PITTSBURGH (WGR 550) -- Coming into the game against a down Pittsburgh Steelers team, the Buffalo Bills had all the right pieces on paper to be able to go into Heinz Field and come away with a victory. Their franchise quarterback was back on the field, their defense had been playing well and it seemed their running backs were finally healthy.
Despite the overwhelming advantages, the Bills laid an egg. Their season isn't over by any means, but it took a serious punch to the gut with their 23-10 loss on Sunday.
Now for Buffalo, they have to attempt rattle off at least five wins in their final six games to have a sniff at the playoffs.
EJ's anticlimactic return
- Here's the stark difference between Sunday, September 8 and Sunday, November 10: expectation. Back in September, the Buffalo Bills and rookie quarterback EJ Manuel were so new and inexperienced that no one really knew what to expect from their opening games. Manuel looked competent and helped the Bills to a 2-2 record against four solid opponents. Then with his absence, the Bills sputtered on offense while the defense actually came around and put forth great efforts without Manuel. The poor play of Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel helped propel the rather tempered expectations for the first-round quarterback into quite a frenzy for when he could come back. The narrative turned into something along the lines of, 'Man, wait until EJ gets back and this team will really be something.' And then the Steelers game happened. You have to chalk at least a little bit of his performance up to rust. However, Manuel was flat out missing throws he should be making in his sleep. Short throws over the middle, simple out routes and even the interception could have been avoided had he just looked off the safety for half a second. What we learned on Sunday is that Manuel was not the lone missing piece on the 2013 Bills just yet. Down the line he certainly could be, but on Sunday he was nothing more than a flawed passer that needs plenty more experience to garner those expectations ever again. Don't write him off by any means, but also don't expect the moon overnight from a quarterback that most thought needed some time to develop.
From playoff hope to playoff life support
- Coming into Sunday, the next five opponents of the Bills held a combined record of 9-32 and the Steelers had just allowed 55 points in their last contest. With the way the Bills had been playing on defense, the Pittsburgh game looked like an opportunity to help get themselves at least back into the hunt. Instead a deflating loss caused the Bills' record to sink to 3-7, and now they'll likely need to win out to have a chance at the postseason. They're not dead yet, but they're close. And if they get the same level of quarterbacking through their final six contests, how high their draft pick could be will become a storyline in itself. It would be hard to believe that Manuel does not improve from his most recent outing, but he needs to do it to show that the juice is worth the squeeze.
Three early opportunities squandered
- The Bills couldn't have asked for a better start to the game. Their franchise safety creates a turnover and puts them within 30 yards of the end zone. Then a shanked punt gave Buffalo the ball at the Pittsburgh 44. After that, another poor Steelers possession helped lead to the Bills taking the ball over at their own 44. The result? A field goal and two three-and-out drives. Once again, Buffalo sputtered at the goal line and couldn't punch their opening possession in for six points and that seemed to linger throughout the rest of their offensive efforts. With the talent that this team has on offense at running back against one of the worst defenses against the league, it's unacceptable how inept they looked in that facet of the game early on. The problem was only exacerbated as the game wore on, stripping the Bills of their confidence and giving the Steelers even more. There were a lot of reasons Buffalo lost that game, and the way they squandered those opportunities in the first quarter of the game should be near the top.
Byrd finally flashes
- With how Ben Roethlisberger plays the game, it was fair to expect that he would take some chances down the field. Because of that, there could be some times that an opportunistic defender could force a turnover. The Bills just so happened to have a resident ballhawk in their secondary, and Jairus Byrd proved that he's getting back to being himself with an interception on Sunday. Having a significant amount of time off due to both a contract squabble and an injury, Byrd has slowly been trying to get back to his normal self. Perhaps a game like that one will help be the catalyst that Byrd needs to help regain his reputation as one of the best safeties the NFL has to offer.
Spiller bounced out of the game
- Coming off his best game of the season from a rushing yardage perspective, C.J. Spiller couldn't get out of his own way on Sunday. Although not listed on the injury report in any way, the high ankle sprain had to play a bit of a factor as to why the running back lacked both playing time and efficiency against the Steelers. Spiller repeatedly tried to bounce runs outside, and even Doug Marrone made mention of it after the game. Marrone didn't mention Spiller by name, but it wasn't Fred Jackson that was trying to get outside time and time again. Spiller ended up standing on the sidelines more often than not and ended the game with 23 yards on just eight carries. Again, this was against the second-worst run defense in the NFL.
- It hasn't been an easy transition back into the starting lineup for cornerback Stephon Gilmore since he returned from a fractured wrist. Unable to really get the type of jam he would like on his receivers, it takes a very crucial part of his game out of his repertoire and opens up opportunities for his assignments. On Sunday, you could see it throughout the contest against the Steelers. Antonio Brown was the thorn in Gilmore's side, and even Jerricho Cotchery beat him for some pretty significant plays. With the way he looked in training camp and the first two games of preseason, Gilmore looked like he was getting closer to becoming a dominant player on defense. Since his return, he's been anything but dominant with the past two weeks specifically in mind.
Third down woes
- Whenever you look at a box score, one of the best ways to determine who might have won or lost the game is if there is a stark difference between the third-down percentages between the two teams. Odds are you can guess who came away with the win. Knowing what you know about the final score of the game (23-10 Steelers, mind you), if you had to guess which team converted on 47-percent of third downs and which team converted on 21-percent, who would you say had each percentage? It wouldn't be shocking if all of you were correct. That's right, the Bills were only able to convert on three third downs in 14 chances. If a team's offense can't stay on the field they can't continue to depend on their defense, no matter how effective their defensive unit has been over the course of the season.
Heinz Field's field is a mess
- It's a bit embarrassing to see what Heinz Field considers to be an acceptable playing surface in the year 2013. It's not bad enough that they've got a grass field in the Northeast, but they house high school and college games even on the same weekend as their hometown Steelers would be playing there. If it rains at any point, that field is going to be torn up. Even when it doesn't rain (which was the case between Saturday and Sunday), the field is still incredibly inappropriate to play on. On Saturday night, Heinz Field was the home of the Pittsburgh-Notre Dame game, and you could see the effects of it when you were down at field level. Sure, it looks great from television, the press box and even the stands. But when you're on the field, you see countless divots that are covered up by green sand to try and mask the problem. That's why whenever you see players digging in and running down the field, brown sand flies up. It's a player safety issue, and with all the advances in field technologies for markets that have inclement weather for half of their games, it's a joke that the playing surface is what it was on Sunday. The NFL needs to step in and do something. It played absolutely no factor in the outcome of the game, and the Bills deserved to lose that game because they were simply outplayed. But for both the Bills and Steelers and all the players on their teams to put their livelihoods at risk on that makeshift field, it makes for a situation that desperately needs to be fixed.
Bills' MVP: S Jairus Byrd
- The ballhawk finally got into the interception column and gave the Bills their best field position of the game. He's getting closer and closer to a return to his normal self.
Bills' LVP: QB EJ Manuel
- It was his worst game of the season by quite a bit. Don't let his numbers deceive you: before his garbage-time touchdown drive, Manuel was only 11-for-25, throwing for just 79 yards and an interception.
Up Next: Sunday, November 17 vs New York Jets, 1 pm
- The loss against the Steelers could be seen as the game that got away of the season. Buffalo was in perfect position to potentially come away with a victory with the way their defense started the game and how they frustrated Pittsburgh in the early going. The Bills defense even had the Steelers faithful turned against their hometown team. The offense could do next to nothing throughout the entirety of the game, outside of a garbage-time touchdown drive that only masked how terribly they played. This isn't necessarily a predictor of future outcomes, but the Bills have their work cut out for them over the next few days to solve some of their offensive issues with a talented defense on their way to Orchard Park next week.