By Sal Maiorana Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
CINCINNATI — To a man, the team mantra inside the Bills’ locker room Sunday afternoon was that they have faith in Buffalo’s receiving corps.
This much I can tell you: Only the people who cash checks signed by Terry and Kim Pegula have faith in this group of retreads, struggling rookies, and punt returners forced to play on offense.
“I’m confident in these guys,” coach Sean McDermott said, a statement that rings pretty hollow when “these guys” combined to catch three passes for 34 yards in Buffalo’s 20-16 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
You could point to a variety of reasons why the Bills lost to a Bengals team that really didn’t deserve to win anymore than Buffalo did and, at times, seemed hell bent on giving the game away with three turnovers and several other gaffes. But the overriding reason for this defeat is that the Bills cannot throw the ball.
And they can’t throw it because guys such as Andre Holmes, Kaelin Clay, Zay Jones, and Brandon Tate have no business starting at wide receiver for the Bills, or any other team in the NFL with the possible exception of the Jets and Browns. It’s astounding how inept that foursome was Sunday, and has been all season.
“We didn’t make enough plays on offense, and I take full responsibility for that one,” said quarterback Tyrod Taylor. “We had a bunch of opportunities, left some plays out there on the field. Just a sour taste after this.”
Props to Taylor for shouldering the blame, and he is obviously part of the problem. His continued inability to make big throws in key spots hurts the Bills, but I’m not going to kill him for this game. He had no one to throw to. Time after time he would drop back — a season-high 43 times — and scan the field and no one was open. Seventeen of his 20 completions went to tight ends or backs, many of those on second or third reads.
We all knew this passing offense would struggle once the trade for Sammy Watkins was consummated. But these first five games have been gruesome, worse than anyone could have imagined. There isn’t a single receiver on this roster who’s capable of getting downfield, and it is affecting the entire offense because the running game has suffered as a result.
“Ultimately, as an offense we just didn’t get the job done today,” Taylor said. “The defense did a great job getting us the ball back and on offense we laid an egg.”
Here are some other observations:
A lesson or two learned
Cornerback Tre’Davious White may have had his welcome to the NFL moment Sunday. He went up against Green and got schooled for two long completions, one a 77-yard TD, and one a 47-yarder that set up a TD. In between, he made several good plays and broke up three passes, but those breakdowns proved to be killers.
“Tre’s a young player,” said McDermott. “He did some really good things out there. There’s some technique errors, there’s some alignment things to look at. That’s what the film is for.”
White has enjoyed a very nice start to his career, and he still leads the NFL in pass breakups with 11. But teams are testing him every week, and this time, he didn’t fare too well.
The running game is disjointed
Because there isn’t a team in the NFL that is afraid of the Bills’ passing offense, opposing defenses are keying in on LeSean McCoy and he’s having a tough time dealing with it. It also hasn’t helped that left tackle Cordy Glenn remains a ghost, right tackle Jordan Mills is terrible, and Dion Dawkins is a rookie who certainly had his struggles against a stout Bengals front seven.
“It’s tough, and it’s frustrating,” said McCoy, who had 63 yards which only boosts his season total to 279. “We have a positive play, and then we step back with a negative run. We have to figure it out and find a way to execute. There’s times we can run the ball and we’re not finishing, whether it’s myself with the reads, or not getting a block, or getting a holding call. It’s not just one thing. For two years, we’ve done it and done it at a high level.”
Wasting field position
For the Bills offense to succeed, it needs help from the offense and special teams, and what was so maddening about this loss is that the offense got that help. Three times it started drives in Bengals territory and the net result was just 10 points.
The only TD came after a Micah Hyde interception at the Cincinnati 23. Following Jordan Poyer’s pick, the Bills started at the Bengals 36, then went backwards and punted. And after Brandon Tate’s 40-yard punt return put the ball at the Bengals 12, the Bills did nothing and settled for a field goal.
"We've got to cash in on those situations, and take advantage of field position,” said McDermott. “We won the field position battle, and we didn't take advantage of it in certain situations. We can do a better job of that."
Pass rush was disappointing
The Bengals’ offensive line had been struggling, but you couldn’t tell based on the Bills’ pressure on Andy Dalton. They sacked him only once, that by Marcell Dareus — yes, Dareus. Dalton had too much time to scan the field and he finished with 328 yards passing.
There were several plays where it looked like the Bills had him, with Jerry Hughes involved in a couple of those, and they whiffed and let him get away. The Bills have only 12 sacks this season which isn’t terrible, but it isn’t great either.
► Play of the game: On the final snap of the third quarter, the Bills were leading 13-10 and had the Bengals in a third-and-10 situation. It was looking good, until Green beat White like a drum for the second time in the game, the 47-yard gain to the Buffalo 5 that set up Joe Mixon’s go-ahead touchdown run. The Bengals never trailed again.
► Player of the game: Green with his seven catches for 189 yards. The guy is a beast, and his performance served as a reminder of two things. Last year, the Bills were incredibly fortunate that he got hurt on the first series of the game when the Bills were here. Buffalo went on to win 16-12. And last week, Atlanta’s Julio Jones played only 15 snaps due to a hip injury. You have to wonder if that game would have been any different had Jones, who is probably better than Green, played the entire way.
►Unsung hero: Brandon Tate. If anyone had Tate as the player who would score the only Bills’ TD, go play the lottery Monday. He was pressed into action because of the Jordan Matthews’ injury, and he made a terrific catch on a 12-yard TD pass from Taylor. He also had the big 40-yard punt return to the Bengals 12. Nice day for him against the team he spent five seasons with.
Buffalo Bills tight end Charles Clay (85) is carted
Buffalo Bills tight end Charles Clay (85) is carted off the field in the first half of an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, in Cincinnati. (Photo: Gary Landers/AP)
► Key stat: Taylor is now 2-16 in games where the Bills trail by four points or more, at any time in a game. What this says is that the Buffalo quarterback has historically not gotten the job done when the Bills need to rally to win games. This was a shining example.
► Injuries: TE Charles Clay went down in the first quarter with a knee injury, and CB Leonard Johnson left in the second quarter with a hamstring. Before the game, CB E.J. Gaines was ruled inactive due to a groin injury. The Bills have their bye week coming up to heal a little.