PITONIAK: Bills squander defensive masterpiece in loss to Panthers

NFL Buffalo
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CHARLOTTE, NC – SEPTEMBER 17: James Bradberry #24 of the Carolina Panthers separates Zay Jones #11 of the Buffalo Bills from the ball during their game at Bank of America Stadium on September 17, 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

                Two games into the season, we have a better idea of who the 2017 Bills are. After sacking Cam Newton six times and yielding just three field goals they appear to have a defense capable of dominating the way it did before Rex Ryan wrecked it. Unfortunately, Buffalo’s stellar defensive efforts may be negated by a pop-gun passing attack not nearly good enough to win games. At least not against decent opponents. And especially not in the waning minutes on the road.
                We can tweet until our thumbs bleed about whether Tyrod Taylor made a horrible throw or whether rookie wide receiver Zay Jones should have run a more precise pattern and hauled it in. The bottom line is that even if Jones had made like Odell Beckham Jr. at the Carolina Panthers’ two-yard line with 10 seconds to go and even if the Bills had eked out a one-point victory instead of suffering a godawful 9-3 loss, we’d still be talking about how anemic their offense is.
                Sadly, what we saw Sunday is what we’re going to see a lot this season. Really solid defense. Mediocre offense. And more losses than wins.
                It’s not a state secret how teams are going to game plan the Bills offense. Do everything you can to stop Pro Bowl running back LeSean McCoy and the short passing game, and make Taylor try to beat you by throwing to his wide receivers.
                Yes, it helps when you have a game-changing linebacker like Luke Kuechly and a stout front seven like the Panthers have. They totally dominated a Bills offensive line that had played solidly the week before against a decent Jets defensive front. McCoy had no room to roam, finishing with just nine yards on 12 carries. Six of his totes went for zero yards or for losses. It was just the fourth time in his illustrious nine-year career that he’s failed to rush for double-digit yardage.
                The Bills lack of a vertical passing game is going to make it awfully difficult for Shady to shine. Clearly, much of this is on Taylor, who completed 17-of-25 passes for a paltry 125 yards. Until the final drive, the most effective Bills offensive play was a Tryod scramble. His unplanned eight carries resulted in a team-leading 55 rushing yards, with McCoy and fellow running back Mike Tolbert combining for 14 yards on 15 carries.
                It’s pretty clear that Taylor misses not only go-to-guy Sammy Watkins, but also Robert Woods and even speedy deep threat Marquis Goodwin. It’s not Tyrod’s fault that the Bills don’t seem to have a receiver that can stretch the field and prevent teams from stacking eight defenders in the box to stop McCoy. And it’s clear that he needs more time to develop some chemistry with Jones, Jordan Matthews and his other wideouts.
                Former general manager Doug Whaley said he wanted to see Taylor become more consistent, particularly with games on the line. It’s one of the few things Whaley and I agreed on. In recent years, there have been a record number of NFL games decided by one score. Four-quarter comebacks are one of the things that separate the elite quarterbacks from the average ones.
                After stinking up the joint for the better part of four quarters, Tyrod had another opportunity to pull out a victory. Taking over at the Bills 25 with two minutes, 35 seconds to go and his team trailing by six points, the elusive Taylor mixed passes and runs to move Buffalo into position for the winning score. With 14 seconds remaining and facing a fourth-and-11 from the Carolina 33, Jones broke free down the right side. Taylor delivered a strike, but Jones had to twist and lunge for it. It grazed just off his finger-tips.
                Afterward, the rookie took full responsibility for the incompletion. “Tyrod made a good throw and I just didn’t come down with the catch,’’ said Jones, choking back tears. “The ball just came my way and I didn’t make the play.”
                Taylor said: “We didn’t execute the play that was called. Point blank. Zay is a young player. We have his back, and there were other plays out there I didn’t make, the team didn’t make.”
                I like Taylor as a person and as a leader, but I wished he had taken responsibility for the play that everyone is discussing vigorously on social media. Bottom line is he could have made a better throw.
                Of course, there were many plays that weren’t consummated on this dreadful day that saw Buffalo squander a marvelous defensive effort and an opportunity to go 2-0.
                McDermott appears to have the defense headed in the right direction. But the offense spent much of Sunday stuck in neutral and reverse. And there very well could be more games like this one, where teams gang up on Buffalo’s heretofore league-leading rushing attack, while daring an average quarterback to throw to receivers who struggle to separate themselves from defenders.
                Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is in his seventh season as a Bills contributor for WROC-TV and in his 33rdseason covering the team.

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