The Bills May Be a Joke Now, but a Sneaky-Good Defense Offers Hope

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterNovember 3, 2018

Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) tries to escape the grasp of Buffalo Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander (57) as Buffalo Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes (55) closes in during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 14, 2018, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)
Michael Wyke/Associated Press

You may not have noticed it, but the Buffalo Bills defense is having a tremendous year.

The Bills are sixth-best in the NFL in yards per game allowed, fifth-best in yards per play. They rank fourth in the league in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric. They are brimming with both veteran talent (Jerry Hughes, Micah Hyde, Lorenzo Alexander) and up-and-comers (Tre'Davious White, Matt Milano, Tremaine Edmunds, Taron Johnson).

Buffalo's defense stymied Tom Brady and the Patriots for three quarters Monday night. It was almost single-handedly responsible for an early-season upset of the Vikings. It held the Titans to zero touchdowns and four field goals, two of them from 50-plus yards. It caused all sorts of trouble for Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.

The Bills have a lights-out defense, but it gets little attention because the team lost 25-6 to the Patriots on a late touchdown drive and a pick-six and lost 37-5 to the Colts after the offense kept turning the ball over.

In other words, the Bills defense keeps getting sabotaged because their offense is a radioactive impact crater filled with flaming garbage.

"I'm ready to go win a game," poor Nathan Peterman said after reclaiming the starting job by default this week, and never has an NFL quarterback sounded more like a six-year-old quoting SpongeBob. That's right, Nathan: You're a big boy now, and Sean McDermott is ready to prop you up on the defense's lap with your hands on the steering wheel. Just try not to send the team careening into a ditch this time.

After losing the starting QB job in Buffalo because he was ineffective, Nathan Peterman will start again for the Bills because the equally ineffective Derek Anderson was injured.
After losing the starting QB job in Buffalo because he was ineffective, Nathan Peterman will start again for the Bills because the equally ineffective Derek Anderson was injured.Michael Wyke/Associated Press/Associated Press

Peterman has become a punchline by throwing nine interceptions in his first 81 passes, getting benched early in two of his three career starts and tossing a fourth-quarter pick-six in relief to lose the Texans game. He typically panics and heaves the ball into traffic without looking every time a pass-rusher gets within eight feet of him, which is a bit of a problem for someone about to face Khalil Mack and the Bears this week.

Peterman replaces injured Derek Anderson, who has thrown zero touchdowns and seven interceptions in his last 107 pass attempts, dating back to 2016. Peterman will be backed up by newcomer Matt Barkley, who has six career multi-interception games over a six-year career, even though he has started only six games. Peterman may be terrible, but Barkley's interception history reads like the book of Revelation.

Here's how bad the Bills quarterback situation is: Newly acquired wide receiver Terrelle Pryor, who played quarterback until 2013, actually has a higher career passer rating (69.3) than Barkley (63.7) or Peterman (31.4). By contrast, Tim Tebow had a career rating of 75.3.

The quarterbacks aren't the only problem. Kelvin Benjamin got roasted by Booger McFarland on the Monday Night Football telecast for his fast-food-friendly physique, and he's the best receiving weapon the Bills have. LeSean McCoy and the running game are fine until the defense starts stacking the box with defenders, which happens during pregame warm-ups.

The Bills offense is not only ranked dead last this season in the NFL by Football Outsiders but also is closing in on being ranked the worst offense of the last 30 years. Remember the JaMarcus Russell Raiders? John Fox's Jimmy Clausen Panthers? The Bills are currently more historically, hysterically awful.

Oh wait, we are supposed to be saying nice things about the Bills defense.

That's the problem with fielding a historically woeful laughingstock of an offense, as opposed to an ordinary bad offense. A team with a great defense and bad offense can remain competitive, play spoiler, keep the franchise moving in the proper direction and maintain a little bit of dignity.

But a historically terrible offense can derail an organization.

The Bills are too good on defense to be lumped in with embarrassing teams like the Raiders. If they don't find a way to get off the all-time worst lists, though, bad habits will fester on both sides of the ball, veterans on defense will want out and McDermott risks losing the locker room.

Rookie Josh Allen struggled plenty when healthy, but he also proved capable of moving the Bills offense in a modestly positive direction.
Rookie Josh Allen struggled plenty when healthy, but he also proved capable of moving the Bills offense in a modestly positive direction.Adrian Kraus/Associated Press/Associated Press

So the goal for the Bills over the next few weeks will be to make their offense bad again.

That starts with getting back rookie Josh Allen, the seventh overall pick and quarterback of the future, who is on the mend from an elbow injury he suffered against the Texans.

Allen was dreadful before getting hurt—his passer rating of 61.8 falls within the Peterman-Pryor Index—but he was dreadful within acceptable rookie-quarterback parameters. Allen throws extremely hard and runs very well, so even though he's tragically sack-prone and as accurate as a boardwalk palm reader, he keeps defenses honest and can generate a few touchdowns per month.

Once the Bills get Allen back—he's currently week-to-week—they stand a chance of winning some of the four upcoming Jets and Dolphins games on their schedule and hanging with other scuffling teams like the Jaguars and Lions. They may also be able to determine if young receivers like Zay Jones and Ray-Ray McCloud are part of their future once they have a quarterback who can throw more than 15 yards downfield without a running start.

Ideally, a hot finish by Allen will jump-start a Patrick Mahomes-Carson Wentz-Jared Goff-like developmental quantum leap for 2019. Then the Bills add a receiver or two in the draft and a lineman or two in free agency, and presto! They're back in the wild-card mix next year!

That sounds like a pipe dream, but the Bills defense makes it feasible. A few more Vikings-game scenarios—here's the ball in scoring position, kid: now punch one in and just squat on the lead—can do wonders for a quarterback's development.

The Bills need to be thinking in terms of a quick turnaround, because despite the presence of youngsters like White, Milano and the not-yet-21 Edmunds, their defense is peaking now and could get old in a hurry.

Lorenzo Alexander and Kyle Williams are each 35 years old and entering free agency. Hughes, who shares the team lead in sacks with Alexander, is 30. Hyde, Trent Murphy and Jordan Poyer are 27.

Defensive end Jerry Hughes is among the leaders of a defense that ranks sixth in the NFL in yards per game allowed.
Defensive end Jerry Hughes is among the leaders of a defense that ranks sixth in the NFL in yards per game allowed.Jim Mone/Associated Press

This is a defense full of guys at or just passing their prime. The Bills can keep them together for another year or two, but they must convince Alexander and Williams that sticking around is better than relocating and retiring, or they need to attract younger replacements. Neither is easy when the defense plays like the Legion of Boom against Tom Brady but still loses by 19 points.

So the sooner Allen returns to provide some scrambling touchdowns, random bombs and hope, the better chance the Bills have of accomplishing something while their playoff-caliber defense is intact.

Until then, there's poor Nathan Peterman, which doesn't bode well but, with a little boldness, could steady things a bit.

The Bills need to ditch the play-it-safe, run-and-punt game plans that have gotten them routed under Anderson for the past two weeks and give Peterman one last chance to either let 'er rip and prove the world wrong or go out in a mushroom cloud.

Heck, Peterman held the starting job for the entire offseason. He has to be able to do something. If not, making him hand off twice and throw a dump-off on 3rd-and-long will only make the Bills look sillier for giving him so many chances. Curling up in the fetal position on offense isn't fooling anyone or solving anything.

The Bills are not far from being a pretty good team. They're also not that far away from a collapse that ends the McDermott regime, wastes a very good defense and launches yet another rebuilding cycle.

There's hope. But it starts with making the offense less of a laughingstock. Because the joke has already gotten stale.


Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @MikeTanier.