Week 5 Preview: Tennessee Titans at Buffalo Bills
Sean McDermott readily admits he’s not a patient man, so the Bills’ 1-3 start certainly has him in an irritable mood. His team has underwhelmed in every phase, most notably on offense where the Bills have been so putrid, they are on pace for some truly gruesome results.
But McDermott is trying to remain focused on the big picture, “the process” as he loves to call it, and all of the struggles the Bills are enduring right now, he hopes, will make them better in the long run.
“As we go and develop these guys … you go through this and say, ‘Hey, we’re a young team, and there’s going to be some of these moments,’” he said. “As hard as it is, you gotta understand where we are in this building. And these moments, if you learn from these scars that we’re taking on, if you’re using it the right way, you’ll look back and say, ‘That was good for us.’ We get the right education early and the guys learn from it. And those teams, those individuals that stick with it usually come out on the right end of it at the end of the process.”
Painful is the only way to describe the process right now, though. In a league where passing offense is soaring to new heights, the Bills are stuck in prop plane mode as they rank dead last in passing yards, percentage of interceptions and sacks allowed per attempt, 31st in scoring, and their quarterbacks, Josh Allen and Nathan Peterman, have completed less than 50 percent of their passes.
McDermott made it perfectly clear that Buffalo’s offensive problems are spread equally among the quarterback, the line, and the skill players. However, the place where the improvement must take root is up front where the Bills simply haven’t been good, meaning no push in the run game and no protection for Allen.
“Win the line of scrimmage,” he said. “If you don’t win the line of scrimmage in the run or the pass game, you have no chance, so we’ve got to establish the line of scrimmage on the offensive side of the ball and defensive side of the ball for that matter. That’s a weekly thing, it’s not just new this week, it’s a weekly thing, a football fundamental, one- on-one, we have to win at the line of scrimmage.”
That endeavor will be difficult this week as the Titans bring a defense to New Era Field that ranks sixth in points allowed, seventh in sacks and third-down efficiency, and ninth in first downs.
The inside presence of Tennessee tackles Jurrell Casey and Austin Johnson figures to give the Bills’ line fits because they can get push up the middle against the weak belly of Buffalo’s interior group and force Allen to leave the pocket, something he has been too quick to do.
The Titans do a nice job of disguising their looks pre-snap, and then once the ball is snapped, they have a gang tackling, swarm to the ball mentality and you have to wonder if the Bills’ can cope with it, especially if they run some of the blitzes they did to successfully harass Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz last week.
One way to counteract the blitzing is to run the ball, something that has also been lacking in the Buffalo attack. Taking Allen’s scrambles out of the mix, the Bills are averaging 3.4 yards per rushing attempt which would rank them 30th in the NFL. Even with Allen’s team-leading 116 yards, they sit 25th at 3.6 yards.
LeSean McCoy has been held to 85 yards in the three games he has played on just 21 runs, meaning he’s averaging seven attempts per game. “It’s tough,” he said. “The only thing I can control is making things happen when the ball is in my hands.”
Part of his inactivity has to do with the Bills spending so much time trailing in each game he has played – he sat out Buffalo’s lone victory in Minnesota – but offensive coordinator Brian Daboll acknowledged that he has to find ways to get McCoy back into the attack.
“We have to do a good job of getting him involved, staying on track, not going three and out and then getting him the ball,” Daboll said. “No question about it. He’s a pro. I have a good relationship with LeSean. Every good player should want the ball a bunch.”
Defensively, the Bills haven’t been terrible. They’re ranked ninth in yards allowed per play, 11th against the rush and 15th overall. That said, the opposition has jumped to big early leads in the three losses, so there’s a lot to improve on. And now they will be confronted with Tennessee QB Marcus Mariota who is coming off a 390-yard total offense day in the win over the Eagles.
And given how much the offense has struggled, the burden on the defense is off the charts.
“I don’t know that burden is the right name for it,” said defensive tackle Kyle Williams. “But I think that we feel like we need to be better. I think we felt like as far as limiting points or doing some things on Sunday, we were okay. But we can tighten some things down and be even better. We feel like we can be a good defense, we feel like we should to help our offense.”
This is the 43rd regular-season meeting, and the Titans lead 27-15. The Bills won the last meeting 14-13 in 2015 at Tennessee in a game where Tyrod Taylor, in his first year as the starter, pulled off what was one of the few fourth-quarter comebacks of his career. That ended a five-game losing streak in the series that dated to Buffalo’s win on opening night in 2000.
BY THE NUMBERS
21 – Sacks allowed by the Bills through four games. This marks only the 29th time in NFL history that a team has allowed at least 21 sacks through the first four games.
-- DL Shaq Lawson returned to the lineup in Green Bay and he played some DT on passing downs, something that may continue moving forward.
-- LB Matt Milano won the AFC’s defensive player of the week honor after Week 3, but he still shared time with Ramon Humber as he played only 75 percent of the defensive snaps against the Packers.
-- WR Kelvin Benjamin continues to be one of the most disappointing acquisitions in recent Bills history. He has only seven catches for 92 yards through four games.
-- QB Josh Allen’s passer rating is down to 63.8 after a terrible performance in Green Bay when he completed 16 of 33 passes for 151 yards with two interceptions.
-- TE Jason Croom, who caught a TD pass in Minnesota, was held to one catch for 13 yards while playing only 13 offensive snaps.
-- WR Zay Jones led all skill players as he played 91 percent of the offensive snaps, yet he didn’t make a catch until six minutes were left in the game. He ultimately finished with four in garbage time.
-- RB LeSean McCoy has only 85 yards rushing in the three games he has played. He had never had less than 140 in the first three games of any season.
-- SS Micah Hyde is unlikely to play against Tennessee due to a groin injury that has him listed as week to week.
-- CB Dontae Johnson was signed as a free agent and DE Nate Orchard was cut. The Bills have dressed only four CBs in each of the first four games, and it has hurt them every time because players got hurt and the Bills were shorthanded. Johnson played all but one game during four seasons with the 49ers, then spent the offseason with the Seahawks but was cut.
-- P Corey Bojorquez has had a solid first four games, one of the few bright spots for the Bills. He averaged 43.5 yards on eight punts in Green Bay and had four downed inside the 20.
SS Rafael Bush. With Micah Hyde almost certainly out for the game against Tennessee, Bush will probably get the start in his place. Bush has been around the NFL for nine years and has played in 80 games with 19 starts. He came to the Bills as a free agent in March and had a good offseason and training camp to make the roster. In the first four games, the bulk of his playing time has come in dime situations, but he was also pressed into duty at nickel cornerback when injuries shortened the Bills’ depth chart, and Bush held his own. To date, Bush is fourth on the team with 22 tackles and has played on 57 percent of the defensive snaps.
The Bills have to figure out a way to get its running game going because it has been non-existent during the 1-3 start. The Bills are averaging just 88.3 yards, 24th in the league, and even that’s a bit dubious because their leading rusher is rookie quarterback Josh Allen with 110 yards, who has been running for his life. LeSean McCoy has just 85 yards in the three games he has played, and Chris Ivory is averaging just 2.6 yards per attempt. Until the Bills start hurting teams on the ground, it’s going to be very difficult for Allen to make things happen in the passing game because the Bills have zero play-action effectiveness right now.
After three ho-hum efforts on offense, Tennessee comes into Buffalo fresh off a game where quarterback Marcus Mariota produced 390 yards of total offense including 344 passing in a victory over the defending champion Eagles. Mariota is a dual threat who can make things happen outside the pocket, so the Bills will need to hold the edges with their pass rush because if ends Trent Murphy and Jerry Hughes get upfield too far inside, Mariota will get out and make plays outside the pocket either throwing or running. Making the Titans one-dimensional would help, and that means slowing down the combo of Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Bills LBs vs. Titans RB Dion Lewis. Last week, Lewis was rendered useless by the Eagles, but the Bills know that’s probably an aberration because they saw plenty of Lewis’ versatility when he was with the Patriots. Derrick Henry is the more dynamic runner, but Lewis could present some real problems for the Bills in the passing game and it will be on players like Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano to spy him and make sure they have him contained when Marcus Mariota drops the ball off on a checkdown or a quick hitch route in the middle of the field.
Bills WRs vs. Titans safeties. Tennessee lost starting SS Kenny Vaccaro last week, leaving them thin at the position, and they may have to rely on middling veteran Kendrick Lewis who just returned after missing the first three games with a foot injury, or rookie Dane Cruikshank to line up next to FS Kevin Byard. Buffalo’s starting WRs, Zay Jones and Kelvin Benjamin, could not possibly be more ineffective than they’ve been the first four weeks, so if they, or TE Charles Clay, can finally beat man coverage and put some stress on the Titans’ last line of defense, perhaps there will be plays to be made. The Bills have to be able to throw more effectively than they have if they stand any chance of winning.