Image Credit: © Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
There I was: settled into the sofa in the customary post-Thanksgiving dinner stupor, having eaten altogether too much just because, well, I was supposed to, surrounded by my family, flipping channels between the final plays of the Cowboys’ overtime loss to the Raiders (it’s always fun to watch the Cowboys lose, even if it meant the Raiders would get the win!) and the beginning of the Bills game. I awaited the game with trepidation, because the Bills are one of the NFL’s 2021 mystery teams: they’re winning plenty of games, dominating weak teams but with glaring weaknesses exposed from week to week. The Bills should be able to handle the Saints, I thought, but they should have been able to handle the Steelers and the Jags, too.
Not to worry. The Bills stomped on the New Orleans Saints Thanksgiving night, rolling to a 31-6 win. They bounced back from their humiliation against the Colts and put together a solid performance with little time to prepare. Of course, if you’re going to have a short week, it helps if your opponent is playing without Drew Brees or his replacement (Jameis Winston) or his replacement (Taysom Hill), and without their best skill position players on offense and without several other starters. It was a favorable matchup, and the Bills took full advantage.
Once again, the Bills showed that they have a great defense against weak offensive teams. Once again, the Bills absolutely stifled the opponent, rolling into and through the third quarter having given up only a few dozen yards and no points. The Saints could do nothing with the ball. Once again, it was impressive, complementary team defense with everyone contributing. The Bills defense puts on a show almost like the cast of a Broadway musical, with first one person taking center-stage, then another, then another. Ed Oliver stood out against the Saints, but Mario Addison brought it too, Matt Milano made some gorgeous tackles, Tremaine Edmunds made plays, then Micah Hyde and Tre’Davious White. Whosever turn it was stepped up and stopped the Saints.
Once again, the Bills struggled to run the ball, and once again Josh Allen looked great except when he didn’t. Dion Dawkins made a few frighteningly bad plays. Still, it all added up to a lot of points against a few points, another lopsided win against another team that’s going nowhere in the league this season.
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That’s not a bad thing, of course, but teams that are going nowhere are, in particular, not going to the playoffs, and winning in the playoffs is what ultimately matters. In the Saints game, there were plenty of signs that the Bills were improving in areas where they’ve struggled; whether that improvement will carry over against good teams remains to be seen.
The offensive line recovered somewhat from its recent dismal performances. The Bills did their best to keep Cody Ford off the field, replacing him with Ryan Bates after a series or two, only to have Bates get dinged, giving Ford still another shot. Still, things went fairly well across the line. Allen’s protection improved – he still had to make more plays to stay upright and keep the play alive than you’d like in a quality offense, but at least he had time to get set, look downfield and make his first read before finding himself at risk. And cracks, seams, and even occasional holes opened in the line for the running backs. Was the line better because the opponent was worse, or was this actual improvement? Ask me after the Patriots game.
All right, yes I said the run game failed, but in some ways it succeeded admirably. It failed because the Bills couldn’t control the game by rushing the ball. There were a few nice runs here and there, some excitement from Breida, solid if not spectacular power from Singletary, but strictly in numbers it didn’t add up to a whole lot. The Bills’ offensive game was about passing.
However, the run game succeeded in a broader way, and let’s hope it’s a continuing trend. Simply by committing to and sticking with the run, and even though it wasn’t putting up big numbers, the passing game opened up. Allen was throwing the ball more freely, finding the right man open and delivering the ball. Some of that came from the simple fact that the defense knew that it was possible that the Bills would be running. And not running just anywhere; the Bills attacked outside with speed, and at times they faked outside. Simply the threat of a ground game changed the passing game.
© Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
Allen and the receivers took full advantage, exploiting openings all around the field. By and large, Allen knew where the play should go and got the ball there. He did it calmly and efficiently. The receivers executed; all of them. Nice catches from Sanders, Beasley, Davis, Singletary, Knox. It really was an excellent passing game.
The communication and precision of Allen and Diggs is a treat. We saw it last season, but they’ve taken it to another level. There have been plenty of great passer-receiver combinations, and these two haven’t been together long enough to approach the records, but Allen and Diggs already are doing some special things. People used to talk about Manning and Harrison and how they knew each other; what we’re seeing already is in that league. Diggs runs absolutely exquisite routes, precise, lightning quick and creative, and on cue Allen delivers a gift-wrapped catchable ball right where they both expect it to be. Then Diggs’s eye-hand coordination takes over, and the chains move.
We saw it on the touchdown pass, where Diggs drove Lattimore so hard to the inside that when he broke out, Diggs was alone. And here comes the gift, and Diggs has it. They do it on tight-window in-cuts and out-cuts, Diggs cracks an opening for Allen to throw into, and Allen puts it there. It’s special stuff we’re watching.
And although they’re not on the same level, Allen to Beasley, and to Sanders, and to Knox, and to Singletary all are important connections. They’re all making each other better. Knox is now more of an integral part of the receiving unit, and separate and meaningful threat, and that makes all the others better. He doesn’t have to play like Kelce to be a meaningful threat. He just has to be a threat, and this season he’s shown that’s what he is.
© Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
We’re also watching the story of Josh Allen unfold before us. Whether he continues to improve and become a true all-time great, or whether he’ll plateau and be just really good in a QB-friendly era, is the story that will be told in the next few years.
On Thursday night, Drew Brees demonstrated the story of Allen’s development very simply. He dissected Allen’s decision-making on the second interception, when a score would have made the Bills more comfortable at the half. To Brees, it was a very straight-forward proposition: Just get five yards on this play, call time out, take a couple of shots, and get the TD or field goal. Allen looked downfield, his first option wasn’t there. Sanders was the relief valve there, and Allen should have taken the simple choice. Instead he waited, hoping for more, then was left with a low-probability throw. Then he compounded the mistake, because although Allen can complete passes like that, the risk is simply too great. Throw it away and try something on third down. A great QB, particularly Brees, has the patience to take what he can on this play and move on the next. Allen has to see both mistakes and develop the patience and discipline to make the easy play, the smart play.
The Bills are evolving into the team they will be. The season is progressing. Edmunds is back. Feliciano and Brown will be back, which means the offensive line will be getting reconfigured in one or more ways. Breida may be growing into a bigger role. Stevenson’s tryout for McKenzie’s job gets mixed reviews – he looks more explosive than McKenzie, perhaps has elite quickness, but he put the ball on the ground once, and you have to wonder if he can survive the pounding. Nobody can replace White, of course, but McDermott and Frazier will reshape the secondary to respond to the loss. Every team has injuries – White is the Bills’ Derrick Henry. The defense will be weaker; can the Bills’ offense occupy the ball longer and control games for stretches? Well, maybe some combination of Feliciano and Brown and Breida will change the character of this team’s game, maybe Knox will become a household name in December. Maybe Stevenson becomes a gadget sensation. Maybe Allen will go on a run, the kind of run that fans remember for decades, the kind of run that become part of the myth of the truly great. Or maybe not.
It’s a story to be told. Beginning next week.
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