bills so far in 2013.

Bills' LVP: CB Justin Rogers - The struggles continued for the former seventh-round pick with more big receptions caught on his watch.

Up Next: Thursday, October 3 at Cleveland (2-2), 8:25 pm.

Final Thoughts
- Just a week ago, the Buffalo Bills got the painful reminder that they're still a young team that can't rest on the laurels from the previous week's positive play. It was a tool to learn from. An experience in which to grow within as a team. All the same, so is the most recent victory for the Bills to bring them back to .500 for the season. It won't make or break their season, but it's yet another day to learn from for a young team. Now with a shortened week and a game that will turn an historically wounded franchise from recent years into a bonafide story throughout the NFL with a 3-2 record. Suddenly, Thursday night just got a whole lot more interesting.

Twitter: @JoeBuscaglia

All photos courtesy of AP
Do EJ Manuel's performances at training camp matter at all?
  Yes. If he's going to be better in year 2, it starts now
  No. I wouldn't start evaluating him until the pre-season games
 
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