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Five Takeaways from Bills-Bengals

This was a game the Bills had every opportunity to win. The defense forced three turnovers and the Bengals lost several key contributors to injury. If Buffalo could’ve just put together a decent effort on offense, then they would’ve gone into the bye week at 4-1. Instead, it turned out to be one of the team’s worst offensive performances in the Tyrod Taylor era, but without many playmakers, the Bills simply couldn’t make it happen.

Here are my five takeaways from Week 5:

Team needs to address the WR position: Quite simply, there is no way the Bills should enter their next game against Tampa Bay with Zay Jones, Kaelin Clay, Andre Holmes, and Brandon Tate as their wide receivers. Although Tate hauled in a beautiful 13-yard grab for the team’s only touchdown on the day, there was no hiding from the fact that this team lacks a true playmaker in the passing game. That fact was only amplified when Charles Clay left the game with an injury in the first quarter. In total, Buffalo’s wideouts had three catches for 34 yards on Sunday. Tyrod Taylor threw the ball 37 times. Again, the four available wide receivers only had three catches out of 37 passes thrown. It looked like the passing game would catch a break, too, with both Dre Kirkpatrick and Adam Jones knocked out of the game with injuries. But alas, the same story from the first four games crept in, and it stagnated Buffalo’s offense. Whether it’s the practice squad, free agency, or even a trade, Buffalo’s front office has to tackle the situation during the bye week and give Taylor an NFL-caliber receiver to throw to.

A.J. Green giveth and taketh away: Green is one of the most dynamic players that Buffalo’s defense will see all season, but on Sunday he both helped and hurt his team’s cause. He beat rookie corner Tre’Davious White badly in the first quarter to haul in a 77-yard touchdown to give his team the lead. It was the longest passing play the Bills had allowed in nearly a decade. After that, however, it almost seemed as if Green had switched uniforms. He had two passes go off his hands — including one right into his chest — that resulted in interceptions from Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer. Then, on a ball he caught in the second half, he got wrecked by Lorenzo Alexander and coughed up the football. On his three turnovers, though, Buffalo could only generate 10 points. Although the damage could’ve been much worse, Green essentially kept Buffalo in the game every time momentum started to swing toward Cincinnati. But one of the best players in the world wasn’t done toying with Buffalo’s secondary after his fumble. He was targeted 13 times and caught seven passes for 189 yards, including several big catches on third downs in the fourth quarter. Andy Dalton finished with 328 yards in the game, with over half of them coming from Green’s production. White played tight coverage on Green all afternoon, but there was only so much one man could do. Of course, a big factor in Cincy’s success through the air came from the fact the Bills were without E.J Gaines and had to rely on the combination of Shareece Wright and Greg Mabin. That secondary will face another challenge when they return from the bye week to face Mike Evans in Week 7.

What was up with the play calling?  The Bills had 36 total yards in the second half. While most of the blame for that should fall onto the players and lack of execution, some of that also lands at the feet of Rick Dennison. I’ve generally been a fan of what Dennison has done over the first quarter of the season, but I was left scratching my head at several play calls against Cincinnati. For instance, on a third-and-one play in the second quarter, the Bills had LeSean McCoy running to the right side, relying on Vlad Ducasse to block Geno Atkins. Unsurprisingly, Atkins won, and Buffalo’s drive stalled. Another instance was after Brandon Tate’s electric punt return in the fourth quarter. The Bills took over deep in Bengals’ territory, but had to settle for a field goal after two negative running plays and a pass on third down. For the big picture, Dennison has to figure out a way to get the production of McCoy back to where it was last season. McCoy has had 20 percent of his runs go for negative yardage this season, and that trend continued on Sunday. There’s only so much he can do with the team’s passing attack, but Dennison needs to start making better decisions with the players he has at his disposal.  

Hyde and Poyer continue to impress: All three of Buffalo’s turnovers on Sunday involved these two guys. Hyde picked up another interception and became the first Bills player in 25 years to have four picks in the first five games of a season. He is also tied for the league lead. Hyde also continued his strong tackling, with six on Sunday. The Bills, as a whole, have tackled drastically better than at any point last season, and it has been lead by the play of the secondary. Poyer, meanwhile, picked up an interception and recovered a fumble. The Bills have also used him heavily in safety blitzes, which have largely been a success for the defense. He got into the backfield on several occasions on Sunday and was able to disrupt plays without anything coming up on the stat sheet. The Bills had relatively high expectations when they signed Hyde in the offseason, but Poyer has been the team’s most pleasant surprise so far this season. The Bills have a +8 turnover differential this season, and Poyer and Hyde have been responsible for six of those takeaways. Regardless of the struggles on offense, if the Bills are able to continue to force turnovers at this rate, then they will be in every game this season.

Depth players forced into big roles: Due to a combination of injuries and poor performances, the Bills had to dig deep into their roster on Sunday. For the most part, those second-teamers did a solid job. Most noticeably, tight end Nick O’Leary had the most productive game of his career against the Bengals. After Charles Clay went down with an injury in the first quarter, O’Leary played a big part in Buffalo’s offense for the rest of the game. He set personal bests with five receptions, along with 54 yards receiving. Clay’s injury looked serious, and if it does prove to keep him out long-term, then the Bills will rely even more on ‘Gloveless Nick’ in future matchups. Logan Thomas was also forced into an expanded role, and showed that he still needs some work on his interior blocking. Thomas took a holding penalty that negated a 44-yard LeSean McCoy run in the fourth quarter. On the offensive line, I’ll hold off until the film is dissected to place a grade on both rookie Dion Dawkins’s and Vlad Ducasse’s performances on Sunday. Ducasse had a tough task on the interior against Atkins, and Dawkins was beat a couple of times on Taylor’s blindside. As a whole, the Bills gave up six sacks to the Bengals. On the defensive side of the ball, backup corner Shareece Wright led the team with 11 tackles and held his own in coverage. The list continues with Greg Mabin and Matt Milano, as well. Overall, the Bills were forced to rely on a bunch of rookies and some journeyman veterans to try and win Sunday. A good team has to have good depth, though, and Sunday showed that Buffalo has a few diamonds in the rough down the depth chart. One thing is sure, though: they would welcome Jordan Matthews and E.J. Gaines back in a heartbeat.

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Anthony has covered the Buffalo Bills since 2016, first as a contributor for and now for Cover 1. Anthony is a Western New York native and a recent graduate of St. Bonaventure University. In addition to time spent on the Bills beat, he was the lead play-by-play announcer for St. Bonaventure’s Division I sports teams and was a disc jockey for four years at 88.3, The Buzz.

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