Back to the earliest days of football, coaches have preached the mantra that the key to winning games is two simple accomplishments: run and stop the run.
But for the Bills this season, the first half of that formula has been inconsistent at best and the second part has been a disaster, at worst, for the past three games.
But, Sunday afternoon at its temporary home at Detroit’s Ford Field, Buffalo, at least temporarily, solved both those problems and rendered the third issue, quarterback Josh Allen’s recent struggles, moot.
WHEN THE alternate site game was over, the Bills, who were snowed out of Orchard Park, had hung on for a 31-23 victory over Cleveland that halted a two-game losing streak and kept them in second place in the AFC East.
In the process, Buffalo’s run defense reverted to its first-six-game form, holding the Browns, one of the NFL’s top rushing teams, to a mere 80 yards, only four more than its average per game over the season’s opening half-dozen contests.
The Bills held Nick Chubb, one of the league’s elite backs, to a puny 19 yards on 14 carries.
So what happened to that sieve which was giving up an average of 176 rushing yards per game over the last three?
“CHUBB IS arguably the best back in our league … he’s really, really good and it was good to see (Buffalo’s defense) stand up with our defensive line and linebackers to stand up on third-and-one and fourth-and-one how we played tough,” Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. “You take your hat off to them. It’s a hard deal to be able to stop a team for one yard and do it back-to-back.”
But it wasn’t just those short-yardage plays where the Bills were successful, they totally shut down the Browns’ running game.
ON OFFENSE, Buffalo rediscovered its running game as a week after rushing for a season-high 175 yards in an overtime loss to Minnesota, the Bills mustered 171. Running backs Devin Singletary and James Cook each ran for 86 yards while Allen, who led the team in rushing six of the previous nine games, totaled a mere seven yards on three carries.
The fifth-year QB actually struggled in the early going against Cleveland.
“Josh really started off not finding his rhythm until the back half of the second quarter,” offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey admitted. “You’re not going to be perfect on every play and he understands that, it’s good to have a guy that doesn’t affect … he’ll keep firing and keep playing and keep us in games even though he might not be perfect to start the game.
“We can be explosive in the run game or pass game or gadgets … whatever it might be. Explosiveness comes from execution and if you execute, you have a chance to be explosive no matter what the play call is.”
And while the Bills were balanced between run (171 yards) and pass (197), Dorsey warned it was mere circumstance.
“What our philosophy is since I’ve been here is that we’ll do whatever is necessary to win a football game … whatever it is, pass to run, run to pass, personnel groups … that’s what makes us difficult to defend at times … that we can be multiple and attack in different ways.”
BUT HE admitted the reemergence of the rushing game was welcome.
“It’s great any time you can establish the run and be effective there,” he said. “We’re always trying to make sure we’re attacking defenses in multiple ways. It’s always a balancing act.
“All it takes is one mistake to affect an entire play.”
He added of Allen’s early struggles, “There’s not a quarterback out there who’s going to be perfect, you’re going to miss guys, those things will happen. We’re going to look at it from a technique standpoint, a decision-making standpoint, an execution standpoint, learn from it and try to correct those things as much as possible.
“From Josh’s standpoint it’s learning that nothing in this league is going to be given to you … it’s not going to be relatively easy, you’ve got to earn every inch that you get on a play. It’s hard to win in this league.”
(Chuck Pollock, an Olean Times Herald senior sports columnist, can be reached at email@example.com)