I know, I know … “It’s only one game.”
To be sure, both coach Sean McDermott and quarterback Josh Allen reminded us of that following Sunday afternoon’s 23-16 loss to the Steelers at Highmark Stadium.
Still, there was something unsettling about the way the Bills were defeated by their Rust Belt rival.
Pittsburgh is a good team – playoff caliber – but this was not the Buffalo squad we expected to see in a season when even the national “experts” have called it Super Bowl quality.
Three troublesome takes came out of the loss.
ONE, the offensive line while performing reasonably well in the ground game – Buffalo rushed for a reasonable 117 yards on 25 attempts, 72 of them on 11 Devin Singletary carries – was lost against Pittsburgh’s front in pass protection.
Allen, in 54 dropbacks, was sacked three times and hit on eight others.
Linebacker T.J. Watt, besides two sacks, had five quarterback hits, a tackle for loss and a forced fumble while tackle Cameron Heyward added the other sack, a tackle for loss, quarterback hit, forced fumble and recovery.
That’s a lot of damage caused by a defense that was getting after the passer with only three or four rushers.
The Bills’ O-line was flagged for an embarrassing six holds, four of them accepted.
In short, it was a terrible performance.
TWO, at least in this game, Allen gave flashbacks to his first and second years when he wrestled with accuracy and decision-making.
What made him last season’s runner-up for NFL MVP honors, aside from his lights-out numbers, was the quick, confident, on-target throws.
Against the Steelers, Allen seemed frustrated and uncertain.
Afterward, fans focused on his miss of a wide-open Emmanuel Sanders that would have resulted in a first-half touchdown. But every quarterback occasionally has throws go awry, especially deep ones.
More concerning was Allen’s inability to stretch the field. Other than a 37-yard connection with wide receiver Gabriel Davis, his next longest completion was a 16-yarder to Sanders.
And, oh yeah, Allen and Singletary combined to fumble four times, the former losing one of his two, the latter saved by bounces out of bounds.
THREE, this loss was a coaching nightmare.
McDermott, who entrusts play-calling to offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, didn’t have a great game, indeed neither did.
It’s McDermott’s decision whether to go for it or punt on fourth-and-short yardage. And, twice, consecutively, in the first half, he decided on the latter: 4th-and-1 from Buffalo’s 46 and 4th-and-3 from Pittsburgh’s 43.
That’s acceptable from a conservative coach relying on his defense. But McDermott, in charge of one of the NFL’s Top 3 offenses (scoring and yardage) last season, had developed a reputation for being aggressive … until the AFC Championship Game loss at Kansas City when he became too cautious.
Then there’s Daboll, considered for head-coaching jobs last offseason after his offense put up some staggering numbers in 2020. Touted as an offensive guru league-wide, maybe he began to believe the accolades.
Several calls he made on Sunday seemed to be saying, “I’m smarter than (Steelers defensive coordinator) Keith Butler.”
The most galling came early in the fourth quarter with Buffalo up 10-6. The Bills faced 4th-and-1 at the Steelers’ 41-yard line. But rather than have the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Allen, who had nine rushes for 44 yards, do a QB sneak, Daboll got cute. Allen faked a quarterback keeper, then tossed backward to Matt Breida who was blown up for a 7-yard loss. The Steelers took over on downs and rolled 52 yards to the touchdown that put them ahead for good.
After the game, McDermott said the right things, through seemingly gritted teeth, but it was clear he wasn’t happy with the call.
And that likely wasn’t the only one as, late in the first half, on 3rd-and-1 from the Bills’ 46, Daboll called a flea-flicker. Allen handed off to Singletary who tossed the ball back and the QB’s throw for Stefon Diggs was knocked down. A punt followed.
Finally, there was the Steelers’ TD off a blocked punt.
Clearly, it was a blown blocking assignment up the middle but that kind of mistake has a habit of coming back and biting the position coach.
AND THAT brings us to next Sunday’s game at Miami against the Dolphins, the only AFC East team that won on opening weekend.
Division games are tough, anyway, even though for the first time in franchise history the Bills went unbeaten against that opposition a year ago. The Dolphins are improved after last season’s 10-6 record and seem poised for a fast start.
It’s way too early to call this a “must win” for Buffalo, but an 0-2 start looking up at a 2-0 Miami isn’t exactly the beginning the faithful anticipated.
There are some things that need to be fixed at One Bills Drive … and fast.
(Chuck Pollock, a Times Herald senior sports columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)