Bills Can't Dig Deep Vs. Steeler 2nd & 3rd Teams

<B>In a Sentence: </B> <P> Apparently "BILLIEVE"-ing just didn't cut it!

Perhaps sitting in a big circle outside the stadium in a massive rendition of Kumbaya may do it. The lessons from this game are that talent on the lines is required for NFL teams to be successful. NFL conventional wisdom spanked "Tommy Ball", yet again, out of the Ralph on Sunday. It should be a while before Commander Tom can sit comfortably.

In the Bills most important game of the season, largely vs. Steeler 2nd-teamers and even 3rd-teamers the offense stunk the joint up. While fans and media will wonder why a team that can average in the 30s for points over six weeks cannot put up a decent performance to a team essentially playing for little, the reasons why cannot be more glaring. They have been stated over and over again well into past seasons now.

Game Grades:

QB: D- Humpty + Big Game vs. Excellent Defense = DISASTER

In the pregame piece I pointed out the following:

Versus top 10 scoring defenses this season Humpty has tossed 5 TDs and had 12 turnovers with 2 of those TDs having come in the second game vs. the Jets. He has a completion percentage in those games of 56.7% and has averaged 176 yards passing and three sacks per game.

Well, this train came a rollin' into the station right on time! Humpty crossed the finish line at a par 53.3% complete, 189 yards, 3 sacks for 18 yards, and two turnovers, one going for a TD and fortunate to not have been six overall. For those having done their homework, Humpty is a gold mine for prognosticators! No one can argue that Humpty is not consistent however. Like clockwork. Too bad the management and coaching cannot seem to pick up on this. As well, once again, his longest pass to Lee Evans forced Evans to curl underneath to make the grab costing him a touchdown by negating the couple-yard lead he had created. The toss was just under 50-yards and seemed to have come with Humpty giving it his all once again challenging the myth of Humpty's arm strength.

Sadly, his salary this season, plus the $8 million which would have freed up, plus either his cap hit next season or more likely his salary next year, will have amounted to nearly a $17 million swing in price tag. The Bills have turned down a "no-strings" out in exchange for a massive opportunity cost and a hefty price tag for wiping the slate clean. For what! And for this Commander Tom is rewarded…? This will easily turn out to have been the Bills' biggest blunder of the decade and will have been repeated.

As long as the media raves about Humpty's "resurgent" play however, expect Commander Tom to run with it. And by all means, Humpty will only be 33 next season, there are plenty of seasons remaining for Sam Wyche, Tom Clements, and Mike Mularkey to continue to try to ram a square peg into a round hole and work out those rookie errors. He has become more a pet project by the front office and now coaching staff rather than a functioning part of the team. Fans should have every expectation that they'll continue to try to ante-up on fixing Humpty and have him playing like Montana. The only place that he'll ever play anything close to the way that Montana did however is on Madden Football. Oy Vey!

It is flat out remarkable that some fans will actually be supporting Humpty's starting status next season. To think that Rob Johnson was run out of town for as much on a team not coming close to matching the tools that Humpty has at his disposal. The circumstances could not possibly have been more favorable for this game for Humpty, yet, once again vs. any defense worth their salt fans only have disappointment to ponder. Is there any question that the odds of Humpty ever leading the Bills, or any team, to wins in three straight playoff games are so incredibly remote that the odds of my winning the publishers clearing house sweepstakes and becoming a multi-millionaire are greater. If not, then what possible justification can there be for retaining such a QB? Even against a defense sporting a host of second and third string players throughout most of the game, Humpty and the offense simply could not get anything done.

Will this season signify the end of the team attempting to justify its biggest bad decision, twice now, in recent history, or will Bills fans be treated to yet a fourth season of a marketing blitz, "Humpty Makeover", attempting to make Humpty appear to be something other than what he is! Inquiring minds want to know. Season ticket holders want to know. If not, then what will it have cost this team moving forward? A good guess would be the team stating the ‘the position will be competed' next season while retaining Humpty and attempting to save face that way. He should simply be sent packing however. He has nothing to offer this team on the football field that cannot be had for veteran minimum.

RB: C- McGahee was outplayed by Willie Parker, a rookie free agent. McGahee showed up for one drive, the lone drive which netted the Bills' only touchdown on a drive, déjà vu, set up by a defensive fumble recovery at midfield. It was an excellent four runs. He had 4 carries for 41 yards on that drive. On the other 11 drives however McGahee could produce only 14 carries for 38 yards on 2.7 yards-per-carry all but disappearing. Putting that into some sort of perspective, that would be exactly 3.5 yards-per-drive, and primarily going up against the Steeler 2nd and 3rd string defense. He may get kudos for this game by some, but it's not going to be here. He was a typical 0-for-1 on 3rd-down carries losing a yard on 3rd-and-1. On the day, the Bills RBs were 19-for-81 vs. the Steelers' JV units.

Sammy Morris outplayed McGahee on the road in Baltimore with the Ravens playing for a playoff spot and the Dolphins for absolutely nothing and behind an incredibly worse line!

WR: C- Against inferior defensive competition Moulds and Evans should have been able to dominate here. To their credit, Humpty was under center. The unit overall lacked luster to be polite. Approximately half of Humpty's, and therefore the receivers', success on the day was on the very last drive vs. a 3rd string D in prevent mode.

TE: B- Trafford caught a nice 10-yard ball and Neufeld added three others for 15 more. Blocking was adequate. Less is expected from these 3rd and 4th string TEs.

OL: D+ This game was not entirely the offensive line's fault. But the weaknesses of an offensive line against a decently coached team headed for the playoffs yet one featuring its bench without any starters for the most part much after the first quarter were seriously exposed in this game.

DL: D+ Any time that a rookie undrafted free agent running back posts a 100-yard game alongside a journeyman career backup QB in leading a mediocre offensive opponent en route to a 157-yard net rushing day in what is the most important game of an entire era, then the defensive line was not good. The third and fourth string Steeler RBs averaged 4.6 yards-per-carry on the day. They posted two sacks; Pat Williams, Ryan Denney. Sam Adams had a key offsides in the 4th quarter, Pat Williams had a facemask penalty on the same drive.

LB: D+ Fletcher and Posey did little positive to distinguish themselves in this game. Spikes logged another interception and a couple of passes defensed. Once again, Fletcher's subpar coverage ability cost the Bills on a deep pass interference call. They played their role in allowing no-name rushers to amass over 150 in rushing production.

DB: C+ Terrence McGee, while superlative at returning kickoffs, continues to struggle at cornerback. Vincent had his lapses but provided solid play otherwise. Clements led the secondary in tackles and was the defensive player-of-the-game with a couple of forced fumbles, passes defensed, along with an interception returned for a TD. The pick was more the result of a poor Maddox throw than outstanding defense, but it was a heads up play nonetheless. Milloy was relatively silent.

Coaching: F

When an opposing coach can come into your house and outcoach you by sparing the starters in clearing the bench and in a meaningless game for him but the most meaningful game of the season for you, then it screams volumes. Coach Mularkey should have taken the first year mulligan and made "his moves" for the future. Instead he opted to put the eggs in this season's basket. Whether intended or not, he has merely conformed himself and his staff to the mold of the Commander Tom era that has existed for four seasons now and does not appear to be headed for any significant improvement contrary to the media machine working overtime to further the opposite notion. The mantra of being able to beat .500 and worse teams while succumbing to an equal fate at the hands of those better than .500 and those teams headed for the playoffs remains standing strong. More on this in following weeks.

Overall: F

Bill Cowher should have slept well on Sunday night! Not only did he preserve his starters for the playoffs, but he quietly made whatever statement he had left to make to Commander Tom and he did it with backups in a game that the Bills had treated like a playoff game. Needless to say, if the Bills cannot defeat, and soundly it can be added, the Steeler benchclearers, at home, and with the support and emotion that they had coming into this game, then they simply are not a playoff caliber team or anything close. On the flip side, this game likely spared Bills fans along with the new coach a nationally televised embarrassment in Indianapolis next week.

Offense: F

Other than a last minute touchdown vs. a prevent defense consisting of 2nd and 3rd teamers to begin with, the Bills only offensive point production in this game was ten points, seven of which were set up by the defense on a drive having begun at the 50-yard line. Other than that, the Bills drive lengths from starting field position in their own half of the field in the first half, and again, largely against 2nd teamers in the 2nd quarter, were –12, 0, -1, -10, 8, and 43 (FG) yards. In the second half, with the 3rd teamers beginning to relieve that 2nd teamers, three of five net drive lengths were 0, -2, and 4 yards with the only two successful drives resulting in a missed field goal and coming on the last drive of the game vs. a 2nd/3rd team prevent D. Those two drives represented two-thirds of the total net yardage on the day for the Bills.

Through nearly 58 minutes, and predominantly vs. Steeler 2nd and 3rd stringers on defense throughout most of the game, at home, in the most important game during the Commander Tom-Humpty Dumpty era, the Bills managed only 178 net yards of offense on 3.7 yards-per-play and 10 offensive points. They were only able to generate 88 total net yards in the first half. They only generated 90 more up until nearly the final two-minute warning. As well, in keeping with the rest of the season, the offense only put up that first TD on a drive having begun at midfield. The last seven by the O came courtesy of the deepest of Steeler depth and a prevent D on top of it all. Cowher's smirk late in the game revealing that apparently he was willing to risk losing this game at the thought of having the bottom of his depth do ‘Ol Whitey's Bills in was telling.

Humpty's failure to properly read an obvious blitz from his non-blind side cost the Bills' a sack, forced fumble, TD combination putting the Steelers ahead for good by 9 early in the 4th quarter. He had more than enough time to dispose of the football on that play should have easily been able to identify the obvious blitz much more so the sacking player coming right at him in full view. And naturally it was Steeler defensive end standout Aaron Smith that made the sack, right? Oh were it so! Rather, it was 5'10" 186 lb. rookie third-string cornerback Ricardo Colclough doing the damage.

Defense: C- Had these numbers by the Steelers been turned by a Ben Roethlisburger-led offense, then perhaps this could have been considered a decent game for the Bills' D. But without any excuses given that this was a home game with more than the full support of the 12th-man, the fact that the players that put up 22 offensive points were effectively the Steelers' "scrubs" renders this defensive performance average and that grade is probably polite.

Once again the high ranking of the Bills' defense having been built vs. a schedule featuring only two of the league's top scoring teams along with a mass of teams among the bottom dozen and featuring poor defenses became highlighted in this game. Had the D not held tough in the red zone, albeit vs. a backup offense, then numerous field goals would have turned touchdowns and turned this game into a first class rout.

Imagine the damage in a game featuring Roethlisburger, Staley, Bettis, Ward, Burress, and Randal El and all playing for advancement. The result would have been an abject disaster. Even with them, the Steelers are only a borderline top 10 offense. It is inconceivable that accolades continue to be heaped upon a team that simply and routinely cannot perform against the league's top 10 teams getting spanked each and every time that they meet such a team. This is quickly becoming Commander Tom's legacy. In the meantime, the biggest hope for fans entering any given season seems to be hoping for lots of opponents' injuries and a very easy schedule to further this charade along with no real hopes of what every fans' true goal should be.

Special Teams: D+

Versus an equally matched special teams squad, or at least a top unit, the Bills usual superlative special teams were less than stellar in this game. Nate Clements fumbled the first punt of the game to set up the Steelers' first points on a Jeff Reed field goal. Angelo Crowell and Chris Kelsay had key penalties on special teams. Lindell missed a very makeable 28-yard field goal. Punt returns were poor. Kickoff returns were solid. Punts were decent although coverages were not great.

The Good:

Those Bills sure can mount a "drive" against a 2nd and 3rd team prevent defense!

The Bad:

The Bills had only 88 net yards of offense in the first half, not against the Steeler first team defense primarily.

The Bills had only 90 net yards of offense through nearly 28 minutes of the second half, again, not against the Steeler first team defense.

Once again a scary over reliance on Humpty and the passing game. Methinks this seeming heightened affinity between Mularkey and Humpty over the past few weeks has already skewed the young coach's vision.

2-for-12, (17%) 3rd-down efficiency.

With the game on the line vs. the Steeler backups, 9-for-83 yards worth of penalties in the 2nd half.

Fewer than 25 minutes time-of-possession.

Three costly turnovers resulting in 13 Steeler points.

Summary:

Prior to this game the "keys to the game" were listed in the pre-game piece:

3rd-down Conversions: The Bills rank in the middle of the stack in 3rd-down conversions but have not been able to convert 3rd-downs with any consistency in two games each vs. New England and the Jets and in one game vs. Baltimore going an abysmal 24.6% in those games. Willis McGahee has been highly unreliable on third downs this season to be polite and the Bills seem to have avoided his use on third downs, even short ones, adding additional pressure to Humpty and the passing game on third downs, not a good thing vs. a team that likes to blitz.

Result: 2-for-12, (17%) 3rd-down efficiency. McGahee was 0-for-1 on 3rd downs losing a yard on a 3rd-and-1 and continues to not be an option for the Bills on 3rd downs. Why! Two sacks, two fumbles, five incompletes including passing attempts on two 3rd-and-3s and a 3rd-and-1 highlighted the Bills' efforts here.

Stopping the Steelers rushing game: The Steelers are averaging over 150 yards-per-game rushing. The Bills must prevent the Steelers from running the ball the way that Rudi Johnson and the Bengals did two weeks prior. Verron Haynes may be a household name for the Bills following this game. He had a very good game vs. the Ravens, a top rushing defense, in relief. Jerome Bettis likely will not see action on Sunday but Deuce Staley may play. Haynes is fresh and seemingly capable and speedy.

Result: Willie Parker and Verron Haynes for a combined 27-for-124, 4.6 yards-per-carry. 158 total on the day for the Steelers RBs.

Moving the Ball: The Bills will have to move the ball from their own end of the field likely. Anything can happen, however vs. a team such as the Steelers with the defense that they possess, it is unlikely that the Bills will set themselves up for some of the field position that they have been fortunate to have had on the season courtesy of the Special Teams or Defense and giving false perceptions that the Bills' offense has improved.

Result: Vs. the Steeler 2nd and 3rd team Ds, 88 net yards in the first half, 90 yards through nearly 28 minutes in the second half. Ineffective vs. a backup Steeler D.

Special Teams and/or Defensive Point Production: As has been pointed out, and as the team has benefited per the brief analysis in the preceding paragraph, the special teams has largely been instrumental in "setting the table" for the offense. Once again, the Bills first team offense has only scored a touchdown on five occasions on drives begun within their own 30-yard line other than the "Moorman patch" drive. They have only scored a touchdown nine times from within their own 37-yard line in the same fashion. The special teams (or defense) will once again likely have to contribute to putting points on the board in order for the Bills to win this game and even then, if the offense fails to move the ball and does not consistently obtain starting field position near or beyond midfield. Both teams have a combined five defensive and special teams TDs on the season.

Result: Clements pushed one in for 7 and the D set up an additional 7 and it sill mattered little.

< Turnovers: Both teams had three turnovers. The Steelers turned theirs into 13 points whereas the Bills turned theirs into 14.

Make no mistake, the reason for the outcome of this game is clear. This was marketing vs. "trench warfare" at its finest. On one side there was a team that sold 30,000 "I BILLIEVE" t-shirts and was riding the high of a six-game winning streak over teams with such enormous inadequacies that it should have fallen more in the laughable category than in the impressive category. 30,000 fans could have sat out in the parking lot of the Ralph singing "We Are the Champions" for 24 straight hours and it would not have made a difference. This game was paper vs. power. Money skill positions and mediocre lines vs. solid lines and mediocre (if even that) skill position players. Needless to point out, but the result was blatantly obvious!

At one point, the Steeler offense had practically stripped down their offense to just about everything unrecognizable except for shades of their starting offensive line. They had started a quarterback that has been bounced around more in a shorter amount of time than a tart on a pirate ship. Yet, they prevailed. They prevailed over a roster chock full of names. Once again, names that have come up big in games vs. teams that are poor to fair and had at least multiple glaring weaknesses and nary a team that by-and-large had not scored more points than they had allowed on the season, bur rarely in games vs. the better teams.

Whether the lessons of this game will be learned by those that have been and apparently continue to be charged with rebuilding this team remains to be seen. Why they have not been taken to heart to date is beyond comprehension. Now, with the Bills lines in an even greater state of disrepair and disarray on the horizon due to age and free agents coming due, it should make every Bills fan scratch their head in utter bewilderment.

Given the philosophy of the past, what Commander Tom and the Blight Brigade's next moves are should make fans cringe with anxiety. Regardless, marketing and fantasy football style "on paper" management took one, no, took a whole ten rounds worth, on the chin in this game! At the bell it was Brian St. Pierre and Willie Parker standing fists raised over a lifeless Bills team lying KO'd on the mat and one that was billed as capable of stopping the best let alone the "no names."

Once again, the Bills' average starting field position was at their own 29-yard line and therefore a loss. Again, when the Bills have average starting field position at their own 35-yard line or better they are 7-1. When they have average starting field position at their own 31-yard line or worse they are 1-5. Just coincidentally, or not, the teams allowing such stellar starting field position are among the worst in the league.

The Bills were outplayed or outcoached in every facet in this game. That would have been fine if this had been the same Steelers team that has produced a 15-1 season. However it was anything but that team. It was a bench clearing slap in the face and stuffing of the Bills back into their box of reality instead. It was the opposite of what the Bills had been doing to the league's weak and feeble over the past six weeks sending a statement right up the steps of the Ralph into Ralph Wilson's box. While the media has ranted and raved over a six-game winning streak entering this game that in hindsight most would have projected an expected 5-1 record during regardless, is it any coincidence that the three teams interlaced among the scrubs in the league that prevented this Bills team from running a 12-game winning streak were the Patriots, Ravens, and Steelers!

This game was an embarrassment for the Bills. If Bill Cowher was looking for a dig at ‘Ol Whitey, then surely he got it in spades via this game. There should be a large degree of shame involved here.

The Bills should have been able to connect enough dots to at least get this train pointed in the proper direction next season. Given the "all or nothing" approach this season, not using this season as a rebuilding year, has likely pushed whatever could have been next season into 2006 now if the team is fortunate enough to have their aging defense still be as good as they are then which is an enormous questionmark at this point. Then again, with Commander Tom wearing the engineer's cap, what fans can expect if the past is the guide is anyone's guess. Looking for flashy high-profile moves overpaying players on their downside is a good guess. Perhaps the train comes off the tracks altogether next season. Who can tell.

My Take:

This was "SHOWTIME!" It was for the Bills anyway. Bill Cowher had just about all of his defensive starters out by the second quarter however and many of the first team starters out even earlier with many not even having set foot on the field in this game due to injuries. Yet, in what amounted to a playoff game for the Bills, yet against a second and third string Steeler team for the most part, the results were about as anticipated.

What fans were treated to in this game was referendum on "Tommy Ball." Well, the returns are in and they are not looking too good for the incumbent GM just handed a blank check by owner Ralph Wilson. A rag-tag collection of skill position players, you know, standouts such as Willie Parker, Brian St. Pierre, and Tommy Maddox, a career journeyman backup, a poor man's Humpty, dominated the Bills first teams in the Bills' own house. The Steeler starting offensive line played most of the game and the depth on the Steeler defensive line shone through.

Meanwhile, the wealth of skill position players on the Bills simply did nothing for the most part. Where were the onfield leaders in this game? Both of the Bills' lines were dominated. This was the basis for this game proving the Commander Tom "skill position at the expense of line" methodology vacuous. It simply does not matter how badly a team can beat up the bottom dozen teams in the league. What matters is what happens when push comes to shove, and when push comes to shove, NFL teams need above average lines.

Many will say in hindsight that this was a good season. More on the breakdown of the season in the weeks to follow. Many will talk about had the Bills only won vs. Jax and Oakland, two more mediocre or awful teams, then the Bills would have achieved double-digit wins. Well, the opposite can also be very reasonably argued, that if the Bills had lost two close games to Miami, one of the three worst teams in the league, and had Carson Palmer played in the Cincy game, it is likely that these same Bills would have finished 7-9 or even 6-10 again. Simply hoping for more victories over more scrubs sadly is where the expectations of many fans of this team have brought them. Throw in extremely favorable injury conditions on both sides this season and it could not have favored the Bills anymore than it did throughout the season without entire opponent team busses getting multiple flat tires on the way to games or having entire opponent first units come down with the flu on Sunday mornings.

This Bills team, other than vastly improved special teams, is little different than it has been throughout the Commander Tom-Humpty era. The media has painted it as different, yet it is not. The only reason for three additional wins from last season to this one is Ricky Williams leaving the Dolphins, an easier/weaker schedule, a host of favorable mitigating circumstances, and very favorable injury circumstances going both ways, nothing more. If Williams plays for the Fins this season these Bills are 7-9 now. Ironically, Commander Tom and Humpty are the two reasons why it has not moved forward. Yet, in a stroke of irony, both seem to have the team's full support heading forward if the recent over reliance by Mularkey on Humpty and a recently handed blank check from Ralph Wilson to Commander Tom are the indicators.

However, whether or not this was a good season depends upon one's outlook I suppose. It may have been a "good season" if the approach was putting all the eggs in the basket of winning this season, although I would still not agree. There is absolutely no way that in hindsight, anyone can look at this season now as anything but an opportunity lost to prepare it for next season. The risks were assumed and realized which again, seems to be a Commander Tom era hallmark. Whether or not this was the wise approach can be argued until the start of next season. Readers here realize that since the start of this season my position has clearly been that it would not be a good approach. Whether the reasons for that are/were justified or not makes absolutely no difference. Wishes and intentions will matter little at the onset of next season. T-shirts can sell like water in the middle of the desert, but it will always come down to talent differential, something that seems to elude and/or befuddle Commander Tom & Co.

However, for fans looking for "down the road" improvement beginning with next season, Commander Tom and the incoming coaching staff have rejected a free shot at freeing up some serious scratch to rebuild the offensive line, have stifled a season of rookie first-rounder JP Losman's development, not to mention prolonging the uncertainties surrounding his play further into the future, and added additional expense to release the team's biggest single mistake of the decade thus far if in fact he is even released. All for what? To "try just one more time" to make a poor decision look so-so! It makes absolutely no sense.

These failed decisions will have a price tag heading into next season and already have had an enormous lost opportunity cost. The size of that overall cost to the team remains to be seen. In hindsight however there is absolutely no way to justify this decision. How the players, particularly the free agents, react to this last data point of the season also remains to be seen. Travis Henry has already, and most understandably, made his statement. The Bills owe it to Henry to trade him after what he has done for this team. Anything short of that will be viewed as a spiteful position by the team and will likely not do the team many favors going forward.

Meanwhile, the Bills have no better than the 50th overall draft selection in what now appears to be a very uneventful draft forthcoming with few immediate impact players for next season on the horizon as a result. Meanwhile, football in Buffalo becomes more and more a soap opera and less and less a football team with any hint of greatness on the horizon. Fans and media have praised Commander Tom towards the end of this season while I have maintained that he should remain on the hot seat. As stated in past pieces, the odds are very good that sometime during next season fans wake up with the biggest Bills hangover of their lives now that Commander Tom has apparently been handed the keys to the family sedan for what will likely amount to an additional four or five seasons of a joy ride. Boy Howdy!

Happy New Year indeed.

Comments: mweiler.billsreport@cox.net


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