Bills disappointed in opener

Bills coach Gregg Williams classified it as simply having to play "two halves of football." But whichever way you look at it, nothing can change the fact that the Bills suffered a disappointing 24-6 opening day loss to New Orleans at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sept. 9.

Rob Johnson uncharacteristically threw three interceptions. Two of them made him look a rookie quarterback when he overthrew his intended receiver and strong safety Sammy Knight made the easy picks. In fact, Knight made all three of the Saints' picks.

The most damaging came on the Bills' first two drives of the second half. Facing a third and nine from the Buffalo 26, trailing 7-6, Johnson threw to Riemersma on a post route 15 yards down the middle. But the ball got away and Knight was there for the easy catch. 

On the second one, Knight was in the right place at the right time. Johnson tried for Riemersma on an in-route during a second and 10 from the Buffalo 22, but middle linebacker Charlie Clemons stepped into the tight end's field of vision, causing the ball to bounce off his hands. Knight dove and caught it. The picks led directly to 10 points in the third quarter and helped give New Orleans a commanding 17-6 lead.

"I haven't thrown three interceptions in a game since sophomore year," Johnson said. That wasn't a good sign. What's troubling is that Johnson usually doesn't throw these kinds of interceptions. Gregg Williams had no explanation. He simply said he wanted to look at the films to find out what happened. Suffice it to say, he wasn't pleased, but he obviously wanted to choose his words carefully in discussing his quarterback.

Generally speaking, Johnson looked more comfortable operating the offense than he did in the preseason. He did get sacked five times, but only two of them looked like he held the ball too long. On two others, left tackle John Fina allowed right end Joe Johnson to get around him and bring him down.

Despite that, it looked like Buffalo was going to do New Orleans in, at least in the first half. Rookie running back Travis Henry ran for 55 yards on 16 carries. But in the second half, he ran six times for three yards.

"They had a guy coming into the lane that I was cutting into in the first half, so I couldn't get any room to run," Henry explained. Bills center Billy Conaty also said the Saints began playing their strong safety up near the line to snuff out the Bills' ground efforts.

Perhaps Buffalo got too predictable. The Bills seemed to make a concerted effort to run to the left side, behind veteran guard Ruben Brown and Fina instead of the inexperienced right side with rookie tackle Jonas Jennings and first-year player Corey Hulsey. Henry ran to the left 13 times, gaining 30 yards, and to the right five times, gaining 11 yards.

When the Saints began to suspect that Buffalo was trying to go to that side in the second half, they seemed to slant their linemen on run downs to prevent him from getting through the left side. It proved effective. Henry's runs to the left in the second half resulted in (-5) yards.

When Henry did run to the right in the second half, it gained eight yards. Perhaps, Williams and offensive coordinator Mike Sheppard should have more confidence in the right side.

The Bills defense, like the offense, had a strong first half and a brutal second half. Buffalo stifled the Saints' offense through the first two quarters, holding them to just 17 offensive plays, compared to Buffalo's 40. And New Orleans only had 65 net yards that half with 38 of those coming on a Hail Mary before half time.

Pat Williams, Erik Flowers and Shawn Price each took turns stuffing Saints running back Ricky Williams, and helped hold him to just five yards on four carries through the second quarter.

But in the second half, the defensive scheme crumbled. Williams had 32 yards in the third quarter alone. It looked like Buffalo's defense was tiring.

And inopportune penalties took their toll as well.

Exhibit 1: Saints ball, Buffalo up 6-0. Aaron Brooks fumbled the first snap of the second half and had to fall on it at his own 16. That would have made it second and 12. But because Shawn Price was offside, New Orleans got a first and five from its 23. Brooks and the Saints offense got three first downs then Brooks got a lucky break on the 46-yard touchdown to Albert Connell. Ken Irvin was called for pass interference on the play, but it didn't matter. New Orleans, after not doing anything all game, took the 7-6 lead and that was all it needed.

Exhibit 2: Saints ball leading 10-6. It was third and five from the Buffalo 17. Brooks threw an incomplete pass, but Aaron Schobel was offside; penalty, five yards, first and 10 at the Buffalo 12. Next play, Brooks hit tight end Cam Cleeland on a 12-yard corner route for the touchdown and the commanding 17-6 lead.

In the fourth quarter, Buffalo punted twice and lost it on downs. It ran just 21 offensive plays in the second half, compared to the Saints' 42. This was a role reversal from early in the game.

In the fourth quarter, the Saints drove 80 yards, culminating in a Williams' 19-yard touchdown off a screen pass and securing the 24-6 win.

To make things worse, Buffalo may have lost middle linebacker Sam Cowart for an extended period of time. Cowart left with an Achille's injury late in the first quarter and did not return.

Linebacker Kenyatta Wright replaced him and did a pretty good job. But Buffalo could have used Cowart's presence in the second half, though Gregg Williams pointed out that Cowart would not have been in during the big plays that the Saints made because those were defensive packages that excluded him. That seemed odd, though, especially considering Williams, a few days before, said he would play Cowart anywhere on the field because a "football player is a football player." So why wouldn't Cowart have been in there? Buffalo could have used a pivotal play from its star linebacker.

Wright, in Cowart's absence, did make one standout play during a fourth and one from the Buffalo 30 in the first quarter. He nailed Williams with the force that the running back usually doles out on others, stopping him for no gain.

Unfortunately, it was for naught as Buffalo's offense stalled. Two visits in the red zone in the first half – their only visits the entire game – produced just two field goals.

The bright spot is that at least the Bills brass was prevented from being criticized for getting rid of Steve Christie. His replacement, Jake Arians, a castoff from Atlanta was two for two with successful kicks from the 37 and 22.


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