"We've made some huge strides, but we've got some work to do."
That assessment from head coach Sean McDermott sums it up — the Bills approach to the upcoming bye weekend.
The huge strides were evident in back-to-back victories over the Broncos and Falcons. The work to be done centers on fixing Buffalo's struggling offense and surviving some key injuries.
McDermott has already set the agenda for this team for this week which he articulated Tuesday in an appearance on "The John Murphy Show."
"The bye week is good to push back, gain perspective, build self-awareness and then get a little bit of rest at the same time," he said.
In an effort to build self-awareness, here are the top six storylines for the Bills as they take their in-season break:
1. BIG PICTURE – NOT SO BAD
With wins in three of their first five games, the Bills find themselves on top of the AFC East and in third place in the conference. The most recent NFL.com Power Rankings have the Bills 12th in the league. They've gone 2-1 against three of the top seven teams in the rankings (Atlanta-4, Carolina-5, Denver-7) and they only play two more teams in the current top-10 (Chiefs and Patriots).
The bottom line: Buffalo is better than many expected. And nothing is clinched, locked down or guaranteed one-third of the way into the season.
2. UP AGAINST SOME OF THE BEST
The Bills early season offensive struggles have been well chronicled. But they're not playing against air. In fact, Buffalo's offense some of the league's top defensive units in the last month of football.
It matters, according to McDermott.
"When you go up against great competition your flaws get exposed and your weaknesses get highlighted," he said this week. "We have to learn from those opportunities."
A look at the defensive rankings illustrates how great the defenses have been lined up across from the Bills. Obviously, one game against the Bills is baked into the numbers, but the Bills have played four top 10 defenses in the last four weeks, and gone 2-2 against that competition.
They've played the top three defenses in that month: Denver ranked 1st; Cincinnati 2nd; and Carolina 3rd.
Now the good news. In the next month, the Bills will go up against four defenses in the bottom 10 in league rankings. Tampa Bay is currently ranked 30th; Oakland is 23rd; the Jets are 25th; and the Saints are 29th.
The lowest ranked defense the Bills have gone up against so far came in week one. They put up 408 total yards and 190 on the ground against the Jets.
3. WHERE IS THE RUN GAME?**
Despite the competition, it's imperative the Bills find a way to run the ball more productively when the season resumes. They're right in the middle, ranked 16th in the NFL in rushing offense after five weeks, but they're only averaging 3.4 yards per carry.
LeSean McCoy, who looked so dynamic in the preseason and in week one against the Jets, has averaged a paltry 3.2 yards per carry and has yet to find the end zone.
McDermott says the run game must improve, but he's more focused on the bigger offensive picture.
"The most important thing to me is not that we are ranked number one in the running game, but that we are an effective offense that can move the ball. That's all I care about," he says. "Whatever it takes, whether it's the run or the pass, you have to be able to move the ball down the field in some way, shape or form."
"I am focused on the rushing attack but I've also focused on developing the passing attack as well."
4. IS THE O-LINE SET YET?
A big factor in how well the Bills move the ball is how well the offensive line is playing. And the Bills are still doing a bit of tinkering with the line. Rookie Dion Dawkins has started the last three games at left tackle, including last Sunday when Cordy Glenn was active. Free agent pickup Vlad Ducasse started the Bengals game at right guard.
McDermott was asked this week if he'll settle on a starting give up front this week during the bye, and whether he has a timetable to set the lineup.
"I don't think we need to limit ourselves in that way," he answered. "I believe wholeheartedly in open competition. If you're a true competitor it should make you better. Those are the type of guys we want—the guys who feel like every week they have to earn their spot."
There's a chance the Bills could put veteran Seantrel Henderson into the mix also. He's eligible to come off the suspended list this week.
5. A NEED FOR OFFENSIVE FIREPOWER**
When McDermott talks about focusing on developing the passing attack, he's likely pondering what weapons he'll have in the passing game in upcoming weeks. Tight end Charles Clay is out multiple weeks with his knee injury. There's no timetable for a return from wide receiver Jordan Matthews with his thumb injury.
In the parlance, the Bills need someone to "step up" as a passing target. And they need it right away.
Rookie Zay Jones and veterans Andre Holmes and Brandon Tate are obvious candidates. Speedster Kaelin Clay has had plenty of snaps, but he's had just one catch in four games played. At tight end, Nick O'Leary has a chance to fill the void with Charles Clay sidelined. O'Leary produced career highs in receptions (5) and receiving yards (54) in Cincinnati.
And of course, the Bills are looking for more consistent play from QB Tyrod Taylor. If offensive weaponry isn't developed, and soon, the Bills could be in trouble in the final two-thirds of the season.
6. HOME SWEET HOME
The Bills will settle into the friendly confines of New Era Field in the month after the bye, with three of their next four games at home, including the next two.
They're 2-0 in Orchard Park so far this year. And they've made it a point already to put a heavy emphasis on winning at home.
"We've adopted the mantra of 'Defend our Dirt'," McDermott said this week.
"The players tap a sign in the hallway every time they go onto the field that says 'Defend our Dirt.' They know what it means. There's a lot of sweat equity that's been put into this football field and this team, whether it's the players or the fans."
Enjoy the week off. See you at the 'dirt' in Orchard Park next week.