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The Bills put up 35 points and shut out the Dolphins in Miami on Sunday. In the old days, a win like that would have been cause for a multi-day celebration. Maybe it’s just me, but it isn’t the same any more. I mean, it’s always fun to beat the Dolphins, but they’ve been nearly as irrelevant as the Bills for a long time.
Plus, Sean McDermott has been teaching me to see the season the way he sees it: We’re going to spend six weeks getting ready to play, and then we’re going to play for 18 weeks. The object of playing those 18 weeks is build a team that’s good at everything in December and to pile up wins any way we can, so that we make the playoffs and ideally have the home field for some or all of them. Each game is different, with different matchups with different talent and different skill sets. If you win, throw it on the pile and move on. If you lose, just move on. In either case, you learn something about what you do well and what you do poorly, and you continue to work on both.
And so it is that I’m just not all that excited about the win over the Dolphins. For that matter, I wasn’t very upset about the loss to the Steelers. Just learn some lessons and go back to piling up wins. That’s exactly what the Bills did after the Steelers game. Along the way against the Dolphins they showed some flashes of what they could be, and they discovered some weaknesses. And, oh, by the way, they shut out the Dolphins!!!
Sean McDermott has been teaching me to see the games the way he sees them, too: Some things will go right, some won’t, you’ll score some, you’ll go cold some, and at the end of the game, you may be coasting, you may be whipped, or you’ll need to make plays to win. No reason to get too excited early in the game, or get upset. Do your best and see what you have coming down the stretch.
Coming down the stretch against the Dolphins, the Bills had a laugher. The only thing that mattered was that the reserves would preserve the shutout, and they did. Put the win on the pile and move on.
Was it a blowout? No, or at least it didn’t feel like one. Why not? Because the Bills looked, alternately, very good and then ineffective. They fumbled, they threw interceptions, they went three and out. They lit it up with big plays on their first two drives, and then there was nothing for a long stretch. They had an opportunity to grab the game and make it theirs at the end of the first half, and they got nothing. Then a beautiful touchdown drive after halftime made it 21-0, and the Bills coasted home.
The ups and downs of the offense didn’t matter all that much, of course, because the Bills defense came to play, and they just weren’t going to allow the Dolphins to compete. They sacked Tua and Brissett six times and pressured them on countless other plays. The defense gave up a play here and there, but not often enough for the Dolphins to sustain any kind of offense. Averages don’t mean much of anything after only two games, but check the stats: the Bills defense is second in the league in yards allowed, and second in points allowed. Of course, they haven’t played anyone you’d call an offensive powerhouse.
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The Bills got great pressure on the quarterback, rushing four and five defenders. Which four and five? Well, that’s the problem for the opponent to worry about. Sometimes the safeties are featured. Against the Dolphins, it was White and Taron Johnson. There’s always a mix of linebackers who might be coming. The Bills defensive ends often are back in in the short passing zones.
Who stood out on defense? Easier to ask who didn’t? Everyone’s name was called sooner or later. Hughes and Oliver were relatively quiet, but they helped create the relentless pressure that came from the outside. Lotulelei and Zimmer made plays in the middle, Addison was a constant disrupter. Both Milano and Edmunds were active blitzing, chasing down ball carriers, defending passes. Taron Johnson stood out. Dane Jackson’s tackle on 4th and 2 was fabulous.
Rousseau and Epenesa deserve special mention. Epenesa was relentless, showing surprising power to go with the shiftiness we saw some of last season. He played like he was determined to make a difference in the game on every play. It was an impressive show. If it was a sign of things to come, well, it’s going to be fun, because the guy on the other side is going to be Rousseau.
Rousseau’s not overpowering people, at least not yet, but he has uncanny ability to pursue effectively. He’s always on his feet, always moving. In stunts, he just picks his way through bodies to find a seam. When teams run away from him, he pursues cross-field, behind the line of scrimmage. The result is that he’s always around the ball, and when he gets there, he gets his hands on the ball carrier or quarterback. Over and over, he’s there. He maintains his gap discipline, and he looks comfortable dropping into pass coverage. He’s already a threat, and as he gets stronger and more experienced, he will be a force.
The Bills’ offense, on the other hand, is not 2nd, or 5th, 10th in yards or points. The Bills’ offense is still trying to figure it out.
The offensive line is certainly trying to figure it out. While the defensive line recovered from the Steelers by playing better (granted, in part because this week it was, well, the Dolphins), the offensive line seemed to survive this week only because it was, well, the Dolphins. Manhandled by the Steelers, they stood up better this week, but no one would call them dominant. Sunday night, the Chiefs showed us what great pass protection looks like, and the Ravens showed us great run blocking. The Bills’ offensive line didn’t show either. The Bills’ philosophy seems to be to tell the running backs and the quarterback something like, “The guys up front are going to do the best they can; it won’t be pretty, but you have make the most of it. If you find a hole, take it, and good luck with those linebackers. Josh, find the open man and get the ball out, because you’re going to be on the run soon.”
What’s needed to make the offensive line better? A stud somewhere along the line would be nice, but no one is looking very studlike. Dawkins and Feliciano seemed to hold up better this week, but they aren’t dominating. Ford looks like he’s winning the battle at right guard, and maybe now we will begin to see something special from him. Williams isn’t killing the Bills, but that’s faint praise. I’m expecting that we’ll see more of Spencer Brown as the season progresses, in part because his education as a pro will continue, and in part because the Bills will be looking for more solid play at tackle.
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Allen, of course, is the big, the big, the big what? The big piece of the puzzle? Absolutely. He makes it all work. The big mystery? For sure. Where did the 2020 Allen go? What happened to all those lovely touch passes, right on the money? He missed Sanders deep again. He missed Diggs badly a couple of times. Last season he was getting settled the instant before he threw and delivering balls to open receivers; now, everything seems to be happening in a hurry. And his decision making seems shaky, too.
What we’re seeing is the 2019 Allen, the Allen with potential, the Allen who makes special throws, like the touchdown to Knox, and then makes a head-scratcher.
Mahomes, Murray, and Jackson have something Allen doesn’t have – the incredibly quick release from almost any arm position. It’s amazing to watch them. Allen can’t do all of that, but he can do things they can’t. He can outmuscle defenders and use his arm strength to make throws that are truly special, like the touchdown to Diggs. The others maybe make that throw, in part because Diggs was wide open, but Allen’s really special on a play like that.
So, for Allen, it’s definitely “throw that win on the pile and get back to work.”
With McDermott’s approach to the season, this is not the time the Bills are going to be dominant. The Bills build to dominance through the season, trying to be good at everything, every week. Under McDermott, the Bills know they will look ugly a few times in the first half of the season, but they hope to be the team no one wants to play in the second half. By contrast, a team like the Ravens tries to be fantastic at one thing – running the ball, and hopes they can put together enough of a passing game to be multi-dimensional late in the season. That’s why the Ravens tend to look good earlier than the Bills.
The Bills’ objective these days is to find a way to toss a win on the pile each week while they figure it all out. It’s a little frustrating for fans to live through each week, but it’s the Bills’ style. We’ve seen it before. What’s encouraging is that this season, there’s so much talent, and McDermott is so good at what he does, that I expect to see a big pile of wins come December.
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