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Bills Mid Season Review
We breakdown the first half position by position.
by Tony Bogyo
Bills Daily Correspondent
Nov. 2, 2000
With half the season already behind the Bills, the midway point is a great time to have a look at the performance of the team thus far. To be certain, it's been a tough season and the pressure will not let up in the second half of the schedule. At 4-4, the Bills face the distinct possibility of being the odd man out of a tough division at playoff time. It's been an exciting season to watch as a spectator (plenty of close games and pressure situations). The Bills have failed to truly dominate a game thus far as they seem to have played up or down to their competition. They kept you guessing as to whether you would be celebrating or sobbing on Sunday night. In all, fans can take away a variety of information that help us answer the question "what have we learned?"……
Quarterback: We have learned that the Bills made the right move by locking in two starting quarterbacks – with Rob Johnson injured, Doug Flutie got a chance to work his "magic" and potentially keep the Bills from slipping even further in the standings. We have learned that Johnson can take a hit, despite what the national media has to say about his fragility. Even though he is hurt, he's shaken off a number of jarring hits and been able to get right back in the huddle. After being sacked 25 times in 6 games, it's not surprising that Johnson is nursing an injury – this speaks more about the pass blocking of the offensive line than about Johnson's durability. We have also learned that he continues to hold onto the ball longer than he should. It would be wonderful if he had the luxury to sit back in the pocket and pick apart opposing defenses, but that isn't a reality. We have learned that although Johnson is not widely regarded as a scrambling quarterback, he has amassed 197 yards on the ground and was the Bills leading rusher through the first 6 games (again, another stat that is more telling about the offensive line than the quarterback). Lastly, we have learned that while Flutie has a burning desire to get in the game and make a difference, he can be substantially contained if opposing defenses put a linebacker "spy" on him. Flutie has had a number of balls batted down at the line and has been afforded very few opportunities to scramble and make the plays America will see on the highlight reels. Regardless, Flutie does have a great pocket sense to avoid the sack and has proven himself to be quite capable of leading the team when given the offensive reins.
Running Game: We have learned that halfway through the season, no one single running back has claimed dominance over the other backs, it is still a running game by committee. We have learned that Antowain Smith is not the answer and regardless of the lack of opportunity he thinks he got to prove himself he'll almost certainly not be back with the Bills next season. We have learned that each running back has his strong points and weak points and that the coaching staff continues to rotate them hoping that the whole might somehow be greater than the sum of its parts. Sammy Morris has shown some flashes of ability by hitting the hole hard and stiff-arming defenders on his way to the end zone. Morris' success may be attributed to his style of running. Without great run blocking a big and bruising straight ahead runner of his style will have more success than a smaller, more agile back. Shawn Bryson is more of finesse back and has the ability to do something with the screen pass. We have learned, however, that neither Bryson nor Morris has great blocking ability and this has affected the quarterback in blitzing situations. Jonathan Linton has shown that he is potentially the best blocker of the three backs, but has an anemic 2.9 yards per carry and a season long run of only 12 yards. Finally, we have learned that although the various running backs can occasionally provide an adequate running game, the Bills live and die with the pass while they hope for something more from the ground game.
Receivers: We have learned that the Bills passing game is the bread and butter of the offense. We have learned that the only truly reliable wide receiver is Eric Moulds, playing for a big payday in the last year of his contract. Peerless Price showed good signs early in the season and has held onto the #2 position, but drops and key fumbles have hurt his cause. Second year man Jeremy McDaniel (an undrafted rookie free agent) has actually put up better numbers than Price – he has an ability to catch the long ball and leads the team with a 16.3 yard per catch average. We have learned that Jay Riemersma is one of the league's best tight ends and an integral part of the passing game. Before being injured Riemersma had 9 receptions for 127 yards and two touchdowns, but the stats fail to show that many of his catches came in clutch situations. Without their top TE, the Bills have struggled – the WR corps is much better suited for the deep ball and the lack of a reliable shorter-range target has been a problem. Running backs Morris and Bryson have proven their pass catching abilities but have often found themselves without sufficient blocking on short passes to make a big play. We have learned that without a formidable running game and facing a better than average secondary that contains the wide receivers the only reliable way the Bills can move the chains is via the short pass "dink and dunk", something they have not shown a willingness to do.
Offensive Line: If there is a unit on the Bills that has lived up to their name, it's the offensive line – their play has been downright offensive to watch. We have learned that this unit still has yet to come together and play well as a group. Pass blocking has been very poor – too many times the quarterback has been forced to roll out or take the sack because the containment broke down. We have learned that the offensive line has been regularly beaten by stunts that have allowed defenders into the backfield on a number of occasions. Missed assignments and being beat outright by defenders have also proven costly to the team – with 28 sacks for 199 yards in losses the Bills rank 23rd in the league in this category – 8 teams have been sacked more but only 2 teams have lost more yards. Run blocking has been almost as equally poor, only allowing the Bills to average 105.6 yards per game on the ground (20th in the league). Take away runs by the quarterbacks and the Bills average only 78 yards per game on the ground (28th in the league), a stat made worse when one realizes that virtually none of the running yards by the quarterbacks came on plays designed for a quarterback run. What we have learned about the offensive line is that they are one of the worst in the NFL and will likely be the reason this team will have to put forth a tremendous effort in order for the Bills to break .500 for the season.
Defensive Line: We have learned that this line is not what it used to be when it comes to pass rushing, but has put in a solid effort shutting down the run. With only 15 sacks on the year the Bills rank 23rd in the league. Putting pressure on the opposing quarterback has been a problem – more than a few mediocre QBs have put up huge games due to the length of time afforded them in the pocket. Marcellus Wiley (3 sacks), Phil Hansen (2 sacks) and rookie Erik Flowers (1 sack) at the DE spots have not been able to produce what this line did in the first half of last year. While many will write off the lack of defensive pressure to the departure of Bruce Smith, much of the lack of production in sacks can be attributed to simply losing the war in the trenches. Hansen has the experience but not the speed, while Wiley and Flowers may need more playing time in order to mature in their roles – they'll get this with the recent injury to Hansen. We have learned that the line stops the run fairly well with 330 pound tackle Ted Washington and 310 pound tackle Pat Williams blocking up the middle – a huge wall for a runner to go around, particularly when both take the field at the same time. In all, we've learned that this unit is capable of doing a good job but not as dominant as it was in years past.
Linebackers: We have learned that the Bills have one of the better linebacking corps in the game. We have learned that this group is young and very quick – speed that has helped the Bills shut down the run on virtually all their opponents. We have learned that Sam Cowart (86 tackles – 40 more than any other Bill) was certainly worthy of his first-round draft status and should be on the short list of invitees to the Pro Bowl. We have learned that Keith Newman has shown a good ability to rush the passer, compiling 4 sacks so far (he leads all Bills). We have also learned that while the linebackers generally show an ability to drop into pass coverage they have been vulnerable to give up the short pass (5-8 yards), particularly on third down.
Secondary: We have learned that the Bills secondary is a group with its ups and downs – like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get with this group. Antoine Winfield has shown some good coverage and ball-hawking abilities and is one of the hardest hitters on the team. We have learned, however, that Winfield is capable of falling into a slump, as is evidenced by his last few games. We have learned that Ken Irvin is not truly a starting-caliber corner in the NFL – he has been burned numerous times this year and opposing quarterbacks tend to pick on him as the weak link in the defense. We have learned that this unit can be victimized for the big play – confusion over assignments, being out of position and biting on play-fakes and quarterback runs have yielded big dividends for opponents. We have also learned that the Bills corners are easily beaten by the quick slant play as they tend to line up too far off the line in certain situations, allowing opponents to move the chains bit by bit. Aside from giving up the big play and the third down conversion, the secondary has been fairly capable – the Bills fall right in the middle of the NFL rankings by giving up 221 yards per game in the air and averaging 1 interception a game.
Special Teams: We have learned that Special Teams have been horrendous this season – by far the worst unit of the team. Susceptible to giving up huge returns on punts and kickoffs, the Bills are lucky to have only 1 returned for a score so far this year (without improvement, more are almost certain to follow). Surprisingly, the Bills rank just 23rd in return yardage allowed per game – 130 yards a game. We have learned that on the flip side of the coin, Buffalo has shown little in its ability to advance the ball on kickoffs and punts. The acquisition of Chris Watson has failed to bring any explosiveness to the return game – Watson is averaging 20 yards per kickoff return and only 5.4 yards per punt return. Ironically, Watson was brought in just prior to the start of the season to give the Bills a better set of hands but has managed to fumble or muff a punt a number of times. Watson was also brought in to be a runback threat, but frequently signals for the fair catch and has a kickoff return long of 37 yards. Steve Christie has proven to be reliable in field goal situations – 17 of 20 attempts with no misses under 40 yards, but has proven incapable of kicking the ball deep on kickoffs. With poor return coverage and the lack of a strong leg the Bills have adopted a strategy of kicking the ball high and short to allow the coverage team to get down the field. Chris Mohr continues to show that his best days are behind him, averaging only 41 yards per punt.
Coaching: We have learned that Wade Phillips has his work cut out for him and that the jury is still out on his long term tenure in Buffalo. We have learned that unlike his father, Wade appears to be rather reserved and understated – he never seems to get overly emotional and is not the type of coach to yell at his players. Perhaps this is a bad thing – there are times when Wade has appeared too willing to accept defeat and defend the poor play of some of his units. We have also learned that Joe Pendry's offensive scheme is fairly vanilla – there are few wrinkles to the offense. Defensively Ted Cottrell has done a solid job with all the young talent at his disposal – this unit will only get better as they mature. We have learned that a ranting Carl Mauck on the sidelines can be quite entertaining – for an offensive line coach he manages to get a large amount of camera time (maybe it's because he looks like Mike Myers' "Fat Bastard" character from Austin Powers?). Finally, we have learned that the coaching staff is going to have to find a way to motivate the team to win the important games – the games they are expected to win, the games where they keep it close, and the games where they have the lead – these are the signs of a true playoff-caliber team.
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