| Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
As the play of the game was unfolding Saturday night at Bills Stadium, I wasn’t watching Taron Johnson as he sprinted 101 yards for the touchdown that sent the Buffalo Bills on their way to a 17-3 victory over the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC divisional round.
I was watching the Bills sideline going absolutely berserk, players, coaches, staff members jumping up and down and doing all they could to not run on the field and escort Johnson those glorious final 30 yards.
I was watching the 6,700 fans who had the privilege of being in the stadium, celebrating as one, trying to make up for all the cheering that they couldn’t do during the eight regular-season games when the stadium was off limits because of COVID-19.
What a moment it was for the Bills and their fans, and now they are off to the AFC Championship Game which is one Cleveland Browns upset away on Sunday of being played right back in Buffalo next week, the same place where a previous generation of Bills teams once hosted three such games and won them all.
“I saw him come out of the end zone,” quarterback Josh Allen said. “Usually, when there’s a lot of bodies around you, you’re supposed to stay in. I was afraid he was going to get tackled at the 5 or 10 and all of the sudden … it’s unbelievable. It’s just an unbelievable play, one of those plays that’ll be remembered for a very long time.”
Center Mitch Morse added, “Yeah, it was a jubilant sideline for sure. Just raw emotion, guys were feeling good.”
Johnson said that when he first made the pick, it didn’t even dawn on him what was about to happen. He just started to run, and then he said he realized the magnitude of the moment, “In the middle of the play. I felt like it was a big play, having the opportunity to take it all the way back. I feel like that’s what made it more than just an interception, taking it all the way back and putting points on the board.”
Putting points on the board, taking points off the board for Baltimore. There weren’t many big plays in this odd game, unlike so many Bills games this year where you seem like you have about 20 to choose from. But when one needed to be made, Johnson – who played so poorly early in the season that he was actually benched – came through with one he’ll never forget.
Here’s how I graded the Bills’ performance:
PASS OFFENSE: C+
If you had told me the Bills could win with this game with Josh Allen having one of his least productive performances of the season, I would have said you’re nuts. Well, you’re not nuts, because that’s exactly what happened. Baltimore’s defense was every bit as good as we all expected, and it made things very difficult for Allen. It didn’t help that he seemed a little too hyper in the first half and his decision making was not great, but credit to the Ravens. One big problem was that Cole Beasley was completely taken away by CB Marlon Humphrey, and that hampered the Bills because Beasley is so often the guy that bails out Allen. But here’s where Buffalo’s depth was so important. John Brown, blanked last week, caught eight passes for 62 yards, and Stefon Diggs had yet another huge game with eight catches for 106 yards and a TD. Allen threw for only 206 yards, but 46 came on the most important offensive possession of the game when the Bills scored the Diggs TD early in the third to break a 3-3 tie. Up front, the offensive line did a good job in protection, but it was interesting that the Ravens did not blitz all that much and elected to play coverage, a strategy that actually worked well.
RUN OFFENSE: D
It is clear the Bills have no faith in their run game. How else would you explain Brian Daboll calling 25 pass plays and just one run in the first half? Not that there’s anything wrong with that, ordinarily, because this Buffalo offense functions best when the ball is in Allen’s hands. But it felt like the Bills needed to make a better effort in the first half because the Ravens never had to worry about the run and they seemed ready to cover everything in the pass game because of it. But on that opening third-quarter drive, I thought mixing in the run was the key to scoring. Devin Singletary had runs of 9 and 12 yards and Allen had a 6-yarder on a zone read play, and just by offering it, it opened up the passing game a little bit. By game’s end, the Bills had 16 rushes, almost all of it in the fourth quarter when they were trying to kill clock, and they finished with just 32 yards.
PASS DEFENSE: A-
The Ravens ended up with 222 yards passing, but it never seemed they were ever really a threat through the air because the Bills did such a nice job taking away their best weapon, TE Mark Andrews. He had only four catches for 28 yards, and he of course was the target on the play of the game, nickel CB Taron Johnson’s 101-yard pick six. The Bills were in a zone, Tremaine Edmunds had Andrews initially and then Johnson read Lamar Jackson’s eyes and slid over to make the interception, the play of the year for the Buffalo defense. All night the secondary made it difficult for Jackson to find open receivers, though it must be said that Jackson’s targets didn’t help him as they had several drops. I thought the biggest key in this game was the way the Bills rushed Jackson. They wound up with four sacks, three against him, and they did by coming up the middle and trapping him in the pocket. They showed excellent discipline sticking to their rush lanes, and only a couple times was he able to break contain and make a play with his legs. LBs Matt Milano and Edmunds combined for three pass break ups, while Jerry Hughes had a great night with two sacks.
RUN DEFENSE: B-
Against a team that averages nearly 200 yards per game on the ground, by far the best in the league, the Bills did a fine job for most of the way. It didn’t look good early when the Ravens were ripping off big plays, but once the Bills started to adjust the blocking schemes they were seeing, they held up very well. Jackson finished with only 34 yards rushing before the Bills knocked him out of the game with a concussion. And J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards had identical lines – 10 carries for 42 yards, nothing special. This is a Baltimore offense that scored 186 points in its last five regular season games, so to hold it to three measly points was a monumental achievement, and it all started with slowing the run game. The 150-yard total was a bit inflated by backup QB Ty Huntley running for 32 yards late in the game when the Bills were basically in prevent defense.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C
Well, Tyler Bass will need to get it back together after a tough night. The wind was blowing, and it was cold, and Bass missed two field goals including one in the fourth quarter that would have iced the game. Instead, the defense had to make one more big stop late to prevent it from becoming a one-possession game. Here’s the thing, though. Baltimore’s Justin Tucker, the most accurate kicker in NFL history, also missed twice, which further illuminates that it was a tough night to kick. Bass was again excellent on kickoffs as he produced touchbacks on all four. Andre Roberts’ only kickoff return was a good one, a 26-yarder at the start of the third that gave the Bills a drive start at the 34. And once again, the Bills did not commit a special teams penalty as they had only two called against them, both on defense. Punter Corey Bojorquez did not have a great night with a net average of 31.8 on four punts.
Leslie Frazier may have just raised some eyebrows of the teams looking for a new head coach. He put together a magnificent game plan and his players executed it, holding the Ravens to a measly field goal. It wasn’t always pretty as the Ravens were able to extend drives with third-down conversions, some of them third and long, and that’s why Baltimore had possession of the ball for more than 35 minutes. But whenever the defense needed to stand up, it did, never more obvious than on Johnson’s pick which essentially was a 10-point play, possibly a 14-point play. On offense, Daboll was certainly pass happy early, but he made a key adjustment on that third-quarter drive to mix in the run and it worked. He never found a way to get Beasley away from Humphrey and I thought that hindered Allen. As for Sean McDermott, once again, he had his team ready to go, it was motivated, there were only two penalties. Just an outstanding night for the coaching staff.
Sal Maiorana can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.
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