ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Following a frustrating Week 5 loss overseas, the Buffalo Bills returned home hoping for an easier go against the one-win New York Giants. Instead, they got the exact opposite. It took every second to secure the 14-9 victory, but eventually the Bills claimed a fourth win in six games.
The offensive struggles continued for the Bills, having been shut out through three quarters for the first time in over five years. The last time that happened was on Sept. 30, 2018, when the Bills lost 22-0 to the Green Bay Packers.
How did the Bills get through it, and what else stood out from their unexpectedly close victory?
The Bills’ London fog has yet to lift on offense
After three straight weeks of outstanding offensive efforts, the Bills have been alarmingly pedestrian over their last two. The game against the Jaguars showed a Bills offense that seemed extremely close to a breakthrough, only to watch the game pass them by until it was too late. This week against the Giants, that slow start carried over and was even worse than the week before. Had this been against almost any other NFL team than the Giants, who were starting a reserve unit of offensive linemen in front of a backup quarterback with a running back coming off a high ankle sprain, the Bills likely would have left the game with their third loss. They were fortunate to have been playing this opponent when going through these doldrums.
For much of the game, the offense looked uninspired, inefficient and took untimely penalties to make it even worse on themselves. This was far different than the Jaguars game, because it didn’t seem like the Bills were at all close to breaking through up until end of the third quarter. The Bills allowed a struggling defense to generate heat on quarterback Josh Allen, which in turn created an ineffective offensive environment. Coordinator Ken Dorsey really didn’t have any answer other than to trying to target Stefon Diggs, but even that disappeared in stretches. Coach Sean McDermott was pointed in his critiques of yet another slow start, citing a need to get “into a rhythm,” which in McDermott language not so subtly means “run the ball, dude.”
The Bills looked slightly lost without their 2023 identity of 12 personnel featuring rookie Dalton Kincaid, who didn’t play due to a concussion. They tried going with an atypical 12 personnel to begin the game, using offensive lineman David Edwards as an eligible sixth offensive lineman on six of their first 12 snaps. When that didn’t work, the Bills drifted back to their 2022 operating procedure and ran 11 personnel on 81 percent of their offensive plays (penalties included). Dorsey and the offense didn’t have an answer until late, and that simply cannot continue for the Bills to reach the lofty Super Bowl goals still in front of them. It’s a low point after a really strong start, and Dorsey’s answer in following weeks as a second-year coordinator will be telling.
The formula that helped steal the game
As the game went along, Dorsey and the Bills found a personnel grouping that worked for them and helped yield a pair of touchdown drives to help secure a win. That featured 11 personnel with second-year receiver Khalil Shakir as the third receiver, and usually James Cook as the running back. After not playing nearly at as high of a rate in the first half, Cook and Shakir became staples of those two touchdown drives. Of Cook’s 30 snaps, 18 of them came on those two scoring drives. For Shakir, 16 of his 25 total snaps were on those two offensive series. The Cook piece was a bit confusing, as he’s a mostly dynamic runner through his first five games as the top back. McDermott said after the game they wanted to see what the offense looked like with the 33-year-old Latavius Murray getting more opportunities, and that was apparent as he collected 18 of the first 31 running back snaps. After that, though McDermott said he felt like Cook was running with a purpose. Perhaps it was a wake-up call to Cook, but it worked, as he was a key piece of their somewhat predictable, yet still effective down the stretch formula.
On their game-winning touchdown drive, four first-down plays in a row was a handoff to Cook, with the second-year back gaining at least four yards on each attempt. It set the Bills up for second-and-manageable, and they never faced a third-and-long the entire drive because of it. Moving forward, McDermott likely will point to that drive and how they began each of those four first downs as to why establishing the line of scrimmage is so important. There’s no doubt that the Bills are a better offense when they have a tangible threat to run, which in turn helps their play-action game. How much Dorsey takes the result of those two touchdown drives for his future game plans will be quite interesting to track in the next few weeks.
WHAT. A. THROW.
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) October 16, 2023
The decision to throw on third-and-8
With the game on the line, needing only one first down to secure the victory and the Giants having only one timeout remaining, the Bills went for it all on third-and-8 and attempted a pass to secure the first down. Allen rolled out to his right, tight end Dawson Knox broke free from defenders and had a window, and both players failed to execute. Allen threw it low and behind Knox, while Knox got both hands on it but couldn’t secure the catch. Each player took the blame for the incompletion that forced Tyler Bass into a long field goal attempt, kept the Giants with one timeout with, at worst, a chance to tie the game even with a successful three-point try and time on the clock to move down the field.
There was a lot of blame put into the decision to throw it, though I loved the aggressiveness of the moment. They dialed up a play that worked, trusted their franchise quarterback on a third-and-long situation and didn’t just settle for giving the ball back to the Giants by running the ball. I have a far bigger problem with the two setup plays that led to the third-and-8 in the first place. The Bills, who had struggled to move the Giants front seven with power all game, completely tipped their hand with the same formation and personnel grouping on both first and second down. They brought in a sixth offensive lineman in David Edwards and used two tight ends in front of Murray. While not preferable due to the known strengths and weaknesses of the team, once on first down would have been fine. But that yielded a gain of zero and the Bills stunningly went right back to the well, knowing they’d be running into a brick wall. Making the Giants think anything else but that was coming on second down would have been a far better option, and Dorsey put the Bills in a bad spot with third-and-long.
The Giants finally broke through the DT problem in the fourth quarter
As the Bills tried to figure out life without top run-stuffing defensive tackle DaQuan Jones, they were able to mask their downgrade against a bad offensive line for the most part — until the fourth quarter rolled around. All of a sudden, the Giants opened up massive holes right through the middle of the Bills’ defensive front and Saquon Barkley gained 65 yards on only four plays. It all goes back to who is lining up next to Ed Oliver, who had to play the gargantuan amount of over 85 percent of the defensive snaps. The Bills usually prefer their defensive tackles to avoid getting into the 70 percent area, which makes Oliver’s presence quite eye-opening. The trio of Jordan Phillips, Tim Settle and Poona Ford once again left much to be desired, and could be targets for upcoming offenses. Ford was on the field for the two straight big runs by Barkley and was immediately subbed out of the game. Unless the Bills do something at one technique defensive tackle, it would be fair to expect some of these struggles to continue combined with two young linebackers playing behind them.
Damien Harris scare evokes sickening memories of Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest
Since Sean McDermott took over in 2017, decisions from their past have found a way to repeat themselves in different situations. While it’s helped get them to a highly successful regular-season record, there have been some blind spots. A major one was in choosing to go with a flawed, yet more experienced veteran player when a starting job was up for grabs rather than going for the high-ceiling inexperienced player. But the Bills have learned from their ways, and a prime example of that is giving rookie Dorian Williams the full game — 100 percent of defensive snaps — in replacement of injured star linebacker Matt Milano.
In perhaps any other season, the Bills probably would have leaned toward starting one of Tyrel Dodson and A.J. Klein because they knew what they would be getting and can scheme around it. But something shifted in 2023, and perhaps the Bills have been empowered by a number of their young players like Dalton Kincaid, O’Cyrus Torrence, Terrel Bernard and Christian Benford taking legitimate steps forward through the first month of the season. Williams wasn’t perfect against the Giants, but the team recognizes his high ceiling and that they can be a far better defense with him than what they would have with Dodson or Klein. At the very least, that’s an evolution from prior biases in the name of bettering the overall operation, and it deserves credit.
Bills MVP: WR Stefon Diggs – 16 targets, 10 catches, 100 yards and a ridiculous target share of 55.2 percent. The most impressive part is Diggs could have been targeted well into the 20s if the offense was clicking. He was open constantly. Where would the Bills’ offense be if they didn’t have Diggs to constantly bail them out? They’ll hope to never find out in the 2023 season.
Bills LVP: K Tyler Bass – The rock-steady Bass missed on two 50-plus attempts, and those misses nearly cost the Bills the game. It was an off night, but one that has been few and far between for one of the best kickers in the league.
LVP runner-up: QB Josh Allen running into the skirmish after already having a shoulder injury – Although Allen’s involvement fired up some teammates in a good way, having the franchise quarterback available is worth far more than Allen sprinting into a scuffle to throw a shoulder at a player.
Up Next: The 4-2 Bills go on the road to take on the suddenly floundering 1-5 Patriots.
To put it bluntly, against a down-bad Giants team that they probably should have blown out, the Bills survived, not thrived. The players will point to a win being a win no matter how they accomplish it, and that is absolutely accurate. But this win over the Giants serves some warning signs for future games they must rectify before a more equipped opponent exploits them to make it a full-blown problem. The Bills need to find answers in a few key areas — Dorsey finding the right mix of plays and personnel groupings to start the games strong, the run defense identifying a good complementary defensive tackle for Oliver and getting more out of their pass rush against a quick-firing passing game. It would also help if Von Miller (28 snaps and 35 percent playing time) ramped up enough to make an impact. Despite their flaws, the Bills remain one of the best teams in the AFC, and as long as Allen and Diggs are available and continuing their impeccable 2023 connection, they can steal any game. But there is enough there from this Giants result to start difficult conversations this week at One Bills Drive, and it’s necessary with two winnable games on the horizon before heading to Cincinnati in Week 9.
(Photo: Lauren Leigh Bacho / Getty Images)