“It starts with me.”
Sean McDermott has used that phrase often this season and did again after his Buffalo Bills couldn’t cling to a 10-point halftime lead and lost to the Philadelphia Eagles, 37-34, in overtime. But where it starts isn’t quite as important as where it ends.
And when it’s been left to McDermott’s defense to make a critical stop with the game on the line, it has often ended with the opposing team celebrating. When is that going to end?
Seven of the nine first-round picks since McDermott arrived in Buffalo have been used on defensive players. The Bills shelled out $120 million to a 33-year-old pass rusher in Von Miller. And when long-time defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier abruptly resigned during the offseason, McDermott decided to take the job himself.
All of those decisions were made in the name of closing out games when Josh Allen and the Buffalo offense provided a lead or to get the ball back for the offense to score. But for the fifth time this season, the Bills couldn’t make a stop when it was necessary.
It was the third time Buffalo gave a game-tying or game-winning drive in the final minute and there were two more where it survived on the final play of the game. Against the Eagles, though, not only did McDermott’s defense give up a game-tying field goal with 20 seconds remaining — on a terrific 59-yard kick by Jake Elliott — but they gave up a game-winning 75-yard touchdown drive in overtime after going up three.
An organization and a coach who believe they are Super Bowl caliber have wilted into mediocrity. In six losses, 78 of Buffalo’s 91 points allowed have come in the fourth quarter, while opponents’ yards per play jump from 5.6 in the first three quarters to 6.4 in the last.
“I look at myself first and I look at the defense after that,” McDermott said. “In the second half we didn’t do enough to win the game. If we were able to come out and shut them down in the second half the way we were in the first half, then yeah. But it’s a team game and so you have opportunities across the board — offensively, defensively and special teams.”
The Bills defense was dynamic in the first half, forcing two turnovers that led to 14 points. And even though the pass rush didn’t sack Jalen Hurts often, it was forcing him into bad throws and throwaways, as he went 4 of 11 for 33 yards in the first half and the Eagles managed just 99 yards and minus-4 yards on the opening possession of the third quarter.
And then Tyler Bass missed one of his two field goals with a chance to go up 20-7. It was a momentum-shifting play, but it shouldn’t have been. Bass had nothing to do with allowing a 36-yard run by D’Andre Swift on the first play of the next series.
And sure, Allen’s interception — his eighth consecutive game with a pick — was a terrible decision, but the defense forced the Eagles into third and 15 after two great plays by Greg Rousseau. The rush pinned Hurts along the sidelines, and then one of the smartest players on the defense made a bone-headed mistake.
Micah Hyde got caught peeking at Hurts for a second and Olamide Zaccheaus — who had five catches all season — slipped behind him for a 29-yard score. High school defensive backs are taught not to let anyone behind them on the first day of practice and there was no need for Hyde to gamble.
Hurts ended up with 210 of his 265 total yards and four of his career-high five touchdowns in the second half and overtime.
“There’s going to be corrections that have to be made,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said after their NFL-best 10th win. “That’s what we do here. We make our corrections. We hold each other accountable, starting with myself, then with our leaders. That’s contagious, the accountability. That’s how you get better.”
McDermott’s statements don’t sound much different, but Sirianni’s feel way differently, likely because the Eagles produce results. The Eagles have trailed at halftime in four consecutive games, but find ways to win. The Bills have not.
Accountability has to fall to McDermott, who can’t seem to find common ground between overly aggressive and conservative. When the Bills got the ball trailing 28-24 with 7:06 remaining, they tried to run out the clock while scoring.
It’s a strategy they’ve used in two other games, only to score a touchdown and leave enough time remaining for the opponent to score, but not enough to respond if they do. And to compound it, McDermott blew two timeouts on the final defensive series and didn’t want to give Allen a chance to win it with 20 seconds left and one timeout.
“I thought about going for it, but just with their pass rushers and 20 seconds, I just wanted to make sure — really, I was trying to end the game a couple of plays before using the timeout on third down,” McDermott said. “I think it was the plus-41 [yard line], trying to make sure we had the right defense there and making a tough field goal, which it was. Emptied out the next one to try and answer the rain, make the kicker think about it a little bit and then he made a 59-yard field goal.”
And then there was overtime. Essentially, all the Bills needed was to not allow a touchdown and they would have a chance to win the game. And McDermott bobbed between too soft and too aggressive.
On third and 4 from the Buffalo 40, the Bills used a soft zone and linebacker Tyrel Dodson — whose weakness is playing in space and had missed two key tackles in the second half — was matched against standout receiver DeVonta Smith. Eleven easy yards.
And with the Eagles on the doorstep, he called an all-out blitz, a failed tactic in late-game situations against the Jacksonville Jaguars, New England Patriots and Denver Broncos, and it failed again, as Hurts scored on a 13-yard run to end the game. That’s not improving, that’s not learning from past mistakes.
McDermott’s famed bend-but-don’t break defense gave up touchdowns on all four trips in the red zone.
“Each and every one of us has to look at ourselves,” McDermott said. “Like I told you, that starts with me. That is what you do. That is what the best do and I know our football team is a darn good football team.”
The Bills now have two weeks to figure out Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, otherwise they will be a darn good football team watching the playoffs from home.