Something is off with the Buffalo Bills. At least, that’s the consensus surrounding the Super Bowl hopefuls heading into “Thursday Night Football” against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
But what is worth actually worrying about at this point in the season and what is not?
Our Bills writers Tim Graham and Joe Buscaglia figured it was a good time to break out the worry-o-meter — 1 meaning “no care at all” and 10 meaning “high alert” — to gauge just that.
Where is your worry-o-meter on Josh Allen’s level of play right now?
Graham: Right now, my worry meter is at 8 because for three straight weeks he has played losing-level football. A week after delivering fiery words in support of offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey and two days after another lackluster performance in New England, Allen spent much of Tuesday’s news conference sounding confused and borderline lost about whether his once-swaggerific approach must change. Not only is Allen clearly in his own head lately, but also the assurances he has made about his right shoulder have been unconvincing. One of Allen’s greatest traits is the ability to bounce back. You’re never surprised, no matter how bad a play or sequence just looked, that he will snap out of it on the next snap, next possession or next game. But three straight games is troubling. The past three first halves are inexcusable.
Did Josh Allen hold the Bills’ offense back against the Patriots?
Buscaglia: 3.7. I don’t want to go overboard with the concern on Josh Allen, because he also had three straight weeks of nearly perfect play. But there has been a turn for the worse over the last two weeks. He was able to get away with it against the New York Giants with those two late drives and having a near perfect second half, but the Patriots game looked and felt different than even the Giants game the week before. Allen lacked a certain sharp quality to his game in all facets. He was hesitant to unload the ball to an open underneath target when a free rusher was coming at him. He was hesitant to scramble past the line of scrimmage. He drifted from the pocket when he didn’t need to. His accuracy was a bit all over the place, missing high, low and behind on routine throws he generally makes. And there were some protection issues he could have avoided by sliding his offensive linemen to the way the Patriots defense was threatening. He lacked that dynamic quality that has been commonplace in his game. Even through some of his struggles during his career, he’s always maintained that electric component. But this feels slightly different. With his new “low positive” mentality he discussed Tuesday, a bit of that game day fire we’re used to seeing from him is missing, which can be a good and bad thing. But when the offense lacks playing with an edge for most of the game, that’s a cause for some concern. But I’m keeping my rating on the low side because I could easily see Allen shaking it all off for a huge showing Thursday night.
Considering the injuries and what we just watched Mac Jones and the Patriots do against the Bills, where is your worry-o-meter on the defense’s ability to consistently perform well for the rest of the season?
Graham: Also an 8, with one more long-term injury to another starter about to peg it at 10. Buffalo has deployed a sleeker, faster, smaller defensive scheme. As more inexperienced players are pressed into meaningful roles, opposing offenses are exploiting their size advantage along the line of scrimmage and the inability of linebackers to cover. That’s why we saw all three of the Patriots’ tight ends make crucial plays and why Rhamondre Stevenson ripped off that 34-yard screen play to open the decisive drive. Terrel Bernard was sensational alongside All-Pro Matt Milano and has continued to perform at a high level without him, but being the lead linebacker in a duo with Tyrel Dodson or Dorian Williams has proven a massive drop-off. I know Joe has specific thoughts to share about the D-line’s erosion, too.
Buscaglia: 8.5. Unless defensive tackle DaQuan Jones or linebacker Matt Milano are walking through that door at some point this season, the warning signs of a porous run defense between the tackles are screaming louder after that Patriots outing. Without Ed Oliver, the defensive tackles were getting moved around as the Patriots wanted. Jordan Phillips, Tim Settle and Poona Ford are all there for their pass-rushing prowess, but their run defending and ability to hold the line of scrimmage against single or double teams has fallen well short. The Bills desperately need a true one-technique to put in the lineup every single week. In the past, general manager Brandon Beane often talked about how frustrating it is for an entire team when they repeatedly struggle to stop the run. It’s only compounded by being undecided at linebacker, and their starting safeties beginning to show their age within their play. They need their defensive ends to bail them out, but if they aren’t facing as many third-and-long situations due to the run defense, it’s worth wondering how impactful they can be. I believe the Bills need to make a move at the trade deadline to help the defense.
Where is your meter on Ken Dorsey’s ability to get this offense back on track?
Graham: 7 overall, but I don’t think it’s going to happen Thursday night. The Buccaneers have surrendered only 104 points, fewer than all but the Baltimore Ravens and Dallas Cowboys, so the game should be tight. The Bucs also blitz 38.6 percent of the time, fourth-most in the NFL. That’s going to be a problem for the Bills without tight ends Dawson Knox (wrist surgery) and Quintin Morris (ankle). First-round pick Dalton Kincaid provided excitement against the Patriots with a game-high eight receptions for 75 yards, but he might need to stay in and block Thursday night. That finally could open the door for little-used receivers Deonte Harty, Trent Sherfield and Khalil Shakir, who’ve combined for 27 catches, 232 yards and two TDs. It’s high time to get more creative.
Buscaglia: 5.3 The Bills are only a few weeks removed from pasting the Miami Dolphins, so I don’t think it’s quite at the level of the defensive worries, but hard conversations leading up to the Buccaneers game were critical. Something is amiss within the starts to games over the past three games, and that ultimately falls on the offensive coordinator to iron things out, get his players on the same page and help get the most out of his players every week. The overall offensive environment has become disjointed, much in the way it did near the end of the 2022 season. But there are some reasons for optimism. First, the offensive line play in 2023 is far superior to what they had in 2022, and that will go a long way. Second, putting Kincaid into a higher impact pass-catching role will help their overall outlook. And third, as long as Allen wakes up from his Patriots form, the Bills could get right back on track right in time for the gauntlet of their schedule.
Where is your meter on the Bills’ performance against AFC East rivals so far this season?
Graham: Joe keeps going with decimals. I don’t know why it’s bothering the hell out of me, but it is. So I’ll say 5.6! The Bills went 15-3 in the AFC East the past three seasons, and they already are 1-2 this year. All three rivals have shown signs of growth while the Bills’ once-mighty offense can’t find its identity and their defense is limping around. That loss to the Jets on opening night doesn’t seem so easy to wipe away now that Robert Saleh has figured out how to win a little with Zach Wilson, and the Dolphins remain among the most dangerous teams. Buffalo wearing the AFC East crown had been one of the safest futures bets you can make. Now, it’ll take sweeping the three rematches to post a winning division record.
Buscaglia: 0.4. They crushed the Dolphins at home, and barely lost to the Jets and Patriots on the road in games they probably should have lost by a lot more. If I’m the Bills, I’m more concerned about how the team stacks up with the elite of the AFC than anything else, because there appears to be a pretty big gap between them and the Chiefs as things stand through seven games. With home games against the Jets and Patriots later this year, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the Bills wind up with a 4-2 conference record.
Where is your meter on Baker Mayfield (if he plays) and the Bucs?
Graham: 4.5. I’ve predicted a Bills loss just once so far this season, and each of the past three weeks I’ve had them posting a blowout. I can’t do that anymore, but they should beat the Bucs. This is a third straight “get right” game, which means too much has gone way wrong. While the Bucs are inferior and on the road, so were the Giants. Ought the Bills fret about Mayfield? Not any more than their knees should have knocked against Wilson, Tyrod Taylor or Mac Jones. As mentioned before, Tampa’s defense can keep the scoreboard close, but the offense has provided no explosiveness, averaging 14 points the past four games.
Buscaglia: 2.2. This is a game the Bills should handle, even though the Buccaneers boast a good offensive line and good defensive pieces. But Mayfield is a flawed quarterback, and one the Bills played relatively well against in the past. It’s really all about the start on the offensive side of things, because if they can get to 20-plus points within the first three quarters, I think it’s going to be tough for the Buccaneers to keep pace. So much though — keeping a winning record, getting a win ahead of the start of a seven-game gauntlet with several road tests, the collective belief of the fan base in the 2023 team — is riding on what many would have thought to be a mostly meaningless Thursday night game against a beatable NFC opponent when the schedule came out in April. I think they’ll play with urgency and well enough on offense to claim a victory ahead of their Week 9 game against Cincinnati.
(Top photo: Bryan M. Bennett / Getty Images)