(WGR 550) -- In their first game without rookie quarterback EJ Manuel, the Buffalo Bills almost pulled off the unthinkable. Heading into a game with a former practice squad quarterback as their starter, the Bills came very close to taking down the Cincinnati Bengals.
A few missed plays here, and a couple of squandered defensive series there and it's evident why Buffalo didn't come out on top. Before we move past their overtime loss to Cincinnati though, first is a detailed look and analysis of each player that took either an offensive or defensive snap for the Bills.
Every week, with the help of the All-22 film available through NFL.com's Game Rewind package, WGR will provide the standouts, the duds and everything in between from the game that was.
For each player that appeared in the game on offense or defense, you'll see their name in bold, with a set of numbers after it. Example: Maury Ballstein (54, -2, 2.7). The first number (54) represents the snap count of that game, the second (-2) represents the individual players plus-minus of positive plays to negative plays in that game. The third number (2.7) represents the weighted Grade Point Average assigned to that player by the author.
OFFENSE (69 total plays)
Heading into the contest, not many knew what to expect out of Thad Lewis (69, 2, 2.7)… and for good reason. Lewis had the smallest of sample sizes, starting only once in his career before Sunday. What fans and the Bills found out on Sunday was that Lewis is more than capable of moving the ball down the field within the confines of their offense.
Lewis' day started off in a big way, connecting on a deep pass with T.J. Graham that went for 47 yards. The throw had perfect placement, hitting the wideout in stride and allowing for yards after the catch. Later in the drive, the quarterback plunged into the end zone on a quarterback draw to give the Bills the early lead. His day couldn't have started much better.
After that drive though, the passing game really didn't have too many highs up until the Bills started their comeback efforts in the fourth quarter. Lewis and the Bills had one drive stall at the goal line at the end of the first quarter and early in the second quarter, but they were able to get it down the field mostly with their rushing attack and the addition of a 15-yard Bengals penalty.
On that fourth down play on the goal line, Lewis pulled the play action rollout with the intention of looking for reserve lineman Thomas Welch for the passing touchdown. He was covered in the end zone, and Lewis instead tried to tuck it and get to pay dirt himself. For a brief moment during Lewis' passing window, Welch created position on his man much like a power forward calls for the ball in the low post in basketball. You would have liked to see Lewis at least take a shot at it seeing as though it was fourth down anyway.
After that, the offense really sputtered. Lewis struggled with accuracy on some of his intermediate throws through the second and third quarters, he was the victim of both wide receiver drops and some poor offensive line play when he dropped back. It all hit a low point in the third quarter on a play when nothing was open downfield, leading to Lewis trying to scramble and not tucking the ball away. A recipe for disaster, that led to a forced fumble and recovery by Cincinnati.
Lewis missed on easier throws on a third down play in the second quarter to Chris Hogan, a deep out to Robert Woods in the third quarter and a throw over the middle to a wide open Tashard Choice in the third quarter as well. All three of these instances resulted in incompletions and could have provided fairly large boosts for the offense.
However, the one thing Lewis was able to do that EJ Manuel hasn't proved to do with consistency just yet is hitting a deep pass down the sidelines. Lewis did it once with Graham in the first quarter, then connected with Marquise Goodwin on the game-tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Had Goodwin not been interfered with by Adam Jones in the third quarter, that throw had a very good chance of being completed down the sidelines as well. Lewis didn't show that ability in his lone start for Cleveland in 2012, making it more than a surprise to the Bengals and Bills fans in general.
All in all, Lewis had a productive day and didn't cost the Bills the victory. In fact, he even put them in a position to come away with a win. Had the defensive effort been better from the start of the game, Lewis' unexpectedly solid play could have been the talk of the town.
It wasn't exactly a hallmark day for running backs on the team, but Fred Jackson (39, 1, 2.7) once again led the way in touches. Jackson showed great cutback vision early on hitting the Bengals with eight and 11-yard runs respectively in the first quarter. After those, the rest of Jackson's day on the ground was merely pedestrian. C.J. Spiller (17, 2, 3.0) was once again limited due to an ankle injury suffered against Baltimore in Week Four. This time around, Spiller appeared to have more of a bounce in his step than he did against Cleveland, and showed nicely with a 10 and nine-yard gain in the first quarter. On both runs, he was able to use the ankle enough to bounce it outside, and did so again on a 19-yard rush in the third quarter. Third-string running back Tashard Choice (13, 2, 3.0) was more of an impact player than he usually is. He had a pair of key runs: a third-down pickup inside the red zone in the first quarter, and then a 13-yard scamper to set up first-and-goal later in the quarter. Frank Summers (8, -1, 2.3) really didn't see all that much time on the field, and struggled to hold his block on Marquise Goodwin's reverse play in the first quarter.
The wide receiver group was led by the return of rookie Marquise Goodwin (44, 4, 3). While he didn't see as much time on the field as a couple of others at the position, Goodwin was clearly the player that provided the most impact for the Bills. He only had a pair of receptions on the afternoon, but he was able to show solid blocking down the field that helped the Bills out in spots as well. Not only did he have the game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter, he should have had another deep, sideline reception in the third quarter if it weren't for a pass interference from Adam Jones that wasn't called. T.J. Graham (59, 0, 2.7) led the Bills in receiving, posting four catches for 74 yards, but his day was still a tad frustrating. He dropped yet another pass on the season, this time on a first-quarter comeback route and then almost had another one on a slant pattern in the second quarter. To his credit though, Graham was able to rope in the 47-yard reception to start the game. Without Stevie Johnson playing, Robert Woods (64, 0, 2.3) really struggled throughout the day. He never got in the rhythm of the offense, even having an uncharacteristic drop in the third quarter. Bengals cornerback Leon Hall covered him up successfully all game long. Chris Hogan (20, 0, 2.3) had little to no impact on the game in limited action.
Through the past several weeks, the play of Scott Chandler (65, 2, 3.0) has really hit its stride. Once again the Bills found him in a clutch moment in the game to be able to come up and make a big reception. Buffalo recognized a familiar blitz coming at them in the fourth quarter, and knew Chandler would be covered by a defensive end on the Bengals side of the field. Thad Lewis put the right touch on the ball and the crowd erupted upon the 25-yard touchdown. Chandler's blocking has been much improved this season than it was from 2012. His sustained block on C.J. Spiller's 19-yard run in the third quarter helped the runner get the sideline and turn it upfield. Lee Smith (12, 0, 2.3) had a much more reduced role than he had the previous two weeks. He didn't see much time on the field past the first quarter.
It seems the Buffalo Bills found their answer at left guard… at least for now, that is. Doug Legursky (57, 0, 2.7) started the game and got the first two series. Once his counterpart got the next two series, the Bills went back to Legursky in the second half and didn't let him leave the field. While he's a smaller offensive guard with shorter arms, he can still overcompensate for his genetic downfalls with his overall strength at the point of attack. There were times he was driven back by Geno Atkins, but he held his own throughout the game -- and really, that's what the Bills want out of that position. On the other hand, Colin Brown (12, -4, 0.3) sealed his fate with Buffalo. He was once again a liability on the field and lost not only the starting job to Legursky, but was released this week by the Bills. Center Eric Wood (69, 1, 3.0) had the strongest day of the offensive lineman. No matter if it was on combination blocks or if he had to go one-on-one against Domata Peko or Atkins, Wood stood strong. Left tackle Cordy Glenn (69, 1, 2.7) was very good for the first three quarters of the game, and even for a little bit into the fourth in both run blocking and pass protection. He helped key an 11-yard Fred Jackson run in the first quarter and a 19-yard rush for C.J. Spiller in the third quarter. Later in the fourth quarter, Glenn allowed a sack, completely whiffed on Carlos Dunlap in run blocking and took a false start penalty. Kraig Urbik (69, 0, 2.3) performed well considering his assignments were Atkins and Peko. Urbik really stepped up his game in pass protection in the fourth quarter when he was left on an island with either of the two Bengals defensive tackles. Erik Pears (69, -1, 2.3) has been trending down in recent weeks, but had an average afternoon without costing the Bills in a big way. Thomas Welch (4, 0, 2.3) was in on all four goal line plays at the end of the first quarter and early into the second.
DEFENSE (86 total plays)
The Bills really struggled on defense for just the second time in six weeks, but don't blame Alan Branch (47, 4, 3.3) for that. In his time on the field, Branch was able to fight through blocks and either open up the lane for a teammate to get a tackle, or he brought down the ball carrier himself. There was a two-play stretch where he and Jerry Hughes combined for very impressive stops of the Bengals rushing attack in the fourth quarter, which helped lead to the Bills comeback. Marcell Dareus (60, 3, 3.0) had mostly a quiet day until the teams got to overtime. In the extra session, Dareus stuffed a run inside and then fought through two blockers and sacked Andy Dalton. When he's on, he's on. When he's not, he's average. Kyle Williams (71, 0, 2.7) had a frustrating first three quarters like most the rest of the defense. Whether it was issues with penalties or just getting pinned in by the Cincinnati offensive line, Williams didn't have his normal, disruptive contest. Corbin Bryant (19, 1, 2.7) made an excellent play in the fourth quarter where he stopped Giovani Bernard for a loss, while Jay Ross (11, -1, 2.0) was getting pushed around when he was on the field.
One of the keys to the Bills turning things around defensively was the play of Jerry Hughes (76, 4, 3.3) down the stretch. He was caught in the edge contain department once in the third quarter, but outside of that one lapse was quite solid in stepping up for Manny Lawson's absence against the run. Hughes did well with pushing back his blocker to force the runner to take a wider angle, allowing his teammates more time to bring them down. Mario Williams (78, 0, 2.7) had a much better outing against Cincinnati than he did against Cleveland, despite what the 'sack' statistic may indicate. Williams got Dalton to scramble a few times to force an errant throw and also chipped in against the run. His worst play was on a one-on-one opportunity versus right tackle Andre Smith. Williams had four full seconds to get to Dalton, but couldn't get any real push on the pocket, which ultimately ended with Cincinnati's touchdown pass to Marvin Jones. Jamaal Westerman (8, 0, 2.3) just came in to spell either Hughes or Williams, but didn't add much to the game.
This won't be the most popular sentiment considering he was given credit for 22 tackles on the afternoon, but that was the worst showing Kiko Alonso (86, -1, 2.7) had this season. Cincinnati aimed to use Buffalo's aggressive nature against them, and one of the biggest culprits is the rookie inside linebacker. The majority of Alonso's tackles early in the game were five-plus yards down the field, which is not indicative of a very good day for either the rush defense as a whole nor the linebackers themselves. In the first half, Alonso had some missed tackles, didn't always play with the best leverage and was late in coverage a pair of times. As the game progressed, Alonso got back to his normal self with good sideline to sideline work on a Giovani Bernard run that resulted in a tackle for loss in the third quarter. His bounce back efforts continued in the fourth quarter with a five-yard tackle for loss of BenJarvus Green-Ellis. After five solid performances in a row, there would have to be a let down eventually. Luckily for the Bills, his letdown only lasted a little over one half. Arthur Moats (36, 0, 2.3) mistakenly tried to tackle Green-Ellis up high on a third quarter play, and was driven back an extra three yards before finally bringing the runner down. He made up for it later that quarter in firing to where the rush was heading and combining with Alan Branch for a tackle to minimize the potential Cincinnati gain on that given play.
The Bills were without one of their best defenders for much of the game when Manny Lawson (25, 1, 2.7) went down with a hamstring injury in the second quarter. He was one of the more consistent defenders in the early going, helping plug the gap on a couple of different occasions. It isn't a coincidence that the Bengals were having a lot of success on the ground when he left the game.
Weakside Linebacker Nigel Bradham (39, -1, 2.3) more than doubled his defensive snap total for the year with his showing against the Bengals. He had a poor start to his second quarter, getting paved out of the way by a blocker on a Green-Ellis seven-yard run. Shortly after, Bradham was one of the three Bills' defenders that missed a tackle on Giovani Bernard's 20-yard receiving touchdown. Later on though, Bradham was able to decipher a run and plugged the lane to limit Bernard to just a three-yard run.
Whenever he was on the field, the Cincinnati Bengals made it a point to go after Stephon Gilmore (26, -3, 1.7) in his first game back from a fractured wrist. Gilmore was sporting a big club on his hand, which limited what he can do on the field. The Bengals ran screens at him and tried to get their receivers in one-on-one situations where Gilmore had to tackle them. Essentially playing with only one hand, the cornerback struggled when Cincinnati attacked him. A huge part of his game is being able to jam at the line of scrimmage and getting physical with the receivers, and for much of his time on the field he played an off-man technique. Leodis McKelvin (68, 2, 2.3) played pretty well for much of the game, but it just so happens that two of Andy Dalton's were thrown to receivers that McKelvin was covering. You can't necessarily kill McKelvin for the touchdowns because the first to A.J. Green was an unbelievable athletic play on the wideout's part and the second came when Dalton had all day to throw in the red zone. He made some nice breakups along the way, jumping a slant throw to Marvin Jones on a third down in the first quarter, limiting one of Cincinnati's pesky wide receiver screens in the third quarter to just a minimal gain and then sticking with Green the whole way on a jump ball attempt in third quarter as well. Aaron Williams (70, -3, 2.0) once again played cornerback for the Bills with Gilmore not totally being able to resume the position on a full-time basis. His struggles were less in coverage and more in failing to get off blocks and completing tackles, although he was beat by Mohamed Sanu on a comeback route in the overtime session. Nickell Robey (22, -1, 2.0) wasn't on the field all that much, but had two negative plays. Even though neither of his negative plays resulted in drives with points, Robey was the man in coverage for Dane Sanzenbacher's 23-yard reception on fourth down in the third quarter. He was also called for defensive holding on A.J. Green on a third down play in the fourth quarter that extended the Cincinnati drive.
Safety Jairus Byrd (41, 0, 2.3) got his first action of the season in his long-awaited return to the field. It was limited action, but Byrd showed signs of his normal, instinctive self. A prime example was his first quarter breakup of a pass intended for Jermaine Gresham over the middle of the field. Byrd made his break way before Andy Dalton released the ball and was able to get his hand in for the incompletion. Out of all the safeties, Jim Leonhard (83, -2, 2.3) had the most time on the field due to injuries. Although he struggled in downfield tackling, he had the lone interception of the game on Dalton in the second quarter. Da'Norris Searcy (76, -1, 2.7) shook off a slow start to come into his own in run defending in the second half. For a few plays it seemed as though he and Kiko Alonso were in on every stop as a team. Once the Bills are fully healthy, having him down in the box as the third safety is his ideal role. The second half against Cincinnati was only scratching the surface. Duke Williams (1, 0, 2.3) once again failed to make an impact in his limited action on defense.
'Upon Further Review' MVP: DL Alan Branch 'Upon Further Review' LVP: CB Stephon Gilmore
Year to date grades, ranked by aggregate GPA (minimum 100 plays)
1) ILB Kiko Alonso - 3.25
2) DL Kyle Williams - 3.14
3) DL Marcell Dareus - 3.09
4) SLB Manny Lawson - 3.07
5) HB Fred Jackson - 2.97
6) RLB Jerry Hughes - 2.87
7) WR Robert Woods - 2.84
8) LT Cordy Glenn - 2.81
9) WR Stevie Johnson - 2.77
10) TE Scott Chandler - 2.77
11) CB Nickell Robey - 2.76
12) C Eric Wood - 2.76
13) HB C.J. Spiller - 2.72
14) CB Leodis McKelvin - 2.71
15) DL Alan Branch - 2.71
16) DE Mario Williams - 2.70
17) RG Kraig Urbik - 2.67
18) DL Alex Carrington - 2.56
19) TE Lee Smith - 2.55
20) S Jim Leonhard - 2.52
21) ILB Arthur Moats - 2.51
22) QB EJ Manuel - 2.48
23) S Da'Norris Searcy - 2.48
24) RT Erik Pears - 2.48
25) S Aaron Williams - 2.35
26) WR T.J. Graham - 2.34
27) DL Corbin Bryant - 2.05
28) CB Justin Rogers - 1.74
29) LG Colin Brown - 1.30