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PITONIAK: Bills, EJ Simply Awful

Bills fall to 3-7 after 23-10 loss
                A week after the rest of us turned back our clocks, the Buffalo Bills turned theirs back, too. Not back an hour like you and me, but back at least a year or more to a time when the Bills played without a sense of urgency, when more often than not they weren’t competitive.

                The final score Sunday was Pittsburgh 23, Bills 10, but it wasn’t anywhere near that close. This one felt more like 40-3. This one felt, like the bad, old days.

                EJ Manuel’s return after being sidelined a month with a knee injury was putrid. Like the final score, he was much worse than his 22-for-39, 155-yard, one TD, one interception stat line indicated. The rookie from Florida State turned in the kind of performance that conjured memories of Trent Edwards, Rob Johnson and J.P. Losman. It made you forget about the stirring comeback against Carolina and the victory against the defending Super Bowl-champion Ravens. It will cause many to question what the Bills really have in this rookie. It will give ammunition to those advocating the drafting of another quarterback in 2014.

                I think we need to cut EJ a little slack. It’s much too early to make a definitive judgment on him. With just six NFL starts on his ledger, he’s still in the embryonic stages of his NFL career. But I do agree EJ has to show much more consistency and accuracy during the final six games of the season. And he has to become a better decision-maker.

                “One day, I’ll be able to stand here and say, ‘You know what? I’m proud of him. He’s the type of quarterback that we all want,’ ’’ Bills head coach Doug Marrone said after the Bills lost their third straight and fifth in their last six.

                “We can’t put it all on this guy right now. He’s just coming back (from a knee injury). We can run the ball, we can block, we can protect, we can do a lot of these things better. We can make plays, help him out and support him. Everybody can do a better job – including us (the coaches).”

                Equally disappointing Sunday was the Bills inability to run the ball. Folks, this wasn’t the Steel Curtain they were facing. This wasn’t even the same defense that had led the NFL in fewest yards yielded the past two years. This was a wounded Steelers team coming off a franchise-worst performance in which they surrendered 55 points and 610 yards to the Tom Brady-led Patriots the week before.

                 Pittsburgh came into the game with the league’s second worst run defense (131 yards per game). The Bills, meanwhile, boasted the NFL’s second-best rushing attack (146 yards per game). Their strength played into Pittsburgh’s weakness.

                 So what happens?  Buffalo manages just 95 yards on 22 carries. C.J. Spiller, who rushed for 116 yards on just 12 carries the week before against the Kansas City Chiefs stout defense, managed just 23 yards on eight carries vs. the Steelers. And you can’t blame it on a bum ankle that hampered him much of the season because he practiced all last week and wasn’t listed on any injury reports.

                Marrone played it a little too close to the vest in this one. Five times he punted from midfield or closer, including from the Steelers 36 early in the fourth quarter with his team trailing, 17-3. Those conservative decisions were reminiscent of the Dick Jauron, Gregg Williams eras. Sometimes, you have to go for it in those situations. The percentages often are in your favor. Plus, the Bills needed something to snap them from their lethargy.

                With four sacks and a pick against Ben Roethlisberger, Buffalo’s defense played well enough to win, though it could have done a better job stopping the run (136 yards.)

                This game really was a turning point in the Bills season. The Steelers came into the game at 2-6 and coming off the worst defensive performance in the franchise’s 80-year history. They were ripe to be had. But the Bills seemed flatter than tires punctured by rail road spikes.

                Had the Bills won, they might have made a long-shot run at the playoffs because they are embarking on the soft underbelly of the schedule, including back-to-back games with Tampa Bay and Jacksonville following a bye week.

                Now, at 3-7, you can forget about any postseason run. Their ignominious playoff-less streak is about to stretch to 14 years.

                Hopefully, this game was just an anomaly. Hopefully, Manuel can bounce back and show some significant progress down the stretch. And, hopefully, Marrone and his staff can find a way to keep his team playing competitively, the way it had been every game until this one.

                GRADES
                OFFENSE: Three measly points, under 100 rushing yards, too many errant throws by EJ. Just a bad day all-around for this unit, which mustered almost as many punts (9) as it did points (10). Grade: D-minus.
                DEFENSE: Jairus Byrd’s interception set up the Bills first-quarter field goal. And Buffalo did sack Big Ben four times. But they didn’t get the Steelers off the field enough, allowing them to convert eight of 17 third downs. CB Stephon Gilmore didn’t look like an emerging lock down corner. In fact, the Steelers picked on him successfully several times. Grade: C
                SPECIAL TEAMS: Brian Moorman didn’t have a great game and the Bills punt coverage team was burned on a 51-yard return by Antonio Brown. Marcell Dareus was called for offsides on a field goal attempt, setting up a first-and-goal, which the Steelers converted for a touchdown. Grade: C-minus.
                OVERALL: Very, very disappointing performance. For the first time this season, the Bills weren’t competitive in a game. The Jets – this Sunday’s opponent – have followed a win-one, lose-one pattern and are coming off a bye week. This is a winnable game, but only if Buffalo is able to rediscover its run game and Manuel dramatically improves his accuracy and the Bills take a few shots down field.
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