Fans in Orchard Park, NY have been yearning for an AFC East title, or more, for the past 25 years and with the roster that general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott have assembled, 2020 might be the Buffalo Bills’ best opportunity yet.
Josh Allen is performing at an elite level, the offense is clicking on all cylinders and the Bills are 4-1 for the second straight season. But, in order to fulfill the expectations that are set for them – according to the Caesars, the Bills are a -145 favorite to win the AFC East – Buffalo must successfully execute a few things they haven’t been able to in the past.
Staying healthy is an important factor and that showed during their first loss of the season this past week against the Tennessee Titans as the Bills were without several key starters. Sticking to the fundamentals, staying disciplined and winning must-win games are also crucial as Buffalo looks to win the AFC East for the first time since 1995.
Here are the five things Buffalo must do in order to do so.
With a Lack of Depth, the Bills Need To Stay Healthy
Staying healthy is a key component to any team’s success, but it is especially needed in Buffalo.
Tuesday’s loss to Tennessee showed that the Bills lack depth on the defensive side. Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill exposed the absence of starting cornerback Tre’Davious White and outside linebacker Matt Milano by hitting his top two targets, wide receiver A.J. Brown and tight end Jonnu Smith, for a combined 122 yards and three touchdowns on 16 targets.
Even though Derrick Henry only ran for 57 yards and two short touchdowns on 19 carries, the Bills were exposed on the ground as well as Tannehill made several throws outside of the pocket and tallied 42 rushing yards and a 10-yard touchdown run.
But the Bills have had defensive woes all season long. After being one of the top defenses in the league the past few years, Buffalo is currently ranked as the 22nd best defense in the NFL according to pro-football reference. Their health on that side of the ball has been a key factor as linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, who missed a game due to a shoulder injury, has been playing through pain and Milano is normally Buffalo’s best pass defender in the middle of the field.
Buffalo also hasn’t been able to get White, Josh Norman, and Levi Wallace on the field at the same time either.
“Being able to play man coverage, we’ve struggled with that a little bit. And we’ve even struggled in our zones at times,” Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier told ESPN’s Marcel Louis-Jacques. “You need a combination of rush and coverage to work together in order to have success in pass defense. We haven’t been able to consistently put that together yet.”
Offensively, the Bills missed wide receiver John Brown (knee) and rookie running back Zack Moss (toe) on Tuesday as well. Getting those two back into the offense for their upcoming match-up with the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday would be encouraging after putting up their lowest point total of the season against Tennessee.
From One of Best To One of Worst: Bills Defense Needs To Reappear
For the longest time, the Bills defense has been one of the best in the NFL. They finished as the second-best defense in the NFL last season while allowing 298.3 yards per game. Led by White and the safety combination of Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, the Bills also had the best passing defense in the league in 2018.
But so far this season, the Bills defense has been one of the worst in the league.
They’ve allowed 28.4 points per game, have only forced six takeaways, and are only one of two division leaders who have a negative point differential. They have a point differential of -3 while the Cowboys are at -17 in the NFC East.
Injuries to key players have played a part in the defense’s deficiencies but the Bills have also allowed the 9th-best completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks and have only produced 10 quarterback hurries, which is tied for the 3rd-lowest total in the league.
The Bills defense has found themselves in slumps before though.
During a three-game stretch in 2017, the Bills allowed 45 points and a total of 414 yards per game between Weeks 9 and 11, which resulted in three straight losses. They got out of their run in the 4th game by holding the Chiefs to just 55 rushing yards and 10 total points.
The Bills turned it around in a big way in 2017 too as they went on to break their 17-year playoff drought before losing to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Wild Card game.
Bills Must Win the Games They’re Supposed To
Buffalo was never going to go undefeated this season. With teams like Kansas City, Seattle, San Francisco and New England, just for good measure, losses are bound to happen. But, with the way that the Bills have been playing in 2020, Tuesday shouldn’t have been one of them.
According to ESPN.com, the Bills were a slight favorite (-3) in the contest. Despite the loss, the Bills have been known to drop contests they should win in the past.
During 2019, Buffalo lost games to the Philadelphia Eagles, Cleveland Browns, and a meaningless game to the New York Jets after they had locked up their Wild Card spot. They were all games that they should have won, given the type of season they were having.
Now, looking to their remaining games, thelines.com has the Bills favored to win at least five of them, with odds for their Nov. 29 contest against the Chargers and their season finale against the Dolphins on Jan. 3 unlisted.
In Buffalo’s current position, winning seven of their remaining 11 games would put the Bills at 11-5, which should be good enough for an AFC East title.
Josh Allen Can’t Play ‘Hero Ball’ as Often
Everyone remembers the errant pitch last year in the AFC Wild Card game against the Houston Texans (1:04 mark) and everyone saw him do it again this season against the Los Angeles Rams.
Yea, when it comes down to it, Josh Allen can’t make plays like that.
In a media availability earlier this month, after their matchup with the Las Vegas Raiders where Allen threw for 288 yards and two touchdowns, ESPN’s Marcel Louis-Jacques reported that the former Wyoming quarterback said he felt like he’s stifled the “hero ball” gene that he’s been criticized for.
Josh Allen says he thinks he's stifled the "hero ball" this year — although every now and then "the gunslinger comes out".
Says he's still got work to do in that regard
— Marcel Louis-Jacques (@Marcel_LJ) October 7, 2020
The last part of his comment is what Allen needs to figure out how to balance. He’s emerged as one of the best quarterbacks in the league this season with the second-highest amount of passing yards (1,589), behind an injured Dak Prescott, and the second-most passing touchdowns (14) behind Russell Wilson.
But at times, when the Bills are trailing, Allen has tried to force things in an attempt to get his team back into the game in one play. At times it has worked out. Against the Rams, for example, Allen showed that “gunslinger” mentality when he made one of his best throws of the year to Cole Beasley on 3rd and 22 to keep their game-winning drive alive.
During that same game though, Allen floated a 40-yard pass to tight end Tyler Kroft on 1st and 18 that ended up being intercepted.
If Allen can continue his current style of play while finding a necessary balance between forcing big plays and finding them in the rhythm of the game, the Bills offense can continue to produce at a high-rate.
Simply Enough, Bills Need To Remember Fundamentals
Their loss to Tennessee was a prime example of the opposite. Buffalo committed 10 penalties for 56 yards, turned the ball over three times, and Bills receivers dropped five passes.
So far through 2020, the Bills offense is tied for the fourth-most penalties (33) in the league for the fifth-most yards (326). The defense has committed the eighth-most penalties for the 14th most yards. McDermott thought it was one of the most disappointing factors in their loss to the Titans.
Sean McDermott: I can handle aggressive penalties. I can’t handle lack of discipline penalties #Bills
— Matthew Bové (@Matt_Bove) October 14, 2020
Although the problem hasn’t reared it’s head too much so far through the season as Allen is putting up MVP type numbers, the Bills currently lead the NFL in dropped passes with 15. When it comes down to it, this type of problem could cost the Bills down the line when a game is on the line.