ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- There were some “truthful conversations” inside One Bills Drive this week. Or at least that’s the way Buffalo Bills coach Sean McDermott described meetings on what must be corrected coming off a surprising 9-6 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The defense's performance was solid enough, but the offense was hardly inspiring.
The good news is two injured starters are set to return in tight end Dawson Knox and rookie right tackle Spencer Brown, after they missed the past two games with hand and back injuries, respectively. Both no longer have any injury designation and should start Sunday against the New York Jets (1 p.m. ET, CBS) and their 32nd-ranked defense (408.1 yards per game).
Getting those two back could help an offense that didn't make enough big plays last week. The Bills offense had three plays of 20-plus yards against Jacksonville and none longer than 28 yards.
“[Knox] is just another guy that you got to focus on, whether you put a linebacker or a safety on him,” quarterback Josh Allen said. “He’s a guy that's big, powerful, strong, fast, and obviously he's made some plays for us this year, and we're gonna need him to continue to make plays for us if we want to be successful.”
The Bills’ offense hasn’t been playing up to expectations, especially in the past two games. From Weeks 1 to 6, Buffalo went 4-2, averaging 32.7 points, 411.5 yards and 24.3 first down per game. Following the bye week, in a much smaller sample size, the Bills had a 1-1 record, averaged 16 points, 326 yards and 20.5 first downs per game.
Though he was a question mark coming into the season, Knox has become one of Allen’s go-to targets. He scored five touchdowns in a four-game stretch to start the season and caught 21 passes on 27 targets. He was well on pace to set career highs in every receiving category.
Without Knox, who broke a bone in his right hand against the Tennessee Titans and required surgery, the Bills lost an important third-down threat. Backup Tommy Sweeney wasn't quite able to fill the void, meaning other receivers drew more attention from opposing defenses. Sweeney caught five passes for 40 yards over the past two games.
No Bills player has more than one receiving touchdown on third down outside of Knox (three).
“I feel like Dawson Knox is an intricate part in our offense and the things we do,” wide receiver Stefon Diggs said. “T-Sween [Sweeney] didn’t do a bad job when he was out there as well. But we’ve got a lot of depth as far as guys that can play at a high level and I feel like Knox is another guy, he was playing at such a high level before he got hurt. I look forward to him picking up where he went out.”
Knox, of course, is also valuable as blocker. And that's also where Brown’s return is big for this offense. The rookie quickly developed into the Bills’ starting tackle. In his absence, right guard Daryl Williams slid over to tackle, which moved two other players out of position.
If Brown has no setbacks and regains his spot, Williams can move back to guard and Buffalo will be down only one lineman: guard Jon Feliciano (calf) on injured reserve.
The team could be without running back Zack Moss, who remains in concussion protocol, likely giving Devin Singletary more opportunities. The Bills may also have running back Matt Breida active if Moss is unable to go. The running game could use all the help it can get, something McDermott acknowledged this week.
“Simply said, yes,” McDermott said when asked whether he thought the run game would be better than it is by now. “I thought we'd be further along. I thought that we would have progressed in that area.”
The Bills’ running backs are tied for the second-fewest rushing first downs in the NFL (with the Houston Texans). The backs have averaged 1.96 yards before contact (24th) and have just nine runs of 10-plus yards this season (tied for the fewest with the Texans). It hasn’t exactly been a secret to opposing defenses just how pass-reliant the Bills can be, which puts added pressure on Allen.
The offensive line and backs have struggled at times with not just one group at fault.
“The running game is a team effort. It starts in the receiving room, from us blocking, to the O-line to everybody,” wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. “I think the running game is always an effort deal. Blocking is effort and giving effort in the run game and the running back is going to flourish. I feel like we can be better at that, and I know I can be better at it.”
The Jets provide a pretty good opportunity to improve there. New York has allowed the sixth-most rushing yards per game (133.3) and is tied with Houston for the most rushing scores allowed (15).
While the Bills will hope for no further setbacks, the offense has to find a way to take a step further this week no matter who is on the field.
“No season is clean,” McDermott said. “You want it to be. But the reality of it is no season is clean in a straight line. So, you've got to stay with it."