Sean McDermott’s leading a team that’s in no small part a collection of league misfits and castoffs, yet somehow continue to find ways to win. How else you can explain guys like discarded Chicago Bears receiver Deonte Thompson and third string running back/undrafted free agent Taiwan Jones playing such critical roles in their 30-27 victory over Tampa? Thompson’s 44-yard catch in the fourth quarter helped set up the tying score while Jones converted a crucial third down gimmick play for a first that milked the clock to under 15 seconds before Stephen Haushka’s game-winning field goal. It legitimately blows me away how many unheralded guys on this roster have significantly contributed to Buffalo’s 4-2 start, a record most found improbable roughly six weeks ago with preseason darlings like Denver, Atlanta and Tampa looming.
Thompson wasn’t even employed when he woke up five days ago after being dumped by Chicago last week. The Bills signed him Tuesday and with a total of three practices under his belt still caught four passes for 104 yards; the most by a Buffalo wide out all season. Based on what I saw I don’t think he’s a one-week wonder either. He can have a big role in the offense moving forward over the rest of the season. Thank you, Chicago.
WANT OTHER CASTOFF HEROES? HERE’S FOUR MORE…
With Buffalo up 10-6 in the second quarter but Tampa on the move and threating to put up points for a third consecutive drive, Ryan Davis strip-sacked Jameis Winston and Leonard Johnson recovered the fumble to thwart the drive. In a game where every point counted, it was a huge play by Davis.
Cornerback E.J. Gaines returned from a hamstring injury only to reinjure said hamstring, forcing the aforementioned Johnson into a more prominent role. He wasn’t perfect by any means but tied a team-high with eight tackles and recovered the fumble on Davis’ second quarter strip sack. Playing on his fourth NFL team since entering the league undrafted in 2012, I honestly don’t even remember Buffalo signing him as a free agent this past March. He’s turning into a nifty reserve corner and should see a bigger role with Gaines out.
No-name tight ends (outside of Buffalo anyway) are stepping up in Charles Clay’s absence. Jack Nicholas’ grandson AKA Nick O’Leary had big receptions of 32 and 26 yards while Logan Thomas, a converted quarterback got wide open and caught a 22-yard touchdown pass from Tyrod Taylor. Thomas has bounced around four NFL practice squads since 2015 including Buffalo before getting an opportunity this season.
THE REAL SLIM SHADY RETURNS
After production that made him seem like “just another guy” over the last month, we saw the reemergence of Lesean McCoy as a stud capable of dominating a game. Shady ran for 91 yard on 23 carries, caught five passes for 31 yards and most importantly found the end zone for the first two times this season. The Bills offense is exponentially better when McCoy gets going, and going he got against a Bucs defense that often looked foolish trying to tackle him in the open field.
THE UNSUNG HEROES
Part of the reason McCoy was back in top form was because the offensive line was stellar. Buffalo ran for 173 yards and Taylor was only sacked once—more so impressive considering how long he tends to hold the ball in order to extend plays. I’ll study the All-22 Tuesday morning to confirm but to my naked eye it seems everyone on the unit—even Jordan Mills and Vlad Ducasse had a positive afternoon.
BENT BUT NOT AT THE WAY BROKEN
The Bills defense had their worst game of the season by a large margin. They surrendered 378 yards in the air to Winston, allowed the Bucs to convert 54% of their third downs, saw Tampa move the chains 27 times and gave up a season-high 27 points. Typically that’s a recipe for disaster, but it could’ve been much worse. The Bills allowed consecutive 11-play drives to Tampa on their first two drives but ultimately held them to a field goal on each. More importantly they forced three critical turnovers; the Davis strip-sack, an interception by rookie Matt Milano and a forced fumble and recovery by Tre’Davious White that led to the Bills winning points. I’m sure McDermott’s not happy with the overall performance particularly the pass defense, but they buckled down enough early to force field goals and not allow the game to get away from them, and the three turnovers were ultimately the difference.
I LOVE THESE SAFETIES
Neither Micah Hyde nor Jordan Poyer had big statistical afternoons but don’t mistake numbers for not being effective. Poyer single-handedly saved the Bills four points in the first quarter with a brilliant end zone pass breakup on a Cameron Brate would-be touchdown, and Hyde had a big pass defense of his own while also knocking down and nearly intercepting a long pass intended for Desean Jackson. In my opinion these two have solidified the safety spot to the point it’s now the strongest position on the team.
WHITE MAKES RIGHT
I was ready to question why the hell Tre’Davious White wasn’t on Mike Evans most of the game. I mean, White’s clearly the best Bills corner and Evans is easily Tampa’s most accomplished pass catcher. I figured maybe McDermott and Leslie Frazier were trying to protect his mindset after he was abused by A.J. Green two weeks ago. Then late in the fourth we did see White on him—and Evans promptly beat him for a 12-yard go ahead touchdown. However as he’s done almost season White redeemed a mistake, making the biggest play of his young career by stripping Adam Humphries and recovering the fumble at the Tampa 25 with just 2:28 remaining to set up Buffalo’s win. I freegin’ love the battle in this kid. It’s totally contagious.
OK ENOUGH AVOIDING IT, LET’S DISCUSS TYROD TAYLOR
This guy is a true enigma. I think Buffalo News columnist Bucky Gleason depicted Taylor’s game more accurately than anything else I’ve ever seen.
Taylor remains a mystery while leaving people conflicted. He fails to make plays anyone can make and makes plays nobody else can.
— Bucky Gleason (@ByBuckyGleason) October 22, 2017
I can’t remember a quarterback that unfailingly brings out more praise… and anger inside fans within a 60 minute game. Living in Tampa now and hating casual Bucs fans with a passion, I personally was ready to hurl my laptop directly off the balcony late in the second quarter over a pair of idiotic Taylor decisions. First facing a third-and-nine from the Tampa 23 Taylor found himself gifted a running lane where he could’ve walked for a first down if not the end zone, he instead launched a pass on the run towards the end zone that fell over the stretched out arms of Taiwan Jones. In fairness to Taylor his receiver momentarily stopped running but still, there’s no guarantee Jones catches it anyway and Taylor was had what would’ve been at worst a first and goal. Of course, what we’ll all remember for quite some time was the play at the Tampa 18, when with 11 seconds left before the half and no timeouts Taylor chose to toss a dump pass to Jordan Matthews in the middle of the field where a high school JV quarterback would know to throw the ball about 75 yards out of bounds. Matthews got tackled before reaching the sideline and the clock expired before Buffalo could spike the ball. Taylor by himself cost his team 6-10 points with those two plays directly— more often than not the difference between a win or loss.
That’s bad Tyrod we’re speaking of. Good Tyrod was also on display Sunday. He shook agile linebacker Kwon Alexander out of the stadium on a 26-yard run. He extended a play 99% of other quarterbacks would’ve eaten a sack on to find an open O’Leary for 32 yards. But the best of Tyrod was saved for when most (including myself) doubted him most. Down seven with 3:14 left and starting on their own 25, Taylor threaded a perfect deep pass down the left sideline for Thompson, who caught it for 44 yards and got an additional 15 tacked on because of a high hit on a defenseless receiver. On the next play Taylor connected with Zay Jones (yes, him) for nine yards over the middle and one play later McCoy ran in from the seven and the tie.
I want to believe this team can contend for the duration of the season with Taylor as the quarterback, I really do. I just can’t buy into him when he’s mangling points like he did today. There’s a reason his career record is 3-16 when trailing by four or more points even with today’s win. You can’t win with regularity in the NFL when your quarterback is both the most exciting but also boneheaded player on the field. The Bills escaped today and that’s great, but nine of 10 times your quarterback leaves two scores on the field you’re going to lose. I know he lacks weapons and to say that’s not a factor is foolish, but his accuracy on sure throwing downs and overall decision making often lacks badly.
Does that mean the Bills should turn to Nathan Peterman? No, and you’re silly if you think otherwise. For better or worse Taylor gives the Bills the best chance to win each week for the rest of 2018, but come winter/spring I think it’s time to turn elsewhere. I don’t think you’ll see him play any better or worse than you’ve seen through six games.
In the meantime, Taylor’s precision on those throws to Thompson and Jones along with a big defensive play bought him a reprieve. Sports talk radio would not have been pleasant place to be for Taylor had they lost.
A FEW FINAL QUICK HITS
♦ For the most part I hated offensive coordinator Rick Dennison’s play calling, but holy shit you can’t deny that guy has a set on him the size of grapefruits. That critical third down play to Jones was as ballsy as it gets. Can you imagine the heat that came his way had the play been blown up. In a way, Dennison potentially put the fate of the game in the hands of Taiwan Jones. That’s balls right there.
♦ Matt Milano had a very Luke Kuechly like interception in the middle of the field. He’s showing a lot of promise while filling in for the injured Ramon Humber.
♦ Death… Taxes.. Stephen Haucshka nailing 50+ yarders.
♦ The middle of the field continues to get shredded in the passing game. I’ll bet upgrading over Preston Brown is a high priority this offseason.
♦ People are going to hate on Marcell Dareus because his name was hardly called except for an offside penalty, but he was in on five tackles and along with Kyle Williams did a pretty good job of winning in the trenches. Tampa only ran for 69 yards and at least from what I saw, Dareus seemed to carry his weight Sunday.
♦ Props to Colton Schmidt on two punts that averaged 50.5 yards, including a net 55-yarder. Perhaps more importantly, props to the Bills for only punting twice.
I said it following the Atlanta win and I’ll do so again—this is a game the Bills have lost far too many times over the last 17 years. We’ve seen far more talented Bills rosters throughout the drought but this edition continues to feel different. Rather than trot out squads crammed with talent but chronically underachieve, if feels like McDermott gets every last ounce from all 53 guys on the roster. I came into today thinking Tampa was the more talented team and undoubtedly were desperate to win and not fall to 2-4, yet it was Buffalo playing with the intensity of a playoff berth on the line. I honestly feel like the Bills won late in the fourth quarter because they wanted it more. I know that corny and cliché, but I think Buffalo literally wanted this game more.
When you look at this roster there’s very little that impresses you on paper yet here we are, six games in with Bills at 4-2. They’re either giving fans one helluva tease, or they’re becoming a team that may stick around in this playoff race for the duration. Based on these first six outings it could very well be the latter.