The NFL world at large seemed ready to accept the Buffalo Bills as a legitimate contender after a Week 7 win elevated them to 5-2 and second place in the AFC East. In a conference that looks as top-heavy as ever with disappointments scattered throughout, the ultra-tough Bills had all the makings of potential wild-card team.
After a disappointing 34-21 loss to their division rival New York Jets on Thursday Night Football, all that optimism is suddenly shrouded in a dark cloud of doubt. Now, the Jets are no pushover squad. The offseason chatter that the Jets might not only be a poor team but a potential 0-16 squad with the worst offense we've ever seen feels like it took place in a different dimension. Yet, the demoralizing nature of this Bills loss is what makes it sting. The final score is misleading, as Buffalo was down 34-7 before mounting two touchdown drives with under four minutes left to play.
Buffalo rolled out an offense Thursday that looked lost and unprepared to mount a playoff run. A scoring unit that's supposed to be built off a powerful ground attack was pushed around all night by a Jets defense that came into Week 9 allowing the seventh-most yards to running backs on the ground.
The Jets shined a spotlight on the national stage to what's been a season-long issue for the Bills. This ground game simply isn't what it used to be, and it has to do with the players carrying the ball. Through the first eight weeks of the season, the Bills ranked fourth in "average rushing yards gained before close" a metric that correlates well with measurements for run blocking. With Bills running backs averaging 0.74 yards before defenders closed within a yard of them, the offensive line was giving the backfield players more than enough push in the ground game.
LeSean McCoy simply isn't doing enough with the blocking provided. The Bills are the only team in the NFL that ranks among the top five in average yards before close but are among the bottom five in "average rushing yards gained after close," a metric that correlates well with running back elusiveness.
Heading into Week 9, LeSean McCoy averaged just 3.07 yards after defenders closed to within a yard of him, ranking dead last among running backs with 60-plus carries (NFL average is negative 3.6). When expanded beyond the 60-carry minimum, McCoy's elusiveness keeps the company of players like Rob Kelly, Thomas Rawls and Jacquizz Rodgers.
On Thursday night, the Jets won the battle in the trenches. Bills running backs averaged negative 0.71 yards before defenders closed within a yard of them, well off their season to date performance (NFL average is negative 0.28). McCoy once again struggled to make defenders miss, averaging just 2.8 yards after close.
At this point, it's hard to deny that McCoy hasn't lost at least a fraction of a step. Back in 2016, McCoy averaged 3.77 yards after defenders closed to within a yard. It no longer appears he's one of the best backs operating out in space or making defenders miss. He's a 29-year old running back with well over 2,000 career touches; we shouldn't be that surprised.
Taylor also continued his career-long trend of not throwing into tight windows. He's ranked in the bottom five in percentage of passes going into tight windows dating back to 2016. He threw just 10.8 percent of his Thursday night passes to a receiver with less than a yard of separation. Even Tony Romo bemoaned the fact that Taylor wouldn't drill the ball outside when the Jets gave him favorable coverage.
Taylor can make tight window throws, as he completed two of his four attempts, including one for a touchdown against the Jets. Coming into Thursday, Taylor had the seventh-highest passer rating (76.6) and second-best yards per attempt (7.12) among starting quarterbacks this year. Perhaps it's a lack of confidence in his exterior receivers, which would explain why the team made the move to get the massive Kelvin Benjamin in a trade from the Carolina Panthers on Tuesday. However, unless Taylor becomes more willing to chuck the ball into close quarters, the two will prove to be something of a clunky fit.
A potential playoff contender never wants to see one side of the ball utterly tank in a prime-time showing. The Bills now sit at 5-3 and are still right in the mix but optimism feels in short order after such a demoralizing defeat.
The Bills simply cannot afford to get pushed around up front by another opponent this season. When their run blocking collapsed, it exposed the flaws creeping into their aging star running back's game. With a lack of dynamism in their passing game and with Benjamin not playing, Buffalo's offense simply couldn't afford to have a below-average ground attack against the Jets.
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