- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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It was an awful mistake by Fitzpatrick. But it also provided a golden opportunity for Buffalo's defense to pick up the offense, which had carried the team all season.
Instead, the Bills' defense allowed the Giants to march 76 yards in nine plays to set up the winning field goal during a 27-24 win for New York. Buffalo's defense offered little resistance when it mattered most and allowed 400-plus yards for the fifth straight game.
"If you want to be a good team, those are the drives where we have to come up with stops," said Bills veteran cornerback Terrence McGee, who had a game-high 11 tackles. "We did the best we could [to hold New York to a field goal]. But we want it to be where they don’t score anything."
Here is the harsh truth: Buffalo's defense is not at that point where it can carry the team. Keep an eye on this development the rest of the season. It could be the difference in the upstart Bills (4-2) making the postseason or watching the playoffs from home.
The numbers were once again ugly for Buffalo, which entered the weekend with the 30th-ranked defense. The Bills allowed 414 total yards, 24 first downs, three rushing touchdowns by Giants tailback Ahmad Bradshaw and didn't force a turnover for the first time all season. New York's five scoring drives were for 69, 84, 89, 75 and 76 yards.
Buffalo's offense was good but not great. The group registered 374 total yards and a respectable 24 points on the road. But every offensive mistake is magnified, because Buffalo's defense hasn't dominated an opponent since a 41-7 win against Kansas City in Week 1.
It is easy to look the other way when the offense outscores opponents, or the defense allows 400 yards but forces several big turnovers. But that is not happening often in Buffalo, and the spotlight is now on the defense after the team lost for the second time in three weeks.
"We have to improve," Bills safety George Wilson said. "If we expect to be able to get a playoff spot and expect to be able to win consistently, we have to. We're going into a bye week. We have some guys banged up and some things to work on. And we gotta get those things accomplished."
Here is how I rank the Bills' three biggest issues on defense:
1. Not winning individual battles: Buffalo rarely wins its one-on-one matchups -- whether it is a pass-rusher trying to beat an offensive lineman, or a defensive back making a key tackle in the open field to prevent a bigger play. The Bills, as a whole, do not have a lot of star power and it is showing every week. The biggest names on the defense are defensive tackle Kyle Williams and outside linebacker Shawne Merriman. Both were injured and didn't play against the Giants.
2. The blitz doesn't work: The Bills are last in the NFL in sacks. They have just four sacks in six games, including zero against New York. Part of this goes back to winning individual battles. But Buffalo has tried to turn up the blitzes in recent weeks, and it still has not disrupted offenses. Giants quarterback Eli Manning looked very comfortable in the pocket against Buffalo. He threw for 292 yards and had a 94.8 passer rating.
"We do have a problem. No bones about it," Bills coach Chan Gailey said. "And we tried to come after [Manning] with five on a lot of third downs in the first half: we still didn't get there. We're going to have to figure something out to generate some kind of pass rush."
3. Up-and-down corners: No group summarizes Buffalo's defense better this season than its cornerbacks. Drayton Florence and Leodis McKelvin have taken turns with bad performances. This week, it was Florence's turn to struggle. He had troubles with penalties and in coverage against Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks (four receptions, 96 yards). Nicks beat Florence for a big, 60-yard catch before halftime that led to a touchdown. Florence also had three pass-interference penalties for 45 yards trying to keep up with Nicks and fellow Giants receiver Mario Manningham (five receptions, 56 yards). McKelvin also had some inconsistent games earlier this season. Buffalo hopes the return of McGee will add depth and stability to this group.
If Buffalo's defense was marginally better and more consistent, who knows? The Bills might be 5-1 or even 6-0 right now. But six games in, you wonder if Buffalo's defense has the potential to drastically improve.
The Bills have a lot to fix during the bye. They won't take the field next until Oct. 30 against the Washington Redskins in Toronto.
But in the big picture, Buffalo is 4-2. Any Bills fans would have taken that record at the beginning of the season. Whether Buffalo continues winning at this pace will come down to the team's ability -- or inability -- to strengthen its weakest link.
4dField Yates and Rich Cimini