The Bills traded away Sammy Watkins about a month before the season began and replaced him with Jordan Matthews. Then the Bills shipped off cornerback Ronald Darby, replacing him with Rams castoff E.J. Gaines. It looked as if the team was in full-on rebuilding mode. Instead, the Bills are sitting at 3-1 and, most shockingly of all, on top of the AFC East after Sunday’s upset win over the Falcons in Atlanta.
The Falcons aren’t an easy team to stop, but the Bills held them to just 17 points and forced three turnovers. LeSean McCoy ran all over a Falcons defense that had allowed just 85 yards per game on the ground before Sunday, and Tyrod Taylor connected with Charles Clay for 112 yards through the air.
The Falcons were favored by 8 points, one of two undefeated teams left standing in the NFL heading into Week 4. The Bills snapped that streak. It’s been a long stretch of futility for the Bills, but this season looks like a shift in the right direction.
Defense is the key
This defense is a force. It is ranked third in the league with six interceptions on the season, and it has added four forced fumbles. It was disruptive against Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, taking advantage of a weakened right side of the offensive line. It sacked Ryan only once but managed to hit him seven times.
Micah Hyde picked Ryan off not once, but twice, which kept momentum in Buffalo’s favor in the second half. And a Ryan fumble was recovered for a scoop-and-score by rookie cornerback Tre’Davious White. The Bills’ turnover ratio of +6 is tied for the second-best in the league. Turning those takeaways into points against the Falcons made the difference.
“It was huge. You are talking about three turnovers that led to points,” coach Sean McDermott said after the win. “That is huge in this game and the players know that. They know what stats relate to winning, and it was a huge turn of momentum early in the second half.”
The win over the Falcons wasn’t an anomaly. It’s par for the course for this year’s Bills. Beating the Jets in Week 1 was certainly expected, and Buffalo lost a 9-3 heartbreaker to the Panthers in Week 2. But its surprise win over the Broncos in Week 3 was a snapshot of what the defense is capable of. Denver quarterback Trevor Siemian threw for 259 yards, no touchdowns, and two interceptions.
Buffalo ranks atop the league in points allowed per game with just 13.5. The Bills held the Falcons scoreless through the first quarter, and they are the only team to do so this season.
The offense is doing enough to keep winning, but ...
Taylor doesn’t make many mistakes, even under pressure. The Falcons sacked him three times on Sunday, but he didn’t turn the ball over at all. Through four games, Taylor has thrown just one interception.
He doesn’t put up huge numbers, but Taylor certainly does enough. Against the Falcons, he finished with 182 yards and one touchdown. Most of those came off his connection with Clay, the team’s leading receiver with 227 yards and two touchdowns so far this season.
The Bills’ relationship with Taylor has been a complicated one. Taylor was solid in 2015 and 2016, but the team has never fully backed him. That hasn’t changed with McDermott and new general manager Brandon Beane, who veered from calling Taylor the quarterback of the future to also promising there would be an open competition for the starting role, all in the span of the same press conference.
Buffalo benched Taylor for the last game of the 2016 season to avoid any injury that would force the team to pay out over $30 million in guarantees. Then the Bills reworked his contract this offseason, making it essentially a one-year deal that they can easily shed after this season if they want to move on from him. They’ve let his weapons get away too, making it that much harder to gain yards and score points. But they’re finding a way.
McCoy had 76 yards on the ground. It was a rebound game for him after getting off to a slow start this season. He had 110 yards in Week 1 against the Jets, but then totaled just 30 yards on 26 carries combined in Weeks 2 and 3. If his performance against the Falcons is an indication of McCoy getting back to form, that’s going to make life easier for the offense for the rest of the season.
... it’d be better with Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins
Expectations weren’t high for this Bills offense heading into the season. They let wide receiver Robert Woods walk away in free agency. He signed with the Rams.
They traded away Watkins and let running back Mike Gillislee sign with New England as a restricted free agent, a year after they let Chris Hogan slip away via the same route.
Watkins’ health limited his productivity during his time in Buffalo. But he’s been healthy enough to contribute in Los Angeles. Watkins has caught 13 of 14 targets for 194 yards and two touchdowns this season. Woods has added 169 receiving yards.
Hogan has been a solid contributor for the Patriots, with 15 catches for 214 yards and four touchdowns this season. And Gillislee had 577 yards and eight touchdowns on 101 carries last year in Buffalo. This season, he has 145 yards and four touchdowns for the Patriots.
The offense is doing enough without Watkins, Woods, Hogan, and Gillislee, and the defense is stout enough to keep the Bills winning.
Imagine how much better they’d be if they hadn’t moved on from these players.
For now, 3-1 record aside, McDermott doesn’t want anyone to get ahead of themselves:
Q: “What if I told you this was the Bills biggest road win since their Super Bowl Era?”— Buffalo Bills (@buffalobills) October 1, 2017
A: “I’d tell them to hold their horses.” pic.twitter.com/e4dRIOecfe
Beane said on Pro Football Talk Live in August that he was “very annoyed” by the insinuation that the Bills were tanking this season.
“We’re going to compete our tails off in 2017,” he said.
So far, it looks like he was right.