Loss to Patriots forces Bills into difficult conversations about slow-starting offense

FOXBORO, Mass. — Last weekend against the New York Giants, the Buffalo Bills were asking for a bad loss, but ultimately, the Giants’ injuries and lack of talent allowed the Bills to steal a victory late. This week, against a similarly struggling New England Patriots team, the Bills nearly pulled it off again with two touchdowns in two drives to pull ahead late.

Instead, the Patriots marched the ball down the field with under two minutes to play, delivering the Bills the loss they likely rightfully deserved all along. The Bills’ collective dud, a 29-25 loss to the previously 1-5 Patriots, leaves the team answering plenty of questions and only a few days ahead of their next game.

“We’re a team that everybody wants to beat. We’ve got to stop playing down to different people,” defensive tackle Jordan Phillips boldly said. “We’ve got to do our thing and play Buffalo Bills football, and we haven’t done that the last couple of weeks even though we won last week.”

Defensive end Von Miller added a loss like this is a wakeup call to a team with big aspirations. Now 4-3, the Bills return home for a Thursday night game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

What stands out most from the Patriots debacle, and what does it mean moving forward? It all starts on offense, along with the interesting usage of one of their marquee defenders.

The slow starts on offense has become the Bills’ identity

The Bills offense, which since 2020 has been one of the most electric units in the entire NFL, has a budding problem with how it begins games that isn’t going away like we thought it would. In Week 5 against Jacksonville, the Bills took it to the end of the first half, but finally got on the board for a touchdown. In Week 6, the Bills were shut out not only through the first half, but through the first three quarters by the struggling Giants. That hasn’t happened since Josh Allen’s rookie year in 2018. And this time around against the Patriots, the Bills only managed a meager three points in their first 30 minutes played.

Once can be chalked up to bad luck. Twice is a bit of a warning sign. Three times, though, is now a pattern. Having scored only 10 points in their last three first halves is inexcusable, considering all the talent they have. They’ve also technically been shut out in the first quarter over their last three as well, but today’s field goal came after a long drive to end the first quarter. Regardless, it screams of a disconnect somewhere, whether it be in player execution, play scheming, inability to adapt to in-game defensive scheming, or in the expectation from the offensive coordinator.

So how does the once powerful Bills offense, which could sneeze and score a touchdown from Weeks 2 through 4, now struggle to even get on the board over their last three games?

“I wish I could tell you, Joe. I really do,” coach Sean McDermott said after the game. “We talk about it. We talk about being more detailed. Getting into a rhythm early. Playing complementary football. All three phases working together. We haven’t been able to get into a good rhythm in the first quarter, let’s just start there, right? So, just overall, we’ve got to find the answers there.”

Following the near Giants debacle, this is the second consecutive time McDermott has pined for the Bills getting “into a rhythm” on offense. It’s a somewhat vague ideology, though he explained what it means to him, and partially why there is frustration within the offense’s slow starts.

“I think it starts, Joe, with staying on schedule,” McDermott said. “Winning first down so you can stay on schedule, so you can move the chains. If you look at their offense, they did that today. They won first down, they stayed on schedule, they stayed out of third and long for the most part of the day.

“When you do that, you’re playing two-dimensionally on offense, and that’s when it gets to be hard to call a game against a two-dimensional offense. When you’re on schedule winning first downs, or skipping third downs, or even putting us into a third down and short-to-medium at most. Too many off-schedule situations.”

At least against the Patriots, first downs were not the problem. In fact, their first down numbers in the first half usually put them in a great position. On 12 first-down attempts in the first half, excluding the Latavius Murray run at the end of the half to run the clock out, the Bills averaged 5.6 yards per play. That even includes the zero factored in for Allen’s first-play interception. But perhaps what McDermott is alluding to is not running the ball as much as he’d like on early downs, which has been a familiar go-to for the coach over the years. The Bills ran the ball on only five of their 12 first-down plays in the first half. They were also far less efficient when running the ball on first down, averaging only 3 yards per play, while averaging 7.4 yards per play when passing on first down in the first half.

The Bills’ biggest issue was actually on second downs, which consistently put them in less-than-ideal situations. The Bills averaged only 1.1 yards per play on second downs and “skipped” third down only three times out of those nine second down plays. But to McDermott’s point, they did not face a third-and-short once in the first half. They were about to, but an O’Cyrus Torrence offsides penalty pushed them back to a third-and-5. The Bills repeatedly put themselves on the back foot, taking four offensive penalties on third downs in that first half. Then when they actually got through the play, they had an average to-go distance of 10 yards.

It all comes back to that apparent disconnect, wherever it lies. The Patriots called a good game to get heat on Allen and make him move around the pocket. Regardless of the opponent’s creative game plan, it continues to baffle as to why the Bills aren’t pivoting from things that don’t work and trying new things to defeat those initial pressure strategies that worked against them within one game. It wasn’t until late in the game, when the Bills were up against it, that they finally began to break through. That could be something to build confidence in if this were a temporary problem, but again, they have drifted into a pattern.

Some of the offensive disconnect could have something to do with the Bills pulling back from calling designed runs for Allen. It’s been a bit of their cheat code for years, but they are now attempting to gracefully balance between keeping their franchise quarterback upright and available for the long term while maximizing the Super Bowl window of the short term. Without it, it’s been a balancing act akin to an elephant trying to step on eggs without breaking them. That very teeth of their offense and that back-breaking unpredictable element of their game has gone missing.

And, rightfully so, the attention should go to offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey. It feels like the Bills take too long to adapt, not reacting to the counter-punch from a defense quickly enough with a counter-punch of his own. It caused an overall disjointed offensive atmosphere down the stretch in 2022, but now with the full year under his belt and more weapons to work with on offense, it has become — you guessed it — a pattern for the offensive coordinator, too. One of the things that made Brian Daboll a terrific offensive coordinator was his ability to re-invent the offense from one week to the next, especially when things went stale. Were there some frustrating weeks like this one? Certainly. But they didn’t linger. And they didn’t mute the terrific offensive talents on the roster for too long. If anything, Daboll got the most out of those less talented.

Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey and his unit have suffered from slow starts the last three weeks. (Mark Konezny / USA Today)

Perhaps it’s a bit unfair for Dorsey to constantly get compared to his predecessor, who wound up graduating to a head coaching job, but the franchise chose to go with a first-time play-caller in the middle of their Super Bowl window. The time to learn on the job is minimal. Urgency is everything. And with three slow starts in a row, two of which came against one-win teams, it makes you wonder where this is headed. When asked of his confidence level in Dorsey, McDermott was brief.

“Yeah, I’m confident,” McDermott said. “I’m confident in Ken.”

But confidence levels wane the further you drift from the norm or what those in charge believe should be the norm. With a Thursday night game against a beatable Buccaneers team, it could also represent a potential fork in the road. While, yes, it’s a chance for the Bills to get back on track without dwelling on this game for too long, it marks a long time in between their matchups in Week 8 and Week 9. You don’t have to go back that long for a Thursday night game being an inflection point in the franchise under this ownership group. In 2016, the Bills lost in Week 2 to the Jets on a Thursday night. That Friday, then-offensive coordinator Greg Roman was out of a job. The long weekend represented a chance for a new offensive play-caller to get on the job and fix things, quickly.

But it’s more delicate than the Roman situation. Dorsey, after all, was Allen’s handpicked guy. So not only would they need to weigh things collectively as a front office and coaching staff, but they’d also need to get the OK from the face of the franchise. The Bills still have Joe Brady, who has NFL play-calling experience and the reputation for creativity on offense, in their back pocket as the quarterbacks coach should they want to move on. But, again, it’s delicate, because the last thing they’d want is to alienate the entire reason they’re in their Super Bowl window to begin with.

No matter what, hard conversations are needed. Answers are needed. A wakeup is needed. With games against the Bengals, Jets, Eagles, Chiefs, Cowboys and Chargers in a seven-game span beginning in Week 9, they can’t afford to limp into it with their once high-powered offense failing to arise until it’s too late in games. And if they wait too long to find an answer, that championship window they believe to be in may slam shut.

Quick hits:

12 personnel at a low as Kincaid eats into Knox’s workload

The loss to the Patriots served as Dalton Kincaid’s breakout game. He caught eight passes for 75 yards and was targeted down the field at a higher rate. But interestingly enough, it came when the Bills ran 12 personnel at a far lower rate than they had all season with both Kincaid and Dawson Knox available. Knox and Kincaid were only on the field together on 21.6 percent of snaps. Kincaid had 44 snaps total, with 28 of those as the lone tight end on the field, clearly eating into Knox’s usual game script. With Kincaid’s output, that could be a trend to keep an eye on moving forward.

Von Miller didn’t take a single snap in the second half

As star pass rusher Von Miller has attempted to ramp up from his torn ACL, his third game back kept him off the field far more often than his first two outings. Miller played only six total snaps against the Patriots, which amounted to 10 percent of their defensive plays (penalties included), and Miller did not take a single snap in the second half.

Miller responded to a question after the game and clarified that there was no setback.

“I’m good,” Miller said. “I don’t know. I think just the flow of the game, just how it turned out. …They’re running the ball a lot more. Shaq [Lawson] is a great run defender, and the guys that we have out there are a great run defender, and I’m still coming back from injury. That’s just the reality of it.

“Sometimes it just happens like that. Especially me trying to come back from injury and working my way up. We were battling, going back and forth. You’ve got to go with the guys that’s ready to go right now. There wasn’t really a time that I could get out there that was a for-sure pass down. It was just a tight game all the way through.”

Miller played 20 snaps in Week 5, and 27 in Week 6.

Bills MVP: TE Dalton Kincaid – A career day for the rookie when the Bills were struggling to find answers.

Bills LVP: The first half offense – See the first section.

Up Next: Bills (4-3) vs. Buccaneers (3-3) at Highmark Stadium for a rousing rendition of “Thursday Night Football.”

(Top photo: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

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