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A nice win, but ...

Bills rally past Rams, but struggles on defense are surprising

Sal Maiorana
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
Safety Jordan Poyer (21) said the Buffalo defense played "nowhere near the way we we know we're capable of playing" in Sunday's win over the Los Angeles Rams. It's a surprising struggle for a unit many thought would be the strength of the team.

ORCHARD PARK — Sean McDermott was obviously thrilled that his Buffalo Bills pulled out Sunday’s heart-pounding 35-32 victory over the Los Angeles Rams, but as he said, “We’ve got a lot of things to work on.”

And here’s the kicker. It’s the defense that has the most work to do. 

At the start of the season the Bills’ defense was being looked upon as a top five unit in the NFL and all you had to do to come to that conclusion was look at how well it performed last season, and then factor in that most of the starters returned intact and the few that left were supposedly replaced by upgrades.

But based on the last two weeks, this defense isn’t very good right now as it has allowed 60 points, 888 yards and 56 first downs, and only because of Josh Allen’s brilliance did the Bills manage to avoid losing to the Dolphins and Rams.

“We didn’t play nowhere near the way we wanted to play today, nowhere near the way we know we’re capable of playing,” said safety Jordan Poyer. “It’s a long season, we’re happy to be 3-0 right now.”

Fortunate to be 3-0, too.

Sunday, the Rams were dead in the water, down 28-3 seven minutes into the third quarter. But the game changed in the next six minutes. The defense looked like 11 ghosts on the field as Jared Goff easily drove the Rams downfield for their first touchdown, his one-yard sneak.

And it’s not like the Bills were in prevent defense; they were just abysmal on that series and it gave the Rams hope. Then Allen threw the controversial interception toward Tyler Kroft – I still refuse to see how it was an interception – and three plays later Robert Woods was scooting 25 yards for a touchdown that made it 28-17.

Now the Bills were on their heels and with the offense in a lull thanks to the revived Rams defense led by Aaron Donald, two more touchdown drives followed on which the Rams did whatever they wanted. 

Suddenly the Bills were trailing 32-28 and staring at the worst loss in team history based on blown lead, the previous mark a 21-point collapse in Miami. In fact, this was the first time in team history it allowed at least 25 second-half points in regulation and still won.

“It swung today in a big way,” McDermott said of the momentum. “We have to be continually aware of it.”

Here’s another indication of how poor the Bills’ defense played. It didn’t force the Rams to punt once on nine possessions (not counting the last one after Buffalo went ahead). The only highlights were Levi Wallace’s interception to kill one LA drive, and then early in the third the Bills stopped a fourth-down play which essentially is a turnover.

Here are my other observations on the game:

Run defense was porous

Sticking with the defense, the biggest problem was Los Angeles gouging the Bills right up the middle on the ground. At no point did the Bills ever get a handle on Darrell Henderson who had 114 of the Rams’ 167 rushing yards.

“It was a great learning experience and I think that was something that we needed,” said linebacker Tremaine Edmunds who made a rather low impact return to the lineup after missing the Miami game with a shoulder injury. “Things are not going to always be perfect and today was a true testament to that. Just staying together as a team and finding a way to get the job done. We never broke. We got bent up a little bit, but we never broke. That’s just a true testament to the guys we’ve got here on the team.”

Well, actually they did break because they allowed the Rams to take the lead with 29 straight points. They were bailed out by the offense.

Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier needs to find some answers because this week the Bills take on Las Vegas stud runner Josh Jacobs and the week after in Tennessee they’ll be up against 2019 NFL rushing champion Derrick Henry.

“Very happy to get the win, they’re hard to get,” said McDermott. “We knew they weren’t going to go away. Calm breeds calm. Our guys were very calm, and they believed in themselves at the end of the game.”

Cole Beasley had a day

With John Brown ineffective throughout the first half and then on the sidelines in the second half with a calf injury, and Stefon Diggs being neutralized by a Rams secondary led by Jalen Ramsey, Allen needed someone to step up in the big moments. Beasley was that guy.

The slot receiver had a huge game with six catches for 100 yards, and never was he more clutch than on the winning drive as he caught a 22-yard pass to convert a third-and-22 and a 19-yarder that put the Bills in scoring position at the Rams 15 with a minute left to play.

“You never really know how a team is going to react,” Beasley said of the final drive. “Those moments right there are when we find out what we’re really made of. Because that’s tough when you’re up 28-3 and they battle back and they take the lead from you, with not much time left, that could deflate a team. But these guys are all dogs and they don’t shy away from that. They’re all competitive as hell. They fight to the finish. I’m just glad I’m here.”

Devin Singletary carried load

With Zack Moss out, Singletary ended up playing 89 percent of the offensive snaps, way above the 57.4 percent he played in the first two games. He had 17 touches totaling 121 yards, the highlight of which was a dazzling catch and run for a 34-yard gain in the third quarter on the first play after the defense forced the turnover on downs.

On that play he caught a pass in the left flat, turned upfield and made a jaw-dropping move that may have broken Rams linebacker Samson Ebukah’s ankles. He then sprinted past everyone before getting hauled down at the 18.

“We needed a spark, that’s all I was trying to do, give us a spark,” he said. “I felt like I was able to do that. We came out on top. But yeah, on that play, I seen him, I kind of set him up.”

Offensive line makes changes

The Bills re-signed left guard Quinton Spain in the offseason to a three-year deal, and two games in he found himself glued to the bench Sunday and played only five special teams snaps.

Cody Ford was switched over to Spain’s spot and Brian Winters, who was signed as a free agent in August when Jon Feliciano went down with an injury, started at right guard and they each played every offensive snap.

“We wanted to go with those two this week,” McDermott said of Ford and Winters. “Like all positions, you have to earn it. We’ll evaluate the film. There are moments where we played well up front and going against a good player in Aaron Donald, along with the other guys he has out there. They’re a tough unit there. Our guys, in critical moments of the game, they came through for us.”

The results were mixed, though, because in the second half the line got abused by the Rams’ front. The Bills gained only 30 yards on the ground after halftime, and Allen found himself under heavy pressure with Donald crashing through for two of the four second-half sacks Allen absorbed.

“It don’t matter who’s in there, all our guys can play, all our guys can go,” said Singletary. “That was the mindset. Whoever gets in there was going to make it happen.”

Quick hitters

► Allen became the first Bills quarterback since Jim Kelly in 1991 to throw for at least 300 yards in each of the first three games. That season, as you may recall, the Bills went to their second straight Super Bowl and set several all-time team offensive records that still stand today.

► Allen has 1,038 passing yards with 10 passing touchdowns and a 124.8 rating, along with two rushing touchdowns. He is the first player with at least 10 touchdown passes and two rushing touchdowns in his team’s first three games of a season in NFL history.

► How’s this for efficiency? Tight end Lee Smith played one snap on offense and he caught a one-yard TD pass in the first quarter. He later played 11 special teams snaps.

► The Bills had tight ends on the field for 45 of their 58 offensive snaps and Tyler Kroft was on the field for 44 of those. He and Smith were both on the field when Smith scored, and Reggie Gilliam took one snap. Kroft certainly made good use of his time as he scored two touchdowns including the winner.

► The Bills will have to watch left tackle Dion Dawkins this week. He left the game in the fourth quarter with an undisclosed injury and did not return as Ty Nsekhe took his place.

► Rookie edge rusher A.J. Epenesa showed some speed in recording his first NFL sack as Goff was flushed out to the right and Epenesa tracked him down for a two-yard loss. Epenesa played 24 snaps, up from the 17 he took last week.

► Frazier challenged Wallace after his rough game in Miami, saying the only way to “get them off you is to make a play” and Wallace did with an interception of Goff. On the day, Wallace was much better though, oddly, he was targeted only three times by Goff according to Pro Football Focus, allowing a mere two catches for 24 yards.

► In this game, it was nickel CB Taron Johnson who was the liability as Cooper Kupp ate him up. Johnson was targeted seven times and gave up seven catches for 90 yards. The Bills used safety Dean Marlowe for a few snaps at nickel and that may become more prevalent if Johnson continues to struggle.

► The Bills have been outscored 24-7 in the third quarter this season. Since McDermott took over in 2017, they’ve been outscored 224-183 in the third. 

Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, left, said Sunday's narrow win over the Rams was a learning experience. "That was something that we needed," he said.