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'Field position' a flimsy reason for Doug Marrone's decision to punt

By Jay Skurski

Priority No. 1 for every Buffalo Bills head coach should be avoiding comparisons to Gregg Williams.

But it was easy to make one Sunday with Doug Marrone.

Trailing the Pittsburgh Steelers, 17-3, at the start of the fourth quarter, Marrone elected to punt on fourth and 5 from the Steelers' 36-yard line.

The decision hearkened back to 2002,  when Williams infamously punting from the New England Patriots' 32-yard line on a fourth-and-2 play in the third quarter of a game the Bills were trailing by 10 points. 

Here was the explanation offered by Marrone for Sunday's call after the game:

"I still think we’re going to get enough possessions trying to play the field position. We weren't able to make big plays, so I was trying to play the field position where we could get good field position and pin them back. I thought the defense was doing well for the most part, except for we gave up a couple plays. Man coverage, we lost a guy. They beat us in man-to-man a couple times. The reverse was a play, we missed that. That's what I was thinking at that time."

The problem with playing field position at that time is that the Bills had done absolutely nothing with it until that point. Buffalo's first three possessions began on the Pittsburgh 29-yard line, the Pittsburgh 44 and the Buffalo 44. The Bills got a field goal on those three drives combined, going three and out twice.

The Bills started at their own 48-yard line on the drive in which Marrone decided to punt. They gained 16 yards on five plays before failing to convert a third and 5. Brian Moorman punted 25 yards to the Pittsburgh 11, where Antonio Brown made a fair catch.

The decision to punt officially backfired when the Steelers converted a third-and-4 play to get the ball out to their 26-yard line. Pittsburgh then gained one more first down before eventually being forced to punt, but by that time the Steelers had flipped the field -- and ran 4:15 off the clock. Mat McBriar's 44-yard punt was returned for a loss of 1 yard by the Bills' Leodis McKelvin, meaning the Bills took over at their 22-yard line with 9:47 to play. EJ Manuel threw an interception on the next play.

Doug Marrone explains scenario in which he would've pulled EJ Manuel

By Jay Skurski

Bills coach Doug Marrone's weekly segment with WGR has quickly become must-listen radio every Friday morning. Marrone last week was asked whether there was a situation in which he would consider making a change at quarterback Sunday by replacing EJ Manuel with Thad Lewis. The entire segment can be heard here.

Given that Manuel went 11 of 25 for 79 yards in the first 55 minutes of Sunday's 23-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field, I asked Marrone today if that's not the scenario in which he'd pull Manuel -- then what would it look like?

"If EJ Manuel looked like he was hurt out there or that prior injury was hurting him to be productive or he was taking too many shots where he was being put in a situation where we couldn’t protect him and those things were going on? Then, yes I would have put Thad Lewis in there and that was the situation I was looking for, which didn’t occur yesterday."

Bills WR Stevie Johnson has new groin injury, old frustrations

By Tim Graham

PITTSBURGH -- Stevie Johnson is frustrated. He's hurt again, and the Buffalo Bills still can't figure out how to win.

Johnson left today's 23-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field with another groin injury, a new one.

"It's the right side now," Johnson told me. He was hobbled in the fourth quarter and finished with three catches for 48 yards. Bills quarterback EJ Manuel targeted him a team-high 10 times.

Johnson has been dogged by groin, lower back and hip injuries much of the year. He will need to get hot over the final six games to record a fourth straight 1,000-yard season. He's on pace for 754 yards as it is.

"It's just one of them years," Johnson said. "It ain't like I'm doing anything different except waking up earlier to get more treatment and doing extra work."

Johnson declined to speculate on how serious his latest groin injury is, but said he wouldn't be able to play next week against the New York Jets if it doesn't improve. The Bills have their bye after that.

"I don't know how it's going to be for next week," Johnson said. "I'm probably going to get triple the treatment I usually get. We'll see if it dies down later in the week.

"If I'm able to work through it, I will. But how I feel right now, I couldn't do it."

Johnson never is at a shortage for confidence in his teammates. He looks at the roster and sees too many good players to be 3-7, at the bottom of the AFC East and essentially out of the playoff picture already.

"It's very frustrating," Johnson said. "It don't seem like we're really doing anything, but there's so much talent on this team. We've got to figure it out. I don't know how, but we've got to find it.

"I think we've got the game plan and the attitude. Everybody wants to win. Everybody wants to dominate. We got great running backs. We got a ton of confidence in them. We got a ton of confidence in our receivers.

"Maybe it's chemistry. Maybe we just need to play more together. As we solidify our main QB, I think our offense will get better."

Points after: Steelers 23, Bills 10

19968 McCoy Sports Bills #8

By Tim Graham

PITTSBURGH -- Quick highlights from the Buffalo Bills' loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers here at Heinz Field ...

What it means: The Bills went into the week insisting they still were in the playoff hunt. We can stop humoring them. They are 3-7 and in last place in the AFC East.

No Manuel transmission: EJ Manuel returned after a four-game injury absence and looked raggedy. Buffalo's first-round draft pick was 22 of 39 for 155 yards and one touchdown with one interception. His completion percentage (and eventually the 2-yard TD toss to Chris Gragg with three seconds left) was aided by the Steelers' prevent defense late in the fourth quarter.

Player of the game: Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell didn't post a boffo stat line, but he was the most important player in the Steelers' impressive ball-control game plan. He ran 22 times for 57 yards and a touchdown.

Bills player of the game: Defensive end Jerry Hughes recorded a pair of sacks. Each came on third down to force a punt.

Symbolic play of the game: The Bills were down only a touchdown when the Steelers lined up for a field goal in the third quarter. Marcell Dareus jumped and was flagged for encroachment, giving the Steelers first and goal at the 6-yard line. Two plays later, Bell scored his touchdown.

Preliminary injury report: Bills receiver Stevie Johnson left the game in the fourth quarter with a groin injury. ... Receiver Chris Hogan was shaken up after making a catch late in the fourth quarter and went straight to the locker room. ... The Steelers had several injuries, including cornerback Shamarko Thomas, left guard Ramon Foster and linebacker LaMarr Woodley.

Coming up: The Bills will host the New York Jets next Sunday in Ralph Wilson Stadium and then go on their by week.

Second-quarter analysis: Steelers control the clock

By Jay Skurski

The Pittsburgh Steelers played keep away from the Buffalo Bills in the second quarter today at Heinz Field.

The Steelers dominated time of possession,with an 11:42 to 3:18 advantage, opening up a 10-3 halftime lead on the Bills.

Pittsburgh scored on a 5-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Jerricho Cotchery, who once again beat Stephon Gilmore in coverage. 

That capped a nine-play, 86-yard drive. 

Williams comes through: Kyle Williams came up with a big defensive play for the Bills when he sacked Roethlisberger on a third-and-goal play from the 7-yard line. That forced Pittsburgh to settle for a 36-yard field goal by Shaun Suisham. 

Still looking: Tight end Chris Gragg is still without a catch for the Buffalo Bills in his rookie season. Gragg had a great chance in the second quarter, but dropped a good throw from rookie quarterback EJ Manuel. The drop negated what would have been a positivef play for the Bills, as Gragg had room to run. 

Wind whipping: Suisham's field goal from 36 yards hit a wall of wind, which seems to be swirling. Kicking off in the same direction, Suisham was able to power it through the end zone, negating an opportunity for Marquise Goodwin. 

First-quarter analysis: Jairus Byrd shows he's back

By Jay Skurski

Bills coach Doug Marrone has talked recently about safety Jairus Byrd being close to making a big play.

The breakthrough came in the first quarter today at Heinz Field against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Byrd made a terrific interception of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on a pass intended for Markus Wheaton. Byrd was playing "Cover One" as the lone deep safety and perfectly read the play down the right sideline, returning the interception 57 yards to the Pittsburgh 29-yard line. 

The Bills weren't able to punch it in with the short field, however, settling for a 20-yard field goal by Dan Carpenter when they were stopped a yard short of the end zone after having first and goal. Rookie quarterback EJ Manuel threw incomplete of a fade pattern intended for Stevie Johnson on third down.

The Bills entered the game 31st in the NFL in red-zone touchdown percentage, converting just 42 percent of the time.

Tough start: Second-year cornerback Stephon Gilmore has struggled at times this season since coming back from a broken wrist. Gilmore took a holding penalty on the Steelers' first drive, then was beaten on third down by Pittsbrugh receiver Jerricho Cotchery. To make matters worse, Gilmore blew the tackle, allowing Cotchery to run for 26 yards.

Tough start II: Manuel's first start back after missing four games because of a knee injury has not been pretty so far. Manuel is 2 of 5 for just 9 yards. He has rushed once for 8 yards, picking up a first down in the process. And yes, Manuel slid at the end of the play to avoid taking a hit. 

Good drive starts: The Bills started three drives in the first quarter from the Pittsburgh 29, the Pittsburgh 44 and their own 44. They have just a 3-0 lead to show for it, however, after going three and out on their final two possessions of the first quarter.

On the line from Vegas: Wise guys dumping money on Bills this week

By Tim Graham

Las Vegas wise guys love the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.

The savviest bettors, the ones that make sportsbooks jump, have bet enough money on the Bills throughout the week to cut the spread in half.

The Pittsburgh Steelers opened as five-point favorites, but the spread has dwindled to 2.5 points at some offshore betting sites as of this posting.

"I thought five was a little high, especially with the possibility of EJ Manuel playing," Las Vegas handicapper and former oddsmaker Joel Staniszewski said. "As the week went on, it started to drop and drop and drop. With the announcement EJ Manuel's going to start, it dropped to three and with heavy juice on the Bills.

"They're definitely getting lots of bets. People who are betting enough money to move a line are the sharp bettors."

Who would've expected this three months ago?

The Steelers are perennial contenders. They haven't had a losing record since 2003. But they are 2-6 entering Sunday's game at Heinz Field and are coming off a loss in which they allowed a club-record 55 points.

"They appear to be teams in two different directions," Staniszewski said. "Pittsburgh appears to be getting older, where the stars just aren't performing like they used to. Buffalo has the young, up-and-coming players that might be one draft and offseason away from doing some damage."

Some trends for informational purposes:

  • Buffalo is 1-4 straight up over its past five games.
  • Buffalo is 1-5 against the spread over the past six games on the road.
  • Buffalo is 1-7 straight up over the past eight games on the road.
  • Buffalo is 1-8 against the spread and straight up in its past nine games against Pittsburgh.

However, and more importantly:

  • Buffalo is 6-1 against the spread after its past seven straight-up losses.
  • Pittsburgh is 1-5 against the spread over its past six straight-up losses.

"Those two stats are key for this year," Staniszewski said. "It's showing you the Bills, although a young team that has trouble finishing games, come back and play well -- even with Thad Lewis or Jeff Tuel at quarterback.

"The Steelers have done poorly and just are not playing well. Ben Roethlisberger is off his game. Their run game is not doing well. They're definitely on the decline."

A critical matchup is Buffalo's pass rush against a ramshackle Pittsburgh offensive line. Buffalo is tied for third with 29 sacks. Pittsburgh has surrendered 32, tied for second-most.

The Bills are 5-4 against the spread after starting the season 5-2.

EJ Manuel will start at QB; Manny Lawson questionable

By Mark Gaughan

Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone confirmed EJ Manuel will start at quarterback, as expected, against the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday.

Starting strong-side linebacker Manny Lawson is questionable and was excused from practice Friday, Marrone said.

"Manny Lawson, I spoke to him this morning," Marrone said. "I excused him. It's not injury related. He's taking care of some personal issues."

Manuel practiced fully for a third straight day and will return after a four-week absence due to a sprained knee. If Lawson can not play, it's expected Jerry Hughes would see much of the action in his place, with Nigel Bradham likely seeing some added snaps, as well.

"Full participation was EJ Manuel, Thad Lewis, Kyle Williams and Marquise Goodwin," Marrone said. "So Marquise is good."

Goodwin, the rookie receiver from Texas, had been bothered by a sore hamstring, but his presence should be significant for the Bills' offense. Goodwin caught a 59-yard touchdown pass against Kansas City Sunday.

Thad Lewis, the No. 2 QB, missed the K.C. game with sore ribs. Kyle Williams has been taking Wednesdays off to rest his Achilles tendon.

Rookie receiver Robert Woods (ankle) did not practice and is not expected to play Sunday, although he will make the trip to Pittsburgh.

EJ Manuel, Thad Lewis appear ready for Pittsburgh

By Tim Graham

Looks like Jeff Tuel will go from starter one week to inactive the next.

Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone announced today that recovering quarterbacks EJ Manuel and Thad Lewis made it through practice fine and are on track to dress for Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. A final determination has yet to be made, but Tuel seems the odd man out.

"EJ wasn't sore or anything," Marrone said of Manuel's response to Wednesday's practice. "That was the one thing we were waiting for. Barring any setbacks the next couple days, both he and Thad are ready."

Unless Manuel's knee experiences a problem between now and kickoff, the Bills will start their third quarterback in three weeks.

Marrone added that as long as both are healthy, the Bills will continue their habit of keeping only two quarterbacks active for the game.

The concern with dressing a third quarterback is wasting an active roster spot on a player with a better likelihood of contributing. Teams like to have as many linemen or special-teamers on hand as possible.

"If someone's not 100 percent healthy, you might go in with three" quarterbacks, Marrone said. "But a lot of times you've got to be careful because a lot of times the position it affects the most are special teams."

Rookie receiver Marquise Goodwin was limited at today's practice, while colleague Robert Woods was absent.

Marrone said Goodwin "will be ready to go from what I've seen today. Woods will make the trip to Pittsburgh and probably be a game-time decision.

Marrone also announced newly signed fullback Evan Rodriguez will play Sunday, at least on special teams.

EJ Manuel expected to start Sunday against Steelers

By Tim Graham

All signs point to EJ Manuel starting Sunday.

Vegas-style, neon signs.

Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marrone echoed earlier comments from club president Russ Brandon that Manuel should be good to go for Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field.

Manuel also said he'll be ready to play, although the team will make the call.

"I definitely feel like I can go," Manuel said. "It's still up to Coach Marrone as far as what we want to do as a team, but I definitely feel confident going into Sunday."

Marrone explained he wanted to see Manuel practice more this week before making a definitive announcement.

"The expectations if he's out there, obviously, are for us to win," Marrone said. "I think that what we have to be able to understand is, 'Here's a rookie quarterback that missed some time in the preseason and, obviously, now he's missed another four weeks.'

"So we have to do the best job we can to make sure he's ready."

The Bills have gone 1-3 since Manuel suffered a right knee injury in Week Five.

Manuel and Thad Lewis, whose sore ribs sidelined him from Sunday's loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, took reps at today's practice, but Manuel had a majority of them.

"Both guys, obviously, have been out for a while," Marrone said. "So there's a little bit of, for lack of a better term, rust that they're working through.

"I'm just going to keep it going during the week and we'll see where we go as far as who the starter is."

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About Press Coverage

Tim Graham

Tim Graham

Tim Graham returned to The Buffalo News in 2011 after covering the NFL for three years at ESPN and for one year at the Palm Beach Post. Before that, the Cleveland native spent seven seasons on the Buffalo Sabres beat for The News and was president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.

@ByTimGraham |

Mark Gaughan

Mark Gaughan

Buffalo native Mark Gaughan started working at The News in 1980 and has been covering the Bills exclusively since 1992. He is a former president of the Pro Football Writers of America, and he is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee.

@gggaughan |

Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski joined The News in January 2009. The Lewiston native attended St. Francis High School before graduating from the University of South Florida. He writes a weekly Fantasy column in addition to his beat writing duties.

@JaySkurski |