How Can Doug Marrone Improve on Bills Debut?

Erik Frenz@ErikFrenzSenior Writer ISeptember 8, 2013

The Buffalo Bills lost 23-21 in the home opener against the New England Patriots, and with Doug Marrone losing his first game, Bills head coaches are now 0-17 in their debuts.

Same old Bills, right?

It would be easy for Bills fans to walk away from Ralph Wilson Stadium mumbling those words, but there's reason for hope despite the loss.

The Bills didn't give themselves much of a chance in this one by committing 10 penalties for 75 yards, or by committing two turnovers on fumbles inside their own territory. 

Yet despite all that, they lost by just two points to the Patriots.

One reason was their stout pass defense. In holding Brady to under a 60 percent completion rate, the Bills accomplished something that's only been achieved three times in the past two years. When was the last time Brady was held to fewer than 5.5 yards per pass attempt? That would be Oct. 24, 2010 against the Chargers.

The Bills' success on defense belongs to more than just Marrone, however. The signing of defensive coordinator Mike Pettine could prove to be vital for their defense. The front seven got pressure on Brady for 17 of his 54 drop-backs on Sunday, laying six hits and two sacks on him in the process. He may have been out of sync with his receivers, but he was also not comfortable in the pocket.

Want a sign of improvement? The Bills allowed touchdowns on 69.1 percent of their defensive red-zone possessions last year, and the Patriots scored 67.5 percent of the time inside the 20. On Sunday, the Bills allowed touchdowns on just 40 percent of the Patriots possessions inside the red zone.

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The Bills were successful on offense, as well.

They kept the game plan simple for quarterback EJ Manuel as expected, but they gave him the chance to go downfield a few times as well. One of his deep throws was nearly intercepted by cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, but he hit three of 18 yards or more—his two touchdowns and a 19-yard strike to tight end Scott Chandler prior to the second touchdown. All three were some of his best throws of the day.

There were, however, some causes for concern. 

The first concern is the uptempo offense. The Bills ran just 63 offensive plays on the day. They went three-and-out five times on 15 drives (if you count running back C.J. Spiller's fumble on the second play of the opening drive as a three-and-out). They need to find ways to get drives off to better starts, and they need to fix their overall third-down offense, where they went 4-of-13 (30.8 percent) on the day.

Other than that, Buffalo's primary concerns are in the running game on both sides of the ball. The Patriots picked up right where they left off last year, running all over the Bills front to the tune of 158 yards on 35 carries (4.5 yards per attempt).

Whether it's coaching or personnel (and recent performance tells me it's the latter), the Bills need to find a way to fix that. They won't win many games allowing that kind of yardage on the ground.

The Patriots made mistakes of their own which helped the Bills keep it so close, but if the Bills eliminated some of their own mistakes, the game could have been a blowout in their favor. Mistakes like penalties and turnovers are correctable, and the true test for Doug Marrone will be how his team responds from here. 

One game, especially a loss, won't solidify Marrone as a solid NFL head coach. If he builds off today, though, there's plenty of time for him to earn that label.


Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.