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Third-quarter analysis: Kiko Alonso's fumble recovery sets up score

By Jay Skurski    

TORONTO -- Rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso caem through with a huge play today just when the Buffalo Bills' defense needed it most. 

Alonso recovered a fumble by Atlanta running back Steven Jackson, giving the Bills the ball at the Falcons' 21-yard line.

On the next play, running back Fred Jackson took a short completion of rookie quarterback EJ Manuel to the end zone, tying the game at 24 after Dan Carpenter's extra point. To that point, Buffalo had run only seven offensive plays in third quarter, and managed just one first down.

The Falcons had taken their first lead on an 11-yard touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to tight end Tony Gonzalez. That completed a 10-play, 56-yard drive.

Three and out: The Bills started the second half the way they ended the first, with a three and out on their first possession of the third quarter. Manuel attempted to find tight end Scott Chandler on a third-and-7 play, but the ball was knocked away by Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon.

Gilmore gets burned: Cornerback Stephon Gilmore continues to struggle for the Bills. Gilmore was beaten by Atlanta receiver Harry Douglas for a 13-yard gain on a play that looked like it was going to be a touchdown, but was reversed after a replay review. Douglas beat Gilmore inside, then bounced off a hit from safety Jairus Byrd before diving for the goal line. Earlier in the quarter, Gilmore took an illegal-use-of-hands penalty, giving Atlanta a first down when it would have been third and 14.

Stats watch: The Bills held the ball for only 3:52 in that quarter, compared to 11:08 for Atlanta. The Falcons went 4 of 5 on third down, while the Bills were 0 for 3.

Gilmore returns after injuring leg

Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore was injured early in the third quarter making a goal-line tackle on Falcons running back Steven Jackson, who lost half a yard on the play.

Gilmore, who was flagged for a hands-to-the-face penalty early in the second-half drive, was getting his leg stretched on the sidelines after the play.

Ron Brooks, his replacement, gave up a TD pass two plays later.

Gilmore returned later in the third quarter

 

Second-quarter analysis: Big runs get Falcons back in game

By Jay Skurski

TORONTO – A pair of defensive breakdowns have let the Atlanta Falcons back into today's game against the Buffalo Bills.

Falcons rookie running back Antone Smith went 38 yards to the house in the second quarter today at Rogers Centre, cutting the Buffalo lead to 17-14.

Smith, who came into the game with just four career carries (which he had gained 107 yards on), went untouched down the left sideline. Bills rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso appeared to over pursue the play to give Smith a lane.

Falcons veteran running back Steven Jackson opened the scoring for Atlanta in the first half with a 27-yard touchdown run, his longest since 2011.

Atlanta tied the game at 17-17 on a 49-yard field goal by Matt Bryant to end the first half. The Falcons completed a big third-and-10 play on the drive with a 22-yard completion from Matt Ryan to Roddy White, who beat the coverage of Stephon Gilmore.

Long drive stalls: The Bills put together a 15-play drive on their first possession of the second quarter, but had to settle for a 29-yard Dan Carpenter field goal. Rookie quarterback EJ Manuel threw short of the first-down marker incomplete to Stevie Johnson on third down.

C.J. nicked, but still going: Bills running back C.J. Spiller has carried nine times for 105 yards. Spiller, though, has had to check himself out of the lineup a few times, as it appears his left high-ankle sprain continues to give him some level of discomfort.

Presented without comment: Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is in attendance, wearing a Fred Jackson jersey.

First-quarter analysis: EJ Manuel bounces back from big hit, has Bills up

By Jay Skurski

TORONTO -- Exhale, Bills fans.

Quarterback EJ Manuel looks to be fine after briefly leaving today’s game against the Atlanta Falcons in the Rogers Centre.

Manuel missed one play after being drilled by Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon during Buffalo’s second offensive possession. Backup Thad Lewis handed off, then Manuel returned to lead a nine-play, 59-yard drive. Manuel has directed two scoring drives for the Bills so far, giving his team a 14-7 lead.

He finished Buffalo’s first drive with his firs career rushing touchdown – a 1-yard run on which he dove for the pylon in the front-right corner of the end zone, hitting it with the ball. Manuel was initially ruled out of bounds, but the play was reviewed and overturned.

On Buffalo’s second offensive possession, Manuel connected with Stevie Johnson twice on third-and-1 plays for first down. Fred Jackson finished the drive off with a 4-yard touchdown run, dragging three defenders in with him.

Run, C.J., run: Bills running back C.J. Spiller’s first carry went for just 2 yards. He did just a little better on the next one. Spiller ripped off a 77-yard run – the longest of his career – on Buffalo’s second offensive play, setting up a first-and-goal at the Atlanta 6-yard line.

Sack party: The Falcons lost 5 yards on their first two possessions – each of which ended with Buffalo sacks. On Atlanta’s third offensive play, quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked by linebacker Manny Lawson, who was untouched coming off the right side of the Bills’ defensive line. On the Falcons’s next possession, Ryan was dropped again on third down, this time by Bills linebacker Jerry Hughes.

Where’s everybody at: The capacity for today’s game in the Rogers Centre is 46,470. There was about a quarter of that in the stands for the 4:05 p.m. kickoff. The stands have slowly filled in – there were apparently massive lines outside the stadium – but it would be a shock if more than 30,000 people are in attendance today.

Kyle Williams active for Bills

By Tim Graham

TORONTO -- Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams will dress for this afternoon's game against the Atlanta Falcons in the Rogers Centre.

Williams' status was suddenly in question when he wrenched his back getting out of bed Friday morning.

The inactives:

Atlanta Falcons

  • Running back Josh Vaughan
  • Guard Harland Gunn
  • Tackle Terren Jones
  • Tackle Sean Locklear
  • Defensive tackle Travian Robertson
  • Linebacker Omar Gaither
  • Safety Kemal Ishmael

Buffalo Bills

  • Quarterback Jeff Tuel
  • Running back Ronnie Wingo
  • Tight end Chris Gragg
  • Guard J.J. Unga
  • Guard Antoine McClain
  • Linebacker Ty Powell
  • Cornerback Brandon Smith

Brian Mitchell calls safety measures 'smoke screens,' suggests NFL doctoring K-balls

By Tim Graham

This week's NFL Sunday feature in The Buffalo News is about the disappearing kickoff return. Among the people I interviewed was Brian Mitchell, the NFL's all-time leader in kickoff and punt return yards.

In addition to moving kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35 two years ago and eliminating wedges in 2009, Mitchell alleged the NFL has undertaken a more subterranean method to generating more touchbacks.

An excerpt from today's feature:

Mitchell is disgusted with what the NFL is doing to his former occupation.

He rewrote the NFL's kick-return record books in his 14 seasons. Nobody has fielded more returns. He amassed more than 1,000 yards on kick returns nine times. He ranks second in all-purpose yards, 230 behind Jerry Rice.

Mitchell would rather hold onto those records legitimately than have rules erase would-be challengers.

He asserted special teams are being used as scapegoats for safety.

NFL Commissioner "Roger Goodell and the people in the league have thrown more smoke screens out there to make fans think they're doing stuff to prevent head injuries, and they haven’t done a damn thing," Mitchell said.

"Legal hits are being fined these days. Fans say, 'The game is being cleaned up.' No, they're making you think that they're doing more just by fining because the guys get fined, they appeal and a lot of times they win their appeals, which you don't hear about as much.

"I think it's a bunch of B.S. what they're doing. Every year, concussions have gone up."

As part of its report on NFL head injuries, the PBS series "Frontline" created a concussion database from official injury reports dating to 2009, when there were 92 reported concussions. There were 129 concussions in 2010, 142 in 2011 and 171 last year.

There have been 88 reported concussions this year, a pace of 125, the first annual decline if the trend holds up.

Mitchell told The Buffalo News he sees clues of a conspiracy to induce more touchbacks. He suggested the NFL is fiddling with the K-balls that are used only for kicks and punts.

K-balls were introduced in 1999 because players and equipment managers were manipulating game balls -- tumbling them in a clothes dryer, pounding them with dumbbells, soaking them in hot water -- to make them easier to kick.

To halt shenanigans, the NFL had 12 K-balls shipped directly from Wilson Sporting Goods to each officiating crew. The box is sealed with tamper-proof tape and popped open two hours before the game. K-balls never are to be unsupervised.

Once implemented, kickers and punters complained. The K-balls were too waxy and stiff, didn’t travel as far and permitted juicier return opportunities. Thrilling returns were what the NFL desired at the time.

Twenty years later, is the shoe on the other foot? Mitchell claimed the K-balls could be altered at the factory at the league’s whim.

"There are guys that couldn't kick the ball in the end zone when they were kicking from the 30," Mitchell said. "Now they're at the 35 and kicking it out of the end zone. Is it leg strength, or are the footballs doctored up now?"

Touchback percentages not only skyrocketed in 2011 compared to the previous season, but also compared to the last time the NFL kicked off from the 35-yard line.

In 1993, the touchback percentage was a relatively modest 26.5 percent from the 35-yard line. That also was the last season the NFL allowed 3-inch kicking tees. Tees now are an inch high to reduce hang time.

So in 20 years, kickers are blasting the ball farther and more consistently off a shorter tee.

"What is the league doing?" Mitchell said. "I know these kickers ain't got that strong that quick. It doesn't add up. It does seem like they’re trying to take kickoffs out of the game, doesn't it?"

In response to Mitchell’s allegation, two NFL spokesmen emphasized K-balls were tamper-proof and "introduced specifically to prevent tampering."

Informed of the league's reply, Mitchell texted: "LOL."

NFL Sunday Outtakes: Rules taking club foot out of kicker's bag

By Tim Graham

Where have all the kick returns gone?

They've become mostly immaterial.

Only three kickoffs have been returned for touchdowns this year. The NFL is on pace for four kickoff TDs by season's end, fewest since 1993.

The Buffalo Bills are among three teams on track to challenge the 1944 New York Giants for fewest kickoff returns. Those Giants made 17 returns in a 10-game season.

For this week's NFL Sunday feature in The Buffalo News, I dialed up legends Brian Mitchell, Mel Gray and Abe Woodson -- 29,802 kickoff return yards, 8,708 punt return yards and 29 return touchdowns among them -- for their perspectives on a part of the game that's not as thrilling as it used to be.

Bills coach Doug Marrone and returners Leodis McKelvin and Marquise Goodwin also shared their thoughts about a supposed team strength that has been nonexistent.

Here's another perspective. Kickers are being impacted, too.

"The reason they're getting fazed out is a safety issue," Bills kicker Dan Carpenter said. "They're trying to eliminate or cut down on the high-end collisions."

With concussions a hot-button issue, the NFL has made it more difficult for return men to make plays. Blocking wedges larger than two players were eliminated in 2009. The kickoff spot was moved from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line in 2011.

Kickers are driving the ball. Return men are more reluctant to bring out kicks that fall deep in the end zone.

Touchbacks occur on 53 percent of kickoffs now, up from 16.4 percent in 2010. They happened about 8 or 9 percent of the time from 2000 through 2005.

The NFL has considered eliminating kickoffs completely.

"It's tough when you only do certain things in your job title," Carpenter said. "The thought that one of those things might be taken away ... Obviously, the game would change. Our position and what teams are looking for in a kicker would change."

Carpenter probably would benefit if kickoffs vanished. He's an accurate field-goal kicker but isn't consistent at deep kickoffs.

He has made 92 percent of his field goals this year and three of his four tries from 50 yards or longer. His touchback percentage is 10 points below the league average.

"Kickers probably could hang around longer," Carpenter said. "There are only a couple reasons teams cut kickers. Either you miss too many field goals or you can't kick the ball as far as you once used to."

And if kickoffs were phased out?

"Guys who kick the ball will be accurate for field goals and not worry about kicking off," Carpenter said. "You won't have to work on that anymore. You won't get those young guys who come out and just crush the ball because it won't be as relevant.

"It will come down more to fundamentals than strength. It's like with golf. If every hole was less than 300 yards, nobody would own a driver. You'd throw them away. There's no point in having those clubs."

On the line from Vegas: Bills in strange role as repeat favorites

By Tim Graham

The Buffalo Bills didn't project to be betting favorites much this year, if at all.

Now they're on a little streak.

The Bills were favorites for the first time two weeks ago, albeit by one point against the New York Jets, and come out of their bye favored again Sunday versus the Atlanta Falcons in Toronto.

The Bills have been favored in consecutive games only three times since the 2009 season began. The last time they were favored three straight games was in 2008, when they gave points to four opponents in a row.

Depending on what happens this weekend, there's a possibility the Bills could be favored again next week at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the week after that at the Jacksonville Jaguars.

How about that?

The betting public doesn't quite believe it either. The Bills opened as 3.5-point favorites over the Falcons. That quickly was bet down to a field goal as Falcons money came in.

"This is getting into scary territory, where you get some hope and you're afraid to think about the Bills playing good," Las Vegas handicapper Joel Staniszewski said. The Buffalo State grad is a diehard Bills fan.

"You know the Falcons are a good team, and the 2-9 record doesn't match their talent level. But this is the prime game for the Bills to show if they're really turning the corner or not."

Some trends to consider:

  • Atlanta is 1-4 against the spread and 0-5 straight up over its past five games.
  • Atlanta is winless on the road.
  • Buffalo is 6-1 against the spread over its past seven home games.
  • Buffalo is 4-0 against the spread over its past four home games versus a team with a losing record.
  • Buffalo is 1-3-1 against the spread in its five Toronto games.

Oddsmakers consider the Rogers Centre a home venue for the Bills and not a neutral site despite the dispassionate atmosphere we've seen since the series began.

"It won't be a great home atmosphere, but you expect the Bills to do well here," Staniszewski said. "It's still a longer trip for Atlanta, and for Buffalo it's not that far."

But this will be a new stadium for Bills rookie quarterback EJ Manuel, who hasn't won away from Ralph Wilson Stadium in three starts. And the Bills proved against the Jets they can play well in cold and windy weather, while the Falcons are a dome team.

"You're giving up that advantage you want at The Ralph," Staniszewski said. "When you go into a dome, you lose something."

Buffalo has been favored in Toronto once before, the obliteration of Washington in 2011. That's also the only time Buffalo has covered in Toronto.

Kyle Williams questionable for Falcons with lower back spasms

By Mark Gaughan

Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams sat out practice today due to a sore lower back and is listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Atlanta Falcons in Toronto.

Williams encountered spasms in his lower back as soon as he got out of bed today. He said he plans to get aggressive therapy over the next two days and was hopeful of being able to face Atlanta.

"It popped up, low back," Bills coach Doug Marrone said. "Those things are tough. I've been through those things before. I had a player when I was in New York, during a walk-through, just went down to get in his stance and his back locked up. You never know with those things, so I really don't know."

Other than Williams, the Bills are in good health for the game.

If WIlliams can't play, it would mean bigger roles for defensive tackles Corbin Bryant and Stefan Charles. Atlanta ranks 31st in the NFL in rushing.

The Falcons' top back, Steven Jackson, missed the better part of six games with a hamstring problem. His season rushing high was 77 yards in the season opener. He rushed for 63 yards on 16 carries against New Orleans last week.

Replay live chat: Inside the NFL with Mark Gaughan

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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 | tgraham@buffnews.com


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 | mgaughan@buffnews.com


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 | jskurski@buffnews.com

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