Buffalo Bills: Midseason Report Cards for Each Positional Unit
The Buffalo Bills are at the midway point of the 2013 season and eight weeks into the Doug Marrone era with a record of 3-5. It has not been an easy start for this organization, as they have had to deal with injuries to players at a number of key positions.
They have not allowed this to be an excuse, and if they had gotten a few more breaks to go their way, it is not hard to imagine this team could be 4-4 or better. They have been competitive in every game except one, this past Sunday's blowout loss to the New Orleans Saints.
These are the positional grades for the Bills through the first half of the season.
Entering the regular season, the team knew this position was going to be a work in progress with two rookie quarterbacks.
No one expected it to be this much work.
EJ Manuel was drafted in the first round of this past draft and was given the keys to this offense from Week 1. As to be expected with any rookie quarterback, Manuel has been inconsistent, but he played well before his knee injury in Week 5 against the Cleveland Browns.
This provided undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel a chance to see his first action, but he looked overwhelmed in his short time against Cleveland. The Bills decided to promote Thad Lewis from the practice squad, and he has been the team's starting quarterback the past three games.
In his stint as the starter, Lewis has shown a great feel for this offense and looks to be a very capable backup in the future. However, he doesn't have the same physical tools of a Manuel, and that's why Manuel will be the Bills guy once he is healthy enough to come back.
This was a tough grade to give out because, if not for injuries, the Bills' running backs would be one of the best tandems in the game. The problem is that C.J. Spiller has been dealing with an ankle injury, and Fred Jackson has had a knee injury for the majority of the season.
Even with all the physical setbacks, this group ranks fourth in the NFL in rushing with 1,071 yards. Coach Marrone did a good job of balancing the workload between the two main backs when they were healthy. Jackson has been doing most of the heavy lifting the past few games, though, with Spiller hobbled by the ankle injury.
Aside from Stevie Johnson, this is an inexperienced group that has the potential to be very good. Johnson has been solid for the first half of the year and is the clear number-one wideout, even as he's been dealing with a number of injuries.
Unfortunately, the Bills are still looking for that number-two guy opposite Johnson.
Rookie wide receiver Robert Woods looked like he was on his way to being that man. The second-round receiver was building a good relationship with EJ Manuel. However, over the past three weeks, with Thad Lewis under center, Woods has not gotten many looks. In the last three games with Manuel, Woods had 32 targets and 11 receptions compared to 13 targets and only six receptions with Lewis at quarterback.
The disappointment of the group has to be T.J. Graham who has not been able to get into a rhythm in this offense, no matter who is under center for the Bills. He has had more than two receptions in a game only once this season. The second-year wide out from North Carolina State will need to step up over the last eight games, or he could be fighting for his job next training camp.
Scott Chandler is the key player at this position, but he has struggled for much of the season. He had ACL surgery at the end of last season and seems to still be working his way back to the player he was before the injury.
It doesn't look as if the tight end position is as valued in this offensive system as it was in Chan Gailey's, and Chandler has been limited in his touches. He does have 22 catches for 269 yards, which is the third-highest total on the team.
It will be interesting to see how the Bills use Scott Chandler over the last half of the year and whether they are able to get the tight end more involved in the passing game, considering the inconsistency of the wide receivers.
Last year, the offensive line was one of the strengths of this team and did a great job keeping Ryan Fitzpatrick off the turf. This year the group has looked shaky at best as it tries to find a suitable replacement for Andy Levitre.
The Bills quarterbacks have been sacked a total of 28 times this season, which is only four fewer than the league worst total belonging to the Miami Dolphins. This is an alarming stat considering that last year the Bills gave up only 30 sacks over the entire season.
The team's pass-blocking has been awful and the run blocking hasn't been much better. The Bills currently rank fourth in the NFL in terms of rushing yards but that is because they have called the second-most rushes. The team is averaging only four yards per carry, which ranks 15th.
Over the first half of the season, there appears not to be many solid lanes for the running backs to exploit. The offensive line must do a better job of winning battles in the trenches and creating holes for Jackson and Spiller.
There isn't a unit which has benefited more from the Bills' coaching change than Mario Williams and the defensive line. Fans had to wait a year, but they are finally getting to see what they had hoped for when Williams signed that massive contract before the 2012 season.
Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has brought an aggressive defense that wants to get pressure on the quarterback. More importantly he has found a way to maximize Mario Williams' presence by moving him around the line of scrimmage and forcing mismatches.
Through the first eight games Williams has tallied 11 sacks, and offenses have had to game-plan ways to stop him. This has opened more opportunities for Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams to get one-on-one matchups. The two defensive tackles have four sacks apiece and are both only 1.5 sacks away from their career highs.
This group has been much better than expected and that has to do with rookie Kiko Alonso. Many thought this guy had the potential to be a good linebacker in this league, but no one expected him to do that from Week 1.
The rookie linebacker from Oregon is currently tied for second in the NFL in tackles and tied for first in interceptions. He has shown a terrific understanding of Mike Pettine's defense along with amazing instincts. The team has found great value in the second-round pick from Oregon.
Even though it may seem so at times, Alonso is not the only linebacker in this defense. The team found two solid veteran linebackers when they signed Manny Lawson as a free agent and traded Kelvin Sheppard to the Indianapolis Colts for Jerry Hughes. Both have played well this year, and with Arthur Moats, have provided the Bills with a solid linebacker corps.
One area that the Bills hopefully improve on over the second half of the season is the run defense. The Bills currently rank 30th in the NFL in terms of rushing yards allowed with 942, a per-game average of 117.8 yards.
The ability to stop the run has to get better if this defense wants to take the next step.
This unit has been decimated by injuries over the first half of the season, losing Stephon Gilmore, Jairus Byrd and Ron Brooks for extended periods of times. They have given up the fifth-most yards through the air and the most touchdown passes in the NFL this season.
However, this unit is not completely lost as it is currently tied for second in the league in interceptions. One player who has been impressive this season is safety Aaron Williams. The coaching staff decided to move him to safety this offseason, but due to injuries, he was asked at different junctures during the first half of the season to shift between safety and cornerback.
Even though this group has been burnt a number of times, it should get much better in the second half. Gilmore and Byrd are both trying to learn a new defense and get into game shape. As they get more comfortable in this defense, this unit should drastically improve.
Kicker and Punter
This grade is based on the current players on the roster. The Bills tried to go younger at kicker and punter at the start of this season with Dustin Hopkins and Shawn Powell. It did not go as planned, though, as Hopkins was placed on IR with a groin injury, and Powell was released after an awful game in Cleveland.
The team decided to bring in Dan Carpenter to handle the kicking duties and bring back fan favorite Brian Moorman to punt. Both have been great pickups for Buffalo.
Carpenter is 16-of-18 this year and a perfect 11 of 11 inside of 40 yards. He has done a solid job in terms of kickoffs with only one major mistake coming against Miami on a kickoff that was almost returned for a touchdown at the end of the game.
Moorman is only averaging .5 more yards per kick than his predecessor, however he has done a great job of directional kicking. Opposing returners are averaging only 5.6 yards per return against Moorman compared to 14.7 yards per return when Powell was punting.