Did great preseason defenses make the Buffalo Bills look worse?

As they exited the 2017 preseason, the Buffalo Bills looked to be in for a rough year of offensive struggles. All-in-all, it looked like the Bills starters were set to struggle after losses to the Minnesota Vikings, Philadelphia Eagles, and Baltimore Ravens. The offense finally found footing in a 27-17 victory over the Detroit Lions, but it was mostly discounted because of the large number of backups playing.

Tyrod Taylor played miserably in three games under new offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, finishing 14-for-29 for only 100 yards, no touchdowns, and two interceptions. He was also sacked four times. LeSean McCoy had difficulty finding room to navigate, with ten rushes for 28 yards and three catches for nine yards. Backup Mike Tolbert played better (going mostly against backups), with ten carries for 47 yards and a touchdown.

Then the Bills played their first game of the season, a 21-12 win over the New York Jets. It’s true that the Jets have a weak roster, but the Bills offense looked in control as it rolled up 190 yards rushing and 228 yards passing. Was the preseason an illusion? Or did the Bills just happen to play against four of the best defenses in the league during August?

In week one, the Vikings clamped down on the New Orleans Saints, who ranked first in offensive yards and second in points scored last season. Granted, the Saints were missing weapons like Brandin Cooks (traded to the Patriots) and Willie Snead (suspended), but their vaunted running back group of Mark Ingram, Adrian Peterson, and Alvin Kamara was held to 60 yards on 21 carries. The final score had 19 points for the Saints, but seven of those were scored with fewer than two minutes remaining, with the game already out of reach.

Philadelphia mostly cruised to a 30-17 win over Washington. Given that seven of Washington’s points came from a Ryan Kerrigan pick-six, the Eagles actually held that offense to only ten points. Kirk Cousins was intercepted once, lost two fumbles, and was sacked four times in a dominant display by the Eagles defense. Jamison Crowder lost another fumble, and Washington only rushed for 58 yards on 24 attempts.

The most impressive performance of the week, by far, came from Buffalo’s third preseason opponent, the Ravens. In a 20-0 beatdown of the Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore intercepted Andy Dalton four times and forced a fumble that they recovered. The Bengals failed to establish the run, with 22 carries for 77 yards. The only thing keeping this blowout from extending further was a lousy 9-for-17, 121 yard, one touchdown and one interception performance from Joe Flacco.

Even the Lions had an outstanding defensive unit in week one. The Lions intercepted Carson Palmer three times, returning one for a touchdown. They also forced two fumbles and recovered one. The Cardinals were held to a miserable 45 yards rushing on 18 carries, and only scored 16 offensive points.

We always hear that the preseason isn’t an accurate way to judge the strength of NFL teams – playbooks are hidden, players are substituted, and the points don’t matter. While that much is true, it’s also true that the outcomes of plays ultimately depend on the individual one-on-one matchups of skill, speed, and strength between players on the field. In their preseason struggles, the Bills may have looked worse than they are by playing four great defenses. Future matchups will demonstrate if this trend has some truth to it.

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