Bills – Texans Game Review

The Bills suffered a crucial 23-17 loss on the road to the Texans on Sunday, and dropped to 2-2 on the season. Miraculously, they are still tied for first in the AFC East, which speaks more to the lack of quality in the division than their overall performance thus far. Quarterback EJ Manuel had, arguably, the worst start of his career in a game in which the defense actually gave the Bills plenty of chances to come away with a win. In the end, JJ Watt and the Texans talented defensive line, coupled with Manuel’s horrid play, cost the Bills a key road victory at the quarter pole of this young season.

OFFENSE

We’ll get to EJ Manuel and the offensive line soon enough. The play calling, however, was a big factor in this game as well.  Instead of using the Texans’ aggressiveness against them by calling screens, counters etc., the Bills chose to go with a pass heavy call sheet which set up Manuel and the offense for failure. Manuel attempted 44 passes in a game which the Bills were never more than six points away. In contrast, the Bills vaunted running game was called upon just 22 times. This is not to say that play calling was the reason the Bills lost this game, but certainly the offense could’ve been in a better position to succeed had they run the ball more against a Texans defense that was gashed the previous week by the New York Giants.

Quaterback:

When I was watching this game live, it looked like EJ Manuel looked atrocious, but upon re-watch he didn’t deserve as much of the blame as he is getting for the offensive performance. He’s still got a long way to go before he can be pegged as a starting-caliber quarterback in this league, but Manuel rarely had a clean pocket to throw from and the aforementioned play calling didn’t do him any favors either. However, the handful of times the offensive line was able to give him a clean pocket, he missed wide open receivers.

Take this 2nd quarter play for example:

Manuel gets a clean pocket and Chris Gragg on a drag route with room to run.

Manuel gets a clean pocket and Chris Gragg on a drag route with room to run.

Instead he makes this high and late throw in a tight window to Robert Woods

Instead he makes this high and late throw in a tight window to Robert Woods

 

Manuel looks like someone who is thinking too much out there and despite the subpar performance by the offensive line, I am not surprised at the fact that Doug Marrone has now benched him in favor of veteran Kyle Orton. While Orton may not have the physical tools of Manuel and he is not the future at quarterback in Buffalo (or elsewhere), he is likely to do enough to keep the team in games and keep the chains moving.

Big plays were a focal point of the Bills offense this off-season and this was another missed opportunity by Manuel:

Another, relatively, clean pocket for Manuel.

Another, relatively, clean pocket for Manuel.

And another inaccurate pass by Manuel, this time to Watkins who is wide open.

And another inaccurate pass by Manuel, this time to Watkins who is wide open.

Manuel seems to be trying to guide his receivers to the football instead of anticipating the window and throwing them open. I won’t bother showing you the ill-advised swing pass from Manuel to Fred Jackson in the flat that ended up in JJ Watt’s hands for a pick-six. It will, undoubtedly, be a Sports Center top 10 play. In the end, that play ended up being the difference maker in this game. The Bills had just picked off Ryan Fitzpatrick and were in a position to at least put up 3 points on that drive. Instead Houston ends up adding 7 to their tally.

Here’s another gem to Robert Woods, who, was visibly frustrated after this play:

Manuel drops back with another clean pocket and sees Woods open in the short-middle of the field.

Manuel drops back with another clean pocket and sees Woods open in the short-middle of the field.

But he hesitates a beat and then throws a high pass to Woods which is enough time for the defenders to converge and almost cause Woods to fumble.

But he hesitates a beat and then throws a high pass to Woods which is enough time for the defenders to converge and almost cause Woods to fumble.

I can pepper this post with more screenshots of Manuel’s ineffective decision making and wide open receivers waiting for the ball, but I won’t. We all know Manuel is simply not playing well at this point. He’s struggling to go through his progression while keeping his body in a position to make an accurate throw. Manuel is like a beginner golfer who is overwhelmed by trying to do too many things at once instead of just playing naturally.

These are throws that Orton should be able to make and that will give the team a fighting chance to win now. While benching Manuel isn’t a good sign for his long term prospects in the league, this should be a learning opportunity for him. I still believe that Manuel will end up starting for the Buffalo Bills this season but putting him out there right now is asking for disaster. Remember that Manuel was a raw prospect coming out of college last year and the plan was always for him to sit behind a veteran for at least half a season. That plan went out the window when Kevin Kolb got hurt last year and the Bills were forced to put Manuel into the lineup. Why it took the Bills this long to find a capable veteran to back him up is beyond me. However, with a roster full of talent and quality depth, especially on defense, benching Manuel in favor of Orton this early might end up saving the Bills season.

Offensive Line:

Who stood out:

Eric Wood was the lone bright spot on the offensive line in this game. The Bills most consistent lineman, the Center controlled the line of scrimmage in the run game and was rarely victimized in the pass game. While he didn’t make any spectacular blocks, he was generally solid, which is more than I can say for the rest of the offensive line.

Who needs work:

Speaking of the other four members of the offensive line, both guards and tackles got absolutely abused by the Texans defensive line, mostly JJ Watt. Imagine how lopsided this game might have been if Number 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney was in the lineup. Cyril Richardson created some holes in the run game but wasn’t a match on pass plays. The play calling could have been better to alleviate the pressure on the offensive line, but from an execution standpoint the line play was atrocious.

 

Running Backs/Tight Ends:

Who stood out:

Fred Jackson is, by far, the best offensive player for the Bills. Inexplicably, he received only 13 touches in this game. Jackson routinely bailed out the offense by catching short passes and making multiple defenders miss and breaking tackles to first downs. His first half run of 14 yards was a thing of beauty as he displayed nimble feet by navigating a minefield and then finishing the run by carrying defenders for an extra 3-4 yards. He is the chain mover on this roster and he simply isn’t getting his number called enough. CJ Spiller has noticeably improved his inside running and is always a big play waiting to happen, but he rarely breaks tackles or gets tough yards. He is a Ferrari being driven on a dirt track right now.

Who needs work:

Scott Chandler: It’s hard to blame the tight ends when they were rarely targeted despite being open, but Chandler had a couple of key drops in this game. He has seemed out of sync with Manuel all season and has been a lost piece for this offense.

 

Wide Receivers:

Who stood out:

Nobody. Hampered by an overwhelmed offensive line and an inaccurate and indecisive quarterback, the Bills receivers simply didn’t get enough opportunities in this game to stand out. The lone big play was delivered by Mike Williams on busted coverage, but that was a play he should have made after getting 10 yards behind the entire defense.

Who needs work:

Sammy Watkins dropped several passes in this game (three, by my count) and at least two of them would have been for a first down. The rookie wide receiver did score a touchdown in the game, slightly alleviating the Bills red-zone woes, but continues to lack focus on easy catches. This is a different Watkins than the one that was catching absolutely everything thrown in his direction before the season started. Mike Williams also had a key drop along the sideline in the first half on one of the few great throws by Manuel in this game.

 

DEFENSE

Jim Shwartz dialed up several creative blitzes in this game in an attempt to force Ryan Fitzpatrick into bad throws and it worked as the Bills came up with two interceptions on Sunday. The defense has been stellar against the run this season and continued their dominance in that department by holding Texan backs to a combined 23 yards on 18 attempts for a paltry 1.3 YPC. They also sacked Fitzpatrick twice and caused three turnovers (one fumble and two INTs). As a whole, the defensive game plan and performance was sound. Competent quarterback play would have rewarded this defensive performance with a win and that is likely to be the case in most games this year.

 

Defensive Line:

Who stood out:

Marcell Dareus anchored well in the run game and came away with four tackles and a sack on Sunday. Dareus was constantly disrupting plays in the backfield forcing running backs to change their running lanes into waiting defenders. Mario Williams also had several big plays that won’t show up on the stat sheet. He had a sack that was nullified by a questionable defensive-holding call on McKelvin and he also did a solid job when asked to drop back into coverage.

Who needs work:

Jerry Hughes has failed to carry his preseason momentum into the season thus far. He is being rotated more often for Jarius Wynn, who is the better run defender, and has only one sack to show this year. It is notable that Hughes struggled as a defensive end with the Colts (the same position he is asked to play in Jim Schwartz’s defense)  before rejuvenating his career as a stand up pass-rusher in Mike Pettine’s defense last year.

 

Linebackers:

Who stood out:

Nigel Bradham was the best linebacker on the field for the Bills. His aggressive style of play will push him out of position at times but he was generally on point in this game. He collected a sack and an INT in this game to go along with his two tackles. Bradham consistently set the edge on outside run plays to his side, and had outstanding coverage on his man on pass plays. With Alonso out for the year, he is their best three-down linebacker.

Who needs work:

Brandon Spikes was great against the run but a liability in pass coverage. When the Texans split out Arian Foster out wide, the Bills had Spikes covering him one-on-one and failed despite Foster’s gimpy hamstring. Keith Rivers also had a mediocre game in pass coverage. His biggest blunder was letting Arian Foster roll an extra two yards after falling down on his own. Rivers seemingly forgot to tag Foster as he was down, who promptly rolled to a first down on a third down which probably cost the Bills an extra minute and a half with less than three minutes to go in the game.

 

Defensive Backs:

Who stood out:

Leodis McKelvin had his best game of the season as he logged three tackles and a great INT. McKelvin was rarely out of position in coverage and he simply wanted the ball more as he wrestled it away mid-air from DeAndre Hopkins on a slight overthrow from Ryan Fitzpatrick. He also sniffed out a reverse late in the game and beat his blocker to hold the runner to a manageable gain.

Who needs work:

Corey Graham played only 8 snaps in this one and got burned before halftime by DeAndre Hopkins. Graham got caught peeking in the backfield as Hopkins ran right by him and Ryan Fitzpatrick threw on of his patented bullet throws towards the sideline. Stephon Gilmore was solid but unspectacular.

 

SPECIAL TEAMS

The special teams units failed to make a big impact in this game, but the coverage units were solid, except for a 41 yard kickoff return by the Texans. Punter, Colton Schmidt averaged 38.8 yards on his 9 punts and Dan Carpenter made his only field-goal attempt from 31 yards out.

Who stood out:

Ron Brooks was excellent on punt coverage as a gunner and was often the first man to the ball and usually finished his tackles. He was a big reason why the punt coverage unit only 10 yards on five returns.

Who needs work:

Fred Jackson may be the most dependable player on the offense but he made a couple of bad decisions while fielding punts. Twice, Jackson had catch-able punts inside his own 10 yard line and both times he opted to let the ball hit the ground. While those weren’t mistakes on their own, he failed to block the oncoming Texans gunner both times who downed the ball inside the three yard line both times (one of those was overturned on replay after the Bills challenged – the Texans player had his foot on the goal-line as he swatted the ball back onto the field from the end zone). Jackson either needs to fair catch those punts or make sure he doesn’t let the free runner get to the ball before it gets to the end zone on those punts.