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From the booth: Falcons at Bills

Posted Dec 3, 2013

As painful as it may be, we’re compelled to take one last look at Buffalo’s giveaway loss to the Atlanta Falcons with a couple of observations from the radio booth:

-There’s no shortage of reasons for Buffalo’s loss to the Falcons, but they had a day-long struggle keeping Atlanta in check when it came to big plays. The Falcons had five passing plays of 20-yards or more in the game-four of them to Roddy White and the other to Harry Douglas. So far this season, the Buffalo defense has given up 41 passing plays of 20-yards or more, but 13 of them have come in the last three games (Atlanta, Jets, Steelers).

The Bills multiple-look pressure defense has produced sacks and interceptions, but the last three games show the downside of dialing up pressure consistently and counting on the secondary to handle receivers in man coverage. But don’t look for Buffalo’s defensive philosophy to change much. They’re committed to creating pressure up front and looking for their defense to make big plays (takeaways and sacks).

-The Bills defense had trouble  stopping Atlanta’s running game Sunday, and three quarters of the way into the season, they’re ranked 24th against the run. In the last three games (win vs. Jets, losses vs. Pittsburgh and Atlanta), they’ve given up an average of 140-yards per game, on an average of 4.9 yards per carry. Buffalo is going to have to shore up its’ run defense down the stretch if they plan on finishing the season on an upbeat note.

-The Bills added six more sacks to their team total Sunday, matching their sack output from week two against Carolina. With 43 sacks already, they’re on pace to finish the year with 57 sacks, which would shatter the franchise record of 50-sacks in the 1964 season.

Buffalo’s first sack against the Falcons came on the third play of the game, and it came via an unusual pressure dialed up by Mike Pettine. The Bills only rushed two players on the third-and-two play—DE Mario Williams and LB Manny Lawson. Four defenders who were lined up on the line of scrimmage dropped into coverage. Lawson went unblocked while Atlanta’s left tackle and left guard stood dumfounded, waiting for someone to block.

-The spotty officiating in Sunday’s game is not the reason the Bills loss, but two critical calls late in the fourth quarter put Atlanta in position to tie the game.

The first call, and the most bothersome one, was the Illegal Contact flag thrown on Bills S Aaron Williams when Atlanta had it 2nd-and-5 at the Bills 23. A careful review of the game tape shows that Williams never made any contact with any Falcons WRs. So let’s assume the officials misidentified the guilty Bills player (an officiating mistake in itself).  Let’s say they someone meant to charge the penalty to CB Nickell Robey, who was covering Falcons WR Harry Douglas. There’s no evidence on tape that Robey made contact with Douglas. Maybe he did. Here’s hoping the league office clarifies the call for Head Coach Doug Marrone this week.

Five plays later, Robey was called for pass interference in the end zone when he got tangled up with Douglas. Review of the tape shows Douglas using two hands to push off Robey in an effort to get open. Robey grabbed Douglas around the collar, probably to prevent himself from going down after the push. The field judge, Buddy Horton, called pass interference on Robey and chose to ignore the two handed shove by the Atlanta receiver. At the very least, it should have been a “no call.” At best, it was offensive pass interference. And given the physical play on both sides in the first 58-minutes of regulation, with Bills WR Marquise Goodwin being roughed up downfield all day, it was an unpredictable, game-changing call.

The Pro Football writer for the Wall Street Journal, Kevin Clark, wrote an article recently about the increase in defensive pass interference calls in the NFL. According to Clark, those calls are up 63-percent over the last five years, while offensive pass interference calls have remained flat. Here’s a link to the article.

-The two Buffalo fumbles four plays apart in the fourth quarter and overtime were obviously the biggest gaffes that led to defeat. For Stevie Johnson, the fourth quarter fumble came after he once again beat Falcons slot CB Robert McClain over the middle. Stevie had success all day long on this play, picking up 15-yards in the first quarter on the exact same call. In the fourth quarter, McClain made a huge play by punching out the ball from behind as Johnson tried to turn it upfield.

It was a costly, critical fumble by Stevie Johnson. But for those who think he has a fumbling problem, it’s just not true. Sunday’s fumble was only Stevie’s third fumble in 72 career games played. In four and a half seasons of football, he has less than one fumble per season.

Drops? The analytics folks at Pro Football Focus say Stevie has five drops this year.  Twenty five NFL receivers have more drops than Johnson, including Calvin Johnson and A.J. Green (9 each).