For head coach Chan Gailey and the Bills’ coaching staff the final score in the Steelers 38-7 rout of Buffalo wasn’t as important as the final grade they will give the starters for their performance on Saturday. In a moment of grand generousity, I’ve decided to save Coach Gailey some time and do it for him:
Ryan Fitzpatrick — C-
Fitzpatrick played the entire first half, completing seven of 18 passes for 89 yards with no touchdowns and no turnovers. Fitzpatrick’s final numbers are a bit deceiving as he was the victim of some dropped passes and missed assignments. However, Fitzpatrick did struggle to complete passes in the teeth of the Steelers famed zone blitz. If the Bills are going to be a true playoff contender this season, Fitzpatrick will have to make first down passes as the pass rush closes in on him. The offensive line will struggle, so it will be up to the entire offence to avoid third and long situations at all costs.
Fred Jackson — A
Fred Jackson’s performance against the Steelers was another example of why his injury caused the Bills’ season to go down the drain in 2011. Jackson carried the ball seven times for 34 yards and scored Buffalo’s only touchdown. More importantly, Jackson averaged 4.9 yards every time he touched the ball. Above everyone else, Jackson is the key in the Bills offence. Since their offensive line is still a work in progress, it’s vital for the Bills to establish the running game and keep opposing defences honest, taking some pressure off Fitzpatrick.
Stevie Johnson — C+
When I spoke of those dropped passes and missed assignments earlier I was referring mainly to Stevie Johnson. These are mistakes that can’t be made in the regular season if the Bills want to run with the big boys in the AFC. That being said, when Johnson did hang to the ball good things happened for the Bills offence.
Offensive line — C
The Bills offensive line received an education in what it takes to protect the quarterback in the face of a first-class blitzing defence. Fair or not, second-round pick Cordy Glenn struggled on Saturday and is going to have to grow up in a hurry at left tackle if the Bills expect to keep Fitzpatrick’s blind side protected.
Defensive line — A
There were times during the first half when the Steelers offensive line was simply overwhelmed by the Bills’ front four. Mario Williams had a strong game with two sacks and two other hits on the quarterback. The real stars on Saturday night were defensive tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams. The pair abused the interior of the Steelers offensive line and was equally effective stuffing the run as they were putting pressure on Ben Roethlisberger.
Special teams — A+
If there is one facet of the Bills game that Chan Gailey doesn’t have to worry about, it’s special teams. Punter Brian Moorman and kicker Rian Lindell are one of the most dependable punter/kicker tandems in the NFL. Time and time again Moorman pinned the Steelers deep in their own end with perfectly placed punts. Leodis McKelvin also had a good night, averaging an impressive 10.8 yards on four punt returns.
Replacement officials — D-
You know things are getting bad with these replacement officials when Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has to take the time to explain the rules to them. Like many people, I’m concerned that once the regular season begins these replacement officials are going to get someone hurt. For a league that is worth billions, would it kill the NFL to give Ed Hochuli and company the money they want? Goodness knows Hochuli needs the money to pay for his gym membership.
The Steelers suffered the most serious injury, when prized first-round draft pick David DeCastro was carted off of the field in the first quarter with what appeared to be a serious leg injury. One of the most highly touted offensive linemen coming out of the draft, DeCastro had his leg bend awkwardly underneath him as he was trying to block Marcell Dareus. Another player fell on top of him and the next thing Mike Tomlin saw was the rookie rolling around the end zone in agony. Not good.
Gailey and his coaching staff will have some tough decisions to make over the next 48 hours. As of 4 p.m. EST on Monday, all NFL teams have to cut down their roster to a maximum of 75 players. Not to diminish the impact of telling all those players that they’re being cut, but Gailey has more important things to worry about right now. There’s no question that the Bills have upgraded their squad from last year and have made strides as a team. But there is still a ways to go before the Bills are in the same class as the Steelers.
The Bills have one final pre-season game Thursday in Detroit before the regular season gets underway on Sept. 9, when Buffalo heads to New York to face the Jets at MetLife Stadium. Between the Detroit game and the start of the regular season the Bills will have to be down to their final 53-man roster as of 9 p.m. EST on Aug. 31. The bottom line is, like all NFL teams, Gailey and the Bills don’t have much time to work out the issues they’re experiencing.