ORCHARD PARK — Sean McDermott was spitting nails Monday night when he spoke to reporters following the Buffalo Bills’ disheartening, potential season-torpedoing 14-10 loss to the New England Patriots.
He was as irritated as anyone has ever seen him in a press conference setting, and you know what? He should have been, and it was good to see him show a little fire answering some difficult questions rather than grinding out the same, tired, rehearsed cliches that dominate his and almost every NFL head coach’s interactions with the media these days.
This was an embarrassment for McDermott and the Bills, losing a game to their fiercest AFC East rival, in their stadium, in a prime-time and highly visible window, as the Patriots repeatedly punched them in the mouth the same way they did for nearly two decades.
That alone was enough to turn McDermott’s face red, though maybe some of that was wind burn from the dastardly gales that blew all evening at Highmark Stadium and handicapped his team from start to finish.
However, when the topic was broached about whether the master, Bill Belichick, out-coached him, McDermott’s level of ire rose a couple notches.
“It’s not Bill,” McDermott said, his eyes burning. “Let’s not give more credit than we need to give credit to Bill Belichick in this one. Whether it was Bill or anyone else, they beat us.”
And by “they” he meant the Patriots players, especially their running backs, their offensive linemen and their entire defensive unit. Sure, Belichick and his staff came up with winning game plans on both sides of the ball given the conditions, but McDermott is right, this was no genius work of art by Belichick.
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The Bills had several opportunities to win this game, and if only a couple things changed, Buffalo would have won the game. Instead, it came down to something that likely made McDermott’s stomach churn: The Patriots were simply the tougher, stronger, more resilient team, and that’s why New England is on its way to yet another AFC East division title, and the Bills will be in desperation mode over the final five weeks hoping they can squeeze their way into the playoffs in a jumbled AFC wild-card picture.
“Yeah, not good enough,” McDermott said of his team’s failures in the trenches. “We’ve got to be able to run the football, we’ve got to be able to stop the run. Those things don’t change. The message hasn’t changed, in terms of physicality, and the necessity for physicality in what we do. It’s why we start training camp the way we do, with running the football, and you’ve got to win the line of scrimmage. Their backs averaged (5.7) and our backs averaged 3.1 or whatever, so not good enough.”
No, it wasn’t, and it’s clear now that the Bills’ weakness in running and stopping the run – staples of winning football in the NFL that continue to matter even in this age of pyrotechnic passing attacks – is probably going to derail a season that so many had Super Bowl expectations for.
Here are some other observations I had after this miserable night for Bills nation:
Is there a problem between Sean McDermott and Brian Daboll?
If you read between the lines in that McDermott quote, you can come to the conclusion that he and his offensive coordinator aren’t on the same page right now, and maybe haven’t been for a while.
McDermott understands that Allen is the Bills’ most important offensive piece and that passing the ball gives them their best chance to move the ball and score. But McDermott is old school in many ways and it is becoming clear that he is frustrated by his offense’s lack of success on the ground, which, in McDermott’s mind, is a direct reflection on him and the toughness he wants his team to display.
When he was asked whether playing finesse football the way the Bills do is what he wanted in 2021, he said, “That has not been my message from day one, I can promise you that. If you were in the team meetings in training camp, you would know what style of offense I want. That identity needs to embody toughness.”
McDermott knew he captured lightning in a bottle last season with the passing game brilliance Allen enjoyed, but he also knew opposing defenses were going to be hip to how the Bills lit it up through the air. Repeating that success was always going to be difficult, and McDermott’s comment indicates that he wanted to establish more of a physical ground attack to augment the passing game, and that certainly hasn’t happened.
It’s something to watch as the season plays out, but as McDermott correctly said, it’s probably too late to fix the moribund run game.
“We’re going to try our darndest to fix it. It’s tough,” he said. “I’m not going to sit up here and lie to you guys. To fix that part of your game this time of year is tough. That’s why we try like heck to do it in training camp. That’s where you develop the toughness of the football team.”
Another night where red zone was the dead zone
The Bills penetrated the Patriots 20-yard-line four times and the net result was one touchdown and one field goal. The Bills average drive start was their own 40, yet they scored only 10 points. The game was there for the taking, and the Bills couldn’t take it.
“With all due respect, it’s not a Bill Belichick type thing,” McDermott said, doubling down on his opinion that Belichick isn’t why the Bills lost. “It’s what are you doing with the opportunities that you got?”
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The Bills began their first two possessions at their own 48 and the Patriots 40. The result: A three-and-out and a fumbled exchange between Allen and Matt Breida at the Patriots 29.
Buffalo was then gifted it’s only touchdown when N’Keal Henry muffed a punt at the 14 and Allen rifled a TD pass to Gabriel Davis on the first play. Thereafter, the Bills did virtually nothing in the final three quarters.
In the second quarter they had two possessions which ended in punts, one coming on a three-and-out. In the third quarter, playing with the wind at their back, they possessed the ball only four minutes, punting once and getting a Tyler Bass field goal that cut the New England lead to 11-10.
And then on their final two possessions, Allen did commendable work battling the conditions, only to come up empty. The Bills had first-and-goal at the six and Zack Moss was stuffed, after which the Bills had to foolishly burn a timeout. Allen was sacked on second down and threw incomplete to Dawson Knox on third down, a ball that could have been caught but wasn’t. Bass capped that awful sequence by missing a 33-yard field goal.
Taking over with 5:47 left, Allen drove the Bills to a first down at the 14, and then this travesty unfolded: Devin Singletary got stuffed; Allen threw incomplete to Stefon Diggs on a sideline pass that was ill-advised in the wind; Knox was called for a false start; and two more passes fell incomplete. Ballgame.
“We went backwards, right?” McDermott said. “Then you’re trying to kick a field goal — we had a first-and-goal at the 6-yard line, and we ended up going backwards. Just sloppy football. I mean you name it, pre-snap penalty, just no rhythm. No rhythm down there.”
The Bills now rank 18th in the NFL in touchdown percentage in the red zone at 58.2 and that’s not nearly good enough.
“We’ve got to find a way and we were 1-for-4 in the red zone tonight,” Allen said. “Didn’t play good enough. I take that very personally. I’ve got to play better and be better for this team.”
The Buffalo Bills defensive line is underwhelming
This is a tremendously problematic situation for the Bills because they have invested massively in their defensive front in free agency and the draft the past few years, and right now, the return on those investments is pretty lackluster.
This is the third time this season the Bills have come up against a strong run-based offense and gotten destroyed. That starts up front because the Bills are not stout enough at the point of attack. I’ve said this for years about their offensive line, and now it’s time to acknowledge that it’s also a problem on the defensive line.
The Bills sack percentage is 5.36% which is 24th in the league. Ed Oliver has played well most of the season, rookie Greg Rousseau has shown some flashes and Jerry Hughes is getting pressure but, as has been his issue in recent seasons, very few are resulting in sacks. Who else has done anything noteworthy up front?
Where has A.J. Epenesa been since Week 2 in Miami? Outside of a couple splash plays, what has Mario Addison provided? Vernon Butler can’t even get on the field now. And Harrison Phillips played pretty well in this game, but in general, he’s fairly nondescript.
And all the talk about how Star Lotulelei’s return would improve the run defense Monday? The Patriots just went for 222 yards with the Bills knowing a run was coming on virtually every snap and Lotulelei’s contribution on his 27 snaps was a missed tackle.
What happened to this Buffalo Bills receiving corps?
Obviously, throwing the ball was difficult in this game, but Allen still attempted 30 passes and he got very little help from his receivers who were not getting open enough. Cole Beasley had one catch for 11 yards, Emmanuel Sanders three for 22, Knox had two for 14 and three others went off his hands though only one was classified as a drop.
In the last five games, Beasley has 20 catches for a paltry 128 yards; in the last six games Sanders has 15 catches for 168 yards; and for the season, the vastly underused Davis has just 19 catches for 342 yards.
And whatever happened to Isaiah McKenzie, the swiss army knife who Daboll loved so much the past couple years? This year, McKenzie has played only 113 offensive snaps and has five catches for 26 yards and five runs for 27 yards.
Stefon Diggs with 71 catches for 898 yards and seven TDs can’t do it all, but right now he kind of has to.
► LB A.J. Klein playing in this game probably wouldn’t have changed much, but on a night when the Bills came out of their preferred nickel defense and used three LBs as much as they have in any game this year, Klein – who is believed to be unvaccinated – was on the COVID list. So he joins players such as Lotulelei and Spencer Brown who have missed critical games because of the virus. We all knew the Bills’ low vaccination rate, compared to the rest of the teams, was going to be an issue, and it has been.
► McDermott challenging the spot on a fourth-down Mac Jones keeper was dumb. That play is rarely reversed, and this one stood no chance. All it did was waste a challenge and timeout. He, or his spotters up in the booth, need to be better.
► Another questionable decision was not going for two points after the Davis TD after the Patriots had done so, and succeeded, on their TD. I know it might have felt like chasing a point, but being that points were going to be at a premium, that warranted a two-point try.
► Having McKenzie and Marquez Stevenson inactive showed a stark lack of confidence in them as return men moving forward. McDermott admitted he didn’t trust them on a windy night to handle the ball cleanly.
► Hey, here’s one positive: The Bills were penalized only three times for 20 yards, though two of them were costly. Knox’s false start, and a hold by Brown that wiped out a first down and ultimately led to a punt.
This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Buffalo Bills news: Sean McDermott angry after Patriots loss