Pitoniak: Same Old December Swoon

                Been there, done that too many times the past 13, 14 seasons.

                You think it’s tough watching this team. Try covering it.

                Hey, it’s not easy coming up with fresh angles for the same, old story. December after bloody December.

                The Bills’ 27-6 loss to Tampa Bay Sunday had a familiar rancid odor. The stench was painfully similar to the stinking, late-season performances we experienced too frequently during the Gregg-Williams-Mike Mularkey-Dick Jauron-Chan Gailey eras. (Or should I say errors?)

                The kid quarterback, EJ Manuel, took several steps backward in Tampa, throwing the same number of interceptions (four) vs. the Bucs that he threw in his previous eight starts combined. He was sacked seven times, with at least three of the takedowns the result of him holding onto the ball and missing wide open running backs in the flat.

                But to fixate solely on EJ would be unfair. This was a total team effort. Virtually everyone had a hand in the loss. The pass protection was terrible much of the day against a Tampa team that had entered the game ranked 28th in sacks. The O-line also committed several drive-killing penalties. 

                The only highlight of the day for C.J. Spiller was an 83-yard touchdown reception... that was called back by a holding penalty. Spiller followed up a 149-yard rushing performance against Atlanta with 22 yards on 11 carries. Fred Jackson wasn’t any better, adding 12 yards on five carries, as the Bills mustered 67 yards on the ground, 72 below their game average.

                Stevie Johnson didn’t help out his rookie quarterback. The veteran wideout dropped one pass then let another slide off his hands and into the mitts of stud linebacker Lavonte David.

                The Bills defense wasn’t much better. Boy wonder linebacker Kiko Alonso missed a tackle on the game’s second play from scrimmage allowing Bucs running back Bobby Rainey to sprint 80 yards for a touchdown. Buffalo, which has been awful against the run for the better part of a decade, appeared to be making some improvements in this phase of the game earlier in the season. But the Bills have been regressing in recent weeks and yielded 165 yards against one of the NFL’s weaker ground attacks.

                Leodis McKelvin muffed two punts, losing one and having a teammate recover the other.

                All in all, it was a miserable day way too reminiscent of recent Decembers, when out-of-contention Bills teams occasionally gave the appearance that they were thinking about their tee times with games still remaining on the schedule.

                Perhaps the most troublesome thing about Sunday’s decisive loss was the lethargy among the Bills players. They looked as if they hadn’t recovered from last week’s disheartening overtime loss to Atlanta. They didn’t seem to have their hearts into it.

                “We talked to our players about (bouncing back) throughout the week and we wound up playing even worse than we did in Pittsburgh (following a heartbreaking loss to Kansas City the week before),’’ said Buffalo rookie coach Doug Marrone. “That’s disappointing. You want to grow and you want to go forward . . . We didn’t bounce back the way I thought we should.”

                Disappointing, too, was the way the Bills continue to struggle on the road. It was their fifth loss in six games away from the Ralph (and the Rogers Centre), and Manuel, in particular, continued to look frazzled in hostile environs. In his four road starts – all losses – he’s completed just 52 percent of his passes and has just two touchdown passes to go with five interceptions. Contrast that with a 62 percent completion rate at home to go with seven touchdown tosses and three picks.

                This was supposed to be a measuring stick, a game in which the Bills hoped to prove to themselves that they can win away from the Ralph, a must if they are going to become true contenders.

                “This performance was very, very frustrating,’’ Manuel said. “To me, there’s still a learning curve. I just got to go out there and do better.”

                I still believe the Bills made a good hire in Marrone. And I knew this transformation wasn’t going to happen overnight. But Sunday’s effort lacked heart. And that was disturbingly reminiscent of too many performances by teams coached by Marrone’s predecessors.

                It’s a same-old, same-old pattern that needs to be broken.

                OFFENSE: EJ was tentative, especially in the first half. The running game never got in gear. The O-line was putrid, failing to protect Manuel and open holes for the running backs.  The lineman contributed greatly to the Bills total of 11 penalties. Buffalo went 1-for-11 on third-down conversions, a paltry 9 percent success rate. F
                DEFENSE: Two worrisome trends: The run defense has become porous again and the Bills continue to give up big plays on the ground and through the air. That trend continued yesterday as they yielded an 80-yard touchdown run and a 38-yard touchdown reception. They did manage to limit the Bucs to six points off the turnovers. D
                SPECIAL TEAMS: Dan Carpenter provided the only offense with two field goals. McKelvin had a case of fumbleitis on punt returns and punter Brian Moorman took a scary hit that resulted in a roughing the kicker call. C-minus
                OVERALL:  Some believe it would be better for the 4-9 Bills to lose out so they can improve their draft position (currently sixth). I think it’s better though, if they rebound and play strongly down the stretch, especially EJ. The Bills need to lay a foundation now. Otherwise they’ll be stuck in this perpetual rebuilding mode.

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