Buffalo Bills vs New England Patriots: Here's what McDermott, players are saying

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ORCHARD PARK - The NFL announced the initial rosters for the 2022 Pro Bowl Wednesday night and for the Buffalo Bills, wide receiver Stefon Diggs and offensive tackle Dion Dawkins were voted onto the AFC team.

For Diggs it is his second straight berth while Dawkins was selected for the first time. Neither was chosen as a starter.

The Bills also had nine players on the various levels of alternate lists which are compiled in case selected players can’t play because of injury, unavailability (playing in the Super Bowl) or they don’t wish to participate. Quarterback Josh Allen and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds are first alternates and will most likely end up on the team, if they choose to accept.

Second alternates are tight end Dawson Knox and special teamer Tyler Matakevich who also have a good chance of getting into the game. Safety Jordan Poyer and long snapper Reid Ferguson are third alternates, safety Micah Hyde is a fourth alternate, and center Mitch Morse and kicker Tyler Bass are fifth alternates.

My thoughts: Dawkins made the team? All I can say is it must have been a really bad year for offensive tackles. Pro Football Focus certainly isn’t the be all, end all when it comes to evaluating players, but their grading system provides nuance and context and Dawkins, by their measure, has no business being in the Pro Bowl.

Among tackles who have played at least 50% of the offensive snaps, PFF has Dawkins graded as the 36th-most effective player. They have the two starters, Rashawn Slater of the Chargers and Orlando Brown of the Chiefs at 14 and 26, respectively.

I don’t need PFF to know that Dawkins has not had a good season, but according to PFF’s grades, they agree this has been his worst season since he joined the Bills in 2017.

Justin Herbert (starter), Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson are the three AFC quarterbacks. Jackson over Allen is laughably absurd. Jackson has totaled 3,649 passing and rushing yards combined with 18 touchdowns and 16 turnovers while Allen has totaled 4,289 yards with 35 touchdowns and 15 turnovers. You just shake your head.

Edmunds is on the Pro Bowl track, meaning people have seen his name and now he gets votes even though, I think most of us can agree, he’s not one of the best linebackers in the AFC. In fact, he’s not even the best linebacker on his own team yet Matt Milano isn’t even an alternate at any level. It’s crazy.

As for Hyde and Poyer, here’s what I think happened to them. As a tandem, they may be the best in the NFL, and if voters had to pick starting duos, they might get in. But as individuals, they get overlooked which is a shame because think about what the Bills’ defense would be without those two.

And when you look at the safeties who made the team, Kevin Byard of the Titans, Derwin James of the Chargers and Tyrann Mathieu of the Chiefs, all three have had excellent seasons.

Being voted to the Pro Bowl matters to the players, mainly because it might mean built-in contract incentive payments, plus it’s an extra intangible to put on a free agent resume which could drive a higher salary. They’d rather not play in the silly and meaningless game, but getting picked is important.

However, the Pro Bowl is not at all a reflection on who the true best players in the sport are, so keep that in mind before you scream about the Bills getting no starters and only two reserves in.

Bills’ missed tackles were a problem in first Patriots game

The memories are not pleasant ones, not for the Buffalo Bills defense, not for their rabid fan base.

The sight of New England running backs Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson running through or around Leslie Frazier’s No. 1-ranked defense three weeks ago was jarring, and it was one of the keys to why the Patriots defeated the Bills 14-10 on a windswept night at Highmark Stadium.

Because of the absurdly windy conditions, the Patriots threw only three passes while running 46 times for 222 yards, and that yardage total was due in part to some shoddy tackling on the part of the Bills.

According to Pro Football Focus, the Bills had 14 missed tackles in that game and it led to a situation where New England’s ball carriers gained 144 rushing yards after first contact. Stevenson was a major problem as 74 of his 78 yards came after contact and he forced an astonishing nine missed tackles.

Patriots running back Rhamondre Stevenson rushed for 78 yards in a 14-10 win over the Bills.
Patriots running back Rhamondre Stevenson rushed for 78 yards in a 14-10 win over the Bills.

Edmunds had the dubious distinction of leading the Bills in that category with four, and he also took a poor angle and left the cutback lane wide open on Harris’ 64-yard TD run in the first quarter that gave New England a lead it never relinquished. That was a play where there were no missed tackles because not a single Bills defender laid a hand on Harris.

“Yeah our last game with them, we were talking about it earlier today, was our worst tackling performance,” Poyer said Wednesday. “And it’s just something that, there’s so much you can do throughout a week but really getting that live situation that, those are the situations you got to bring the guy down. It’s not easy to tackle, but at the same time, definitely something that we’ve been working on since the offseason really, we’ve always worked on tackling. At the end of the day you’ve got to want to bring somebody down if you’re tackling somebody so it’s also a mindset.”

The Bills also had 14 missed tackles in the victory at Miami and in the loss to Indianapolis, but their next highest total is nine against Tampa Bay which indicates that for most of the year, they’ve wrapped up pretty well.

Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier was asked about the Bills’ tackling on Monday.

“We take a lot of pride in our tackling, and really doing all we can to create negative plays,” he said. “We traditionally have been near the top of the league in creating negative plays on early downs. There’s a little bit of give and take it seems with us doing that because we’ve also had the missed tackles along the way.

“We’re continuing to work on it and try to improve that part of it because in order to be a good run defense you have to be a good tackling defense as well. We want to make sure we’re getting guys to the ball and then once we’re there making that tackle, and not always leaving it on one guy to make the tackle but getting population around the ball to limit the explosive runs in particular.”

Through 14 games, PFF has recorded 107 missed tackles for the Buffalo defense, an average of 7.6 which isn’t terrible. Leading the way areMilano with 11 and Taron Johnson with 10, but to be fair, those two plus Edmunds are among the four leading tacklers and they are involved in a large number of plays around the ball so naturally their missed tackle numbers will be a bit higher.

Obviously, the Bills have to do a better job of tackling Sunday when the teams meet again at Gillette Stadium.

Bills dealing with a mini-COVID-19 outbreak

Cole Beasley will not be able to play against the Patriots Sunday after testing positive for COVID-19.
Cole Beasley will not be able to play against the Patriots Sunday after testing positive for COVID-19.

Like just about every team in the NFL, the Bills are dealing with a coronavirus disruption as five players on their 53-man roster have tested positive and are currently on the reserve/COVID-19 list through Wednesday’s testing.

Of course, the most notable player is wide receiver Cole Beasley, the Bills’ second-leading pass catcher who continues to refuse to get vaccinated and now will have to sit out a minimum 10 days.

Also on the list are defensive end A.J. Epenesa, linebacker Tyrell Dodson, and offensive linemen Dion Dawkins and Jon Feliciano, plus three practice squad players, defensive end Mike Love, tight end Quintin Morris, and offensive lineman Bobby Hart.

“Not going to get into that,” coach Sean McDermott said Wednesday morning before the Bills took the field inside Highmark Stadium for a walk-through practice.

“Obviously, we’ve talked before about mutual respect and people’s opinions and people’s choices. So that’s what I’m going to leave that at, and other than that, I really can’t get into the COVID situation and protocols. I’m focused on the Patriots and the guys in the building, and certainly with all the guys we have out with COVID, I think seven, Cole being one of those, we want them back as healthy as possible, and as quickly as possible. You know, that’s where we’re at.”

Tuesday night, Beasley used his Instagram account to post the following message:

“Just to be clear: Covid is not keeping me out of this game. The rules are. Vaxxed players are playing with Covid every week now because they don’t test. One of my vaxxed teammates is in the hospital missing games. I’m sure he didn’t get this same energy. Thank you for those who support. To everyone else, if you don’t get what’s happening there is nothing anybody can do for you.”

Beasley is never going to change his stance, so for as long as COVID is still disrupting our lives, he’s going to be more susceptible to getting it, and thus will continue to potentially hurt the team by his absence.

To date, NFL protocols have had vaccinated players testing weekly and unvaccinated players testing daily, something Beasley says is unfair. The league, in conjunction with the NFL Players’ Association, issued new guidelines last week that allow vaccinated players to return as soon as the next day after a positive test provided a player is asymptomatic for 24 hours. But nothing changes for unvaccinated players.

Had Beasley been vaccinated and suffered a breakthrough case, he could have tested positive a couple times near the end of the week and been able to play. But he’s not, so he’s out and the Bills will likely have to turn to Isaiah McKenzie to play the slot position in the biggest game of the season Sunday at New England.

When he was asked about the Beasley situation Wednesday, quarterback Josh Allen predictably steered clear.

“It’s really not my place to speak on that,” he said. “He’s one of our best players. Whether he was vaccinated or not, if he got it he’d still be out. So that’s that’s kind of my stance on that. I’m just trying to be the best quarterback I can be. Be the best teammate I can be for this team and try to try to go win a game on Sunday. So all that stuff, for me it’s minutia. So I try to pay as little attention to it as possible.”

Tight game expected and Bills are 0-5 this year

One reason why the Bills won 15 games counting playoffs last year was their success in one-possession games. They were 6-1 in games decided by eight points or less and the only defeat was the Hail Murray fiasco in Arizona.

This season, one reason why the Bills have already lost six of 14 games is their struggles in close games All eight of their victories have come by 15 points or more, but they are 0-5 in one-possession games.

One of those losses was to New England in Week 13, and one could expect another tight affair in the rematch Sunday.

“I guess that’s football because I think last year in one-possession games, we were like almost the opposite,” Allen correctly pointed out. “So part of it is the game. The other team gets paid, too, but at the end of the day, we’ve got to continue to try to make plays and execute a game plan and put ourselves in position to win football games instead of not winning.”

Window not closed on Emmanuel Sanders' return

Emmanuel Sanders is trying to battle back from a knee injury suffered against Tampa Bay.
Emmanuel Sanders is trying to battle back from a knee injury suffered against Tampa Bay.

When the veteran wide receiver went down in the first half of the loss to Tampa Bay, it felt like his knee injury might knock him out for multiple games. That still might be the case, but after sitting out last week’s victory over Carolina, McDermott said Sanders would be on the field for the Wednesday walk-through.

“Yeah, he’ll be out there today,” McDermott said. “We’ll just see how it goes, taking it one day at a time here starting today.”

The chances are that Sanders won’t be able to play, and that’s a problem for the Bills with Beasley sidelined by COVID. They are two of Buffalo’s top three receivers, responsible for a combined 116 catches for 1,246 yards and five TDs, so if Sanders can’t play, the burden will fall to Stefon Diggs, Gabriel Davis, Isaiah McKenzie, and possibly Marquez Stevenson or Jake Kumerow in New England.

“I think it’d be a big boost for us just given his talent level and the juice and the knowledge that he brings, so whether he’s ready to go or not, not up to me, but we’ll see,” said Allen. “I want him out on the field with us.”

It has been a tough time for Sanders as he suffered his injury, plus he is mourning the loss of his former Broncos teammate Demaryius Thomas who passed away at the age of 33.

“Yeah, it’s been impressive,” McDermott said of how Sanders has handled everything. “He’s a pro and he’s played in this league for a long time for a reason. And it’s not just because of his on the field talent. He’s just wired the right way, he works extremely hard … I really appreciate his influence our team.”

Bills extend stadium vaccination policy to children

There are two home games remaining this season - Jan. 2 against the Falcons and Jan. 9 against the Jets. Previously, all attendees 12 years old and up had to provide proof of vaccination.

That has changed. In accordance with the New York State mandate, the Bills and Highmark Stadium are updating the vaccination policy. Beginning immediately, all guests 5-11 will be required to present proof of at least the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine for entry into all events, concerts, and Bills games.

This also extends to all events at Key Bank Center including Buffalo Sabres and Buffalo Bandits games. Blue Cross Arena in Rochester is also extending its policy for Amerks and Knighthawks games.

Fans can provide proof with a physical vaccination card (a photo of the card on your phone or a photo of a physical card will not be accepted); the New York State Excelsior Pass; or a government digital vaccine proof from outside New York State. Also, a negative COVID-19 test result will not be accepted for entry. There will be no exceptions made to the vaccine requirement.

Sal Maiorana can be reached at maiorana@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.

This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Buffalo Bills vs New England Patriots: what coach, players are saying