It’s been a wild week on One Bills Drive. The Athletic’s Buffalo Bills writers Tim Graham and Joe Buscaglia discuss topics surrounding the team heading into Sunday’s game against the Jets in our latest roundtable.
What should we expect from Joe Brady’s offense and his overall presence around the team?
Graham: I’m unsure whether I’ll be satisfied, but I want to see quicker tempo between plays, to see Josh Allen run more, to see this offense play with some joy. I’ve been writing about it since last week. The Bills are lifeless. Brian Daboll made sure they took the field each week not only to win, but to have a blast. Left tackle Dion Dawkins caught TD passes. Receivers were throwing them. Defensive tackle Kyle Williams got touches. Daboll called a tackle-eligible TD pass to rookie backup Tommy Doyle when Buffalo already was beating New England by 30 points in the fourth quarter. Through 28 games, Ken Dorsey allowed nothing fun and unusual like that. Allen has looked dead inside whether at the line of scrimmage or in news conferences. Brady needs to rekindle that fire. Dorsey’s playbook won’t change, but Brady can get creative — and cause Jets coach Robert Saleh some trouble — by handling down-and-distance situations differently.
Buscaglia: I don’t think there’s enough time for Brady to reconstruct the offense, but I am intrigued to see if there is a bit more creativity with setup plays and the overall flow of play sequencing, which became a tad predictable for Dorsey. But most of all, as rudimentary as it sounds, McDermott wants Brady to put some fun and energy into the offense. I found it rather interesting that on Friday, McDermott talked up how important it was for the offense to start having a bit more fun. He then was asked about the importance of Josh Allen in that context, who has seemed not like himself from that perspective. McDermott’s answer was illuminating, and perhaps shed some light on the decision to move on from Dorsey in the first place. “Huge. Yeah. Huge. He’s the leader of our football team, let alone this case the offense,” he said. “I think just getting him back to having that look in his eye, and having some fun out there. The guy that we have watched over the years here, but also back at Wyoming, right? Just going out there and having that joy when he’s playing.”
Why do the Jets seem to always have Josh Allen’s number?
Graham: Saleh has been masterful at confusing Allen, who has been sacked an astounding 11.3 percent of the time he tried to throw his past three games against the Jets. When not playing the Jets since the start of last season, Allen has been sacked on only 3.9 percent of his dropbacks and has averaged two more yards per pass attempt. But get this: Allen actually has a little more time to throw against the Jets than other opponents. That means in addition to confusion, the coverage has been tip-top on Buffalo’s receivers. Problems start with defensive tackles Quinnen Williams and Quinton Jefferson, who have five of the 13 sacks, but also are sensational when they don’t reach Allen. Behind them are no weak links to exploit and too many playmakers ready to pounce on a mistake — and Allen sure is prone to those.
Buscaglia: It’s more accurate to say the Jets have had Allen’s numbers. The stats over the last two seasons have been damning. Over 2022 and 2023, the Bills have averaged 387 yards per game, 6.1 yards per play, 256.3 passing yards per game, a third-down conversion rate of 49.8 percent and only a 2.7 percent interception per attempt rate. Against the Jets, their yards per game are down by 100 to 287, averaging only 4.7 yards per play, 176.7 passing yards per game, their third-down conversion rate drops to 38.5 percent and their interception rate nearly doubles to 4.9 percent per attempt. They are extremely efficient at devising a strategy to make Allen believe Diggs isn’t available as much as he is, along with a defensive line that can get into the backfield to disrupt his timing and force him into bad decisions and five interceptions over the two losses. That, along with an inconsistent rushing attack, has led to the Jets being a thorn in Allen’s side.
James Cook doesn’t exactly have a reputation for fumbling. Just the yips against the Broncos? Time to see Leonard Fournette?
Graham: McDermott could turn to Fournette for a spark and to give the Jets a little more mystery to solve Sunday along with Brady’s fresh perspective. There is a reason, however, Fournette was available three weeks ago. He’ll be 29 in a couple months. He averaged only 3.5 yards a carry last year for Tampa Bay, although he did catch 73 passes for 523 yards and three TDs. If the Bills want him in the pass game, that would come at Cook’s expense. McDermott took heat for benching Cook, who was stripped on the first play and watched Latavius Murray play the next three series from the sideline. Cook fumbled again in the fourth quarter, the ball dribbling right back into his hands in the open field, but he re-established himself as Buffalo’s biggest running threat (unless you count Allen, which the 2023 Bills have tried not to) by finishing with 11 carries for 109 yards and two catches for 11 yards. But Cook better find a cure for his acute fumblitis. The Jets are aggressive and smell blood better than most defenses. For the record, Fournette has four career fumbles on 1,631 touches, including the postseason.
Buscaglia: It was likely a one-off for Cook, who probably had it in his head the rest of the game after his first touch was ripped out of his hands. But he’s also a young player, so there is the risk that it could carry into Sunday, especially with all the enhanced attention on the offense following Dorsey’s removal as offensive coordinator. The Bills loved what they got from Murray last week, and he should figure into the game plan heavily again this time around as Brady attempts to keep the Bills’ “threat to run” going for a second-straight week. As for Fournette, I think there’s a legitimate chance we see him elevated this weekend. McDermott said it would be a “big consideration” this week or in the coming weeks. I don’t think it’s a guarantee against the Jets, because the Bills might need to choose between elevating Fournette versus making one of their six defensive ends inactive. There is a strong case for it though, given Shaq Lawson’s snaps wilted to only 12 last game, he hasn’t been particularly effective and doesn’t play any special teams. It would need to be Lawson because they have to account for some losses on special teams this week, where reserve running back Ty Johnson would fill in, and Andy Isabella seems like an ideal candidate to get one of the elevations for the potentially injured Trent Sherfield. Regardless, it’s all hands on deck this week for the offense, and the alluring skill set of Fournette might be too hard to pass up.
Bills HC Sean McDermott on the potential use of current practice squad RB Leonard Fournette on game day: “If not this week, then certainly in the weeks ahead, it’s going to be a big time consideration for us.”
— Joe Buscaglia (@JoeBuscaglia) November 17, 2023
Everyone is talking about Ken Dorsey’s firing, but what is the Bills storyline no one is talking about that intrigues you most?
Graham: Ed Oliver has been stellar and is one of the driving forces to keeping Buffalo’s urgent-care defense competitive. Despite missing a game, he is tied with Aaron Donald and Justin Madubuike for the NFL lead among defensive tackles with 10 tackles for losses and ranks fourth with five sacks. Oliver also has 32 tackles, 37 pressures, 26 hurries and 10 QB hits. The four-year contract worth $68 million and $45.3 million in guarantees Oliver signed in the offseason seems like a bargain. “Sometimes, guys get paid and they go the other way,” McDermott said Wednesday. “It’s kind of the relaxation syndrome that sets in. I know that’s sometimes what makes fans irritated with certain situations, but in this case I think the contract has helped him. … His process is as good as it’s been. So his preparation is as detailed as it’s been. That’s important. You’re seeing the results.”
Buscaglia: The storyline no one is talking about because the offensive scoring output has been so uneven is the starting offensive line’s outstanding pass blocking in 2023. Left tackle Dion Dawkins has been unbelievable this year and one of the team’s best five players. Rookie right guard O’Cyrus Torrence quickly has become one of the team’s best players. Left guard Connor McGovern has been an outstanding pass blocker, center Mitch Morse has continued his steady play and even right tackle Spencer Brown has taken a pretty sizable jump forward. On top of the excellent performance, the entire starting five has been healthy all year, and out of 3,230 total offensive line snaps this year, that group of five players only have missed 64 snaps combined — and most of those missed snaps came in garbage time during their three-game win streak against the Raiders, Commanders and Dolphins. This has been the best offensive line Josh Allen has ever had since arriving in Buffalo, and yet, the Bills are where they are.
Graham: A week ago, folks were projecting three AFC North teams making the playoffs, but that division is falling apart, with this week’s news Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow and Ravens chain-mover Mark Andrews done for the year. The AFC South and AFC West haven’t looked particularly deep either. That could make nine wins passable for a wild card, as it was last year for the Dolphins, but that was with a tiebreaker over the 9-8 Steelers. The Bills are in tiebreaker prison with a 2-5 conference record. The Bengals are the only team with a worse conference record, but they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker by beating the Bills two weeks ago. If the Texans stay warm and overtake the Jaguars, then that’s another wild-card tiebreaker the Bills will lose. Buffalo will need to swipe an unexpected victory or two and finish this final stretch 5-2 to overcome this mess.
Buscaglia: To safely get in, it’d probably need to be five more wins — but I wouldn’t rule out four getting the job done. The injury to Joe Burrow helps the Bills’ chances. Cleveland looks likely to drift backwards, as do the Colts and Raiders. Pittsburgh is a tough team to get a gauge on. Houston looks like they could legitimately get in with their remaining schedule, but their youth could be their undoing in some winnable games down the stretch. The Bills are going to have to win plenty of AFC games for tiebreaker purposes, including a potential elimination game against the Chargers on Dec. 23. Despite it looking bleak as of today, it’s still doable — that is, if they handle their business against the Jets.
(Photo: Jim Dedmon / USA Today)