PITONIAK: Mounting injuries, porous defense sack Bills win-streak

NFL Buffalo
     When Tyrod Taylor hit that 67-yard bomb to Marquis Goodwin to put the Bills up 17-6 late in the third quarter, I figured it was all over. I really did. I figured Buffalo’s defense, which had been bowled over all afternoon by running back Jay Ajayi, would finally tighten up and seal the deal. I expected the Bills to escape Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium with a hard-fought victory to extend their win streak to five games for the first time in a dozen years and set up a colossal clash with New England at New Era Field next Sunday.
                Instead, the Bills wilted like they have so many times during this 16-season playoff famine. They lost a game they should have won.
                The Taylor-to-Goodwin touchdown seemed to wake up the Dolphins offense, which scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to beat Buffalo, 28-25.
                “We got out-played, out-coached, out-everythinged,’’ Bills coach Rex Ryan said. “They were clearly the more physical team. They controlled the game. That’s why we lost.”
                The defeat dropped the Bills to 4-3 and took some of the steam out of next week’s home game against the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick-led Patriots. A win would have given the Bills an opportunity to play for first place in the AFC East. Now, they’re in a position where they are going to have to find a way to steal a win over the next three games in order to keep their playoff hopes alive. And that won’t be easy because after New England they’ll be visiting Seattle and Cincinnati. And they may be doing so without several of their playmakers.
                Everything was going swimmingly until last Wednesday when LeSean McCoy, the league’s second-leading rusher, left practice early with a strained hamstring. He had been the catalyst during the Bills win-streak, rushing for 470 yards, five touchdowns and a 6.4 yards-per-carry average in his last four games. McCoy did not practice Thursday, was limited Friday and was listed as questionable for the Dolphins game.
But after passing all of the pre-game tests the medical and training staff put him through, he was out there Sunday afternoon. He said he felt “amazing” during pre-game warmups. But McCoy didn’t look amazing nor 100 percent when the game started. He was limited to just 11 yards on eight carries – the third worst production of his eight-year NFL career – and came out for good early in the second half after he felt the hammy tighten.
             Rex was second-guessed – deservedly so – for using McCoy at all, given how much he’s going to be needed long-term. Now, you have to wonder if this is injury is going to linger and nag like last season when the running back missed four games and was not at full strength in several others. And you also can help but think how much better shape they would have been if they had a reliable insurance policy like they had last year in Karlos Williams.
             Without McCoy, the offense struggled badly. The Bills offensive line, one of the team’s assets, was totally dominated by a talented and highly paid Dolphins defensive line featuring Ndamukong Suh, Cameron Wake and former Bill Mario Williams, who had two tackles for losses and several quarterback pressures in the second half. Sans McCoy, who when healthy can make a line look better than it is, a Bills team that entered the game averaging a league-best 166 rushing yards per contest mustered just 67 yards on 22 carries, a mediocre 3 yards per attempt, against a run defense that came into the game ranked 31st.
We anticipated this would be one of those games when Taylor would need to do more. Besides that long scoring pass to Goodwin and a last-ditch touchdown drive with 14 seconds to go, the second-year starter couldn’t do enough to pull out the win. Much of that is on him. His accuracy (14-for-28) leaves a lot to be desired.
           But in Taylor’s defense, he was under duress the entire afternoon as the Dolphins sacked him four times and pressured him on at least 16 of his drop-backs. And it doesn’t help when you are without the running back who makes the offense go, as well as your top two wide receivers – Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods. And later in the game, he lost his No. 3 receiver – Goodwin – who was crushed attempting to catch an off-target pass and banged his head hard against the ground.
             Even with all their offensive issues, the Bills were in position to win this game, but their defense let them down. Ajayi pummeled them for 214 yards on 29 carries, joining O.J. Simpson, Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams as the only running backs in NFL history to produce back-to-back 200-yard rushing games. The Dolphins finished with 256 rushing yards (the Bills had been yielding 103 entering the game).
This was one of those days when they certainly could have used run-stuffing, pocket-disrupting tackle Marcell Dareus, who has missed all seven games this season (four to a drug-related suspension and three to a hamstring injury).
              Like last year, attrition is taking its toll on the Bills. Their passing game clearly would be more proficient if Watkins were out there because he’s a game-changing talent. And the Bills are in big trouble if McCoy is hamstrung by his hamstring the way he was much of last season. He said after the game that he doesn’t feel the “deep, deep pain” in the hammy that he did a year ago and expects to play against the Patriots.
                Buffalo also lost safety Aaron Williams after Dolphins receiver Jarvis Landry launched into him with an illegal crack-back block. Williams, who suffered a scary neck injury that sidelined him most of the 2015 season, was taken to the hospital for an MRI, but reportedly traveled back with the team.
                So, now the complexion of the Bills season has changed a bit. This game was another measuring stick. Had they been able to get out of South Beach with a victory, they would have been sitting pretty. It very well may take 10 wins to secure a wildcard. Sunday’s loss drops them to 1-3 in conference games, which comes into play when invoking tiebreakers.
                Of course, talking about playoff implications is foolish at this point. Buffalo doesn’t get its bye until after their game in Seattle two Mondays from now. Given their long list of injuries, they could use a week off now. It appears that their best player – McCoy – won’t be at full speed for the upcoming showdown against the Patriots, and that’s too bad. But maybe if he had sat today, that wouldn’t have been the case.
                NOTES: Lorenzo Alexander picked up his ninth sack, and extended his streak with at least one sack to seven consecutive games. It’s the longest sack streak by a Bill since Hall of Famer Bruce Smith’s nine-game streak at the end of the 1986 season and the first two games of 1987. … The Bills have 21 sacks, equaling their output for 16 games last season. … Buffalo’s special teams set up two scores. Brandon Tate’s 30-yard punt return led to a field goal and Larentee McCray blocked a field goal that led to a short drive that was capped by Taylor’s 10-yard touchdown run.
                WROC-TV correspondent Scott Pitoniak has covered the Bills for 32 years and has written five books about the team’s history. The Professional Football Writers of America has recognized his work 12 times, including the past three years when he has finished first in column writing. 

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