Don’t look now, but the Buffalo Bills currently find themselves first in the AFC East at the quarter mark of the season.
It comes after they pulled off a 23-17 upset of the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday. Coupled with a similarly surprising win for the Carolina Panthers in Foxborough against the New England Patriots, the Bills are now all alone atop the division standings.
Not only does Sunday’s triumph end a four-game losing streak to the defending NFC champions. It also erases a long bout of futility against the Falcons in Atlanta. The last Bills road win came in the inaugural meeting between the two franchises, a 17-6 victory on December 6, 1973.
Such a historic outcome certainly comes with plenty of standout performances. Which players deserve mention for making it possible? Below are the biggest takeaways from Sunday’s game.
Charles Clay Remains Focal Point of Bills Pass Game
2017 appeared to have the feel of a make or break year for Charles Clay in a Bills uniform. His first two years as the team’s go-to tight end were ordinary at best as he finished no better than 16th in the league among tight ends with respect to receiving yards. Four games into the season and already it seems he’s headed for a breakout campaign.
Even though he didn’t find the end zone against the Falcons, he proved an immensely useful target for Tyrod Taylor in a variety of passing situations. Perhaps most promisingly moving forward, two of Clay’s five catches came on deep third throws that resulted in huge gains. Coming into this season, Clay had just four catches of 30 yards or longer. He already has three this year, including two which occurred on Sunday.
The seventh year man out of Tulsa finished the game with 112 yards receiving at 22.4 yards per catch. The latter is a career high in games where he caught more than a single pass. Part of his early season success stems from his quarterback proving the doubters wrong regarding his deep ball ability. But either way, Clay is off to a great start this year and his contribution to the pass game will remain indispensable moving forward.
Bills Defense Takes Advantage of Depleted Falcons Receiving Corps
An obvious key to the Bills pulling off an upset win was figuring out a way to contain Julio Jones. The talented Falcons wideout was already on the injury report this week due to an issue with his back. But as the first half wore on, Jones appeared to be favoring his right hip. It eventually forced him off the field, with the team eventually ruling him out for the rest of the game.
But he wasn’t the only key cog in Atlanta’s receiving corps who left the game due to injury before halftime. Almost around the same time the news regarding Jones broke, Mohamed Sanu joined the list of walking wounded receivers due to a hamstring injury. What it meant was that two players who came into this game accounting for nearly 50 percent of the Falcons’ receiving yards were done after a single half.
Falcons WRs Julio Jones (hip) and Mohamed Sanu (hamstring) have been declared out vs the #Bills
Credit Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian for making the requisite adjustments. After two early second half turnovers, they began to incorporate more screen plays involving their running backs. On Atlanta’s ten-play drive which tied the game 17-17 midway through the fourth, Matt Ryan found Tevin Coleman on two of four pass plays to set up the score.
But over the course of the second half, it became clear that the Falcons were missing Jones and Sanu. It showed perhaps most glaringly on fourth and one from the Bills ten with 44 seconds left. After the snap, Ryan found that none of his receivers were able to separate. In the end, his short pass to Taylor Gabriel sailed high and the Bills offense came onto the field in the victory formation.
Micah Hyde the Latest Bills Defensive Back to Shine
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a unit on defense in the NFL performing better than the Bills secondary. Through three games, all four primary starters, Tre’Davious White, E.J. Gaines, Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, received top 25 grades at their position from Pro Football Focus. Poyer led the team in tackles against the Panthers and finished with two sacks, two tackles for loss, five pass breakups and an interception over the Bills first two games.
White’s dynamic play on the boundary earned him defensive rookie of the year honors for the month of September. It included a game-defining interception against the Denver Broncos and a league-leading seven passes defended over the first three games. And even against the Falcons, he had a scoop-and-score fumble return for a touchdown after Jerry Hughes stripped Ryan of the ball.
Hyde became the latest member of the secondary to have a coming out part of sorts. The fifth-year safety out of Iowa intercepted the current NFL MVP two times. It included taking advantage of an under-thrown Ryan pass deep down the field while also playing centerfield in zone coverage on another. He also added a pair of broken up passes and even ventured into the backfield, registering a tackle for loss.
For just the third time during this current playoff drought, the Bills enter week five as a 3-1 team. And there are plenty of signs suggesting this fast start is sustainable rather than a flash in the pan. Through it all up to this point has been a ball-hawking secondary that continues to emerge as one of the league’s best. If they can continue being a thorn in the side of opposing quarterbacks, the Bills may indeed be playoff worthy in 2017.
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