ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- For four weeks, the Buffalo Bills were one of the most surprising teams in the NFL, the zenith coming when they improved to 3-1 with a somewhat shocking 23-17 victory in Atlanta over the defending NFC champion Falcons.
But Sunday's loss in Cincinnati was like a cold bucket of water dumped on the team's collective head.
The loss to the Bengals wasn't so much a surprise as it was a reminder of how flawed the offense is, and no matter how well the defense plays in the weeks to come, unless the Bills find a way to score touchdowns, the playoff drought will reach 18 years.
The passing offense is remedial with a group of receivers who, individually, probably wouldn't be starting for three or four other teams in the league. On top of that, quarterback Tyrod Taylor continues to play at a mediocre level, mainly because his ball placement and his decision making make it difficult for plays to succeed.
However, the Bills have grown accustomed to struggling with the passing game. It's the running game that has everyone concerned as they head into the bye week. The league's No. 1 rushing team two years in a row is currently 27th in average yards per attempt at 3.4, and it has been a systemic problem.
Defenses don't respect the pass, so they load up to key on running back LeSean McCoy, and the offensive line has failed to find solutions. It's partly because left tackle Cordy Glenn has barely played, and partly because the right side of the line -- guard John Miller and tackle Jordan Mills -- has underperformed. Miller was benched Sunday, replaced by Vlad Ducasse who was in no way an upgrade.
"We have to look at everything, and it's never just one thing," head coach Sean McDermott said this week. "It's never just the offensive line, never just the tight ends, never just the wide receivers, and the eight-man box, it's all of that. It's everything we could do better, and this week, being our bye, it's about self-awareness, and evaluating what we've done well, what we haven't done well, and also looking to evolve. That's the important part as we look at what's in front of us this week."
That self-evaluation on defense will be much more enjoyable. The Bills slipped to 12th overall in yards allowed after the Bengals rang up 388, but they are No. 1 in points allowed per game at 14.8, and their 10 takeaways are fourth-most in the league.
It was expected that the defense would be improved over Rex Ryan's two disastrous years at the helm, but the breadth of the improvement has been startling, especially given all of the turnover in the secondary. And everyone knew the defense would have to carry the burden on most days for the offense, but unless it gets a little more help, the Bills will be lucky to finish at .500.
--The Bills' main passing game threat, tight end Charles Clay, underwent a knee scope on Monday and he will be out of the lineup for "multiple weeks" according to head coach Sean McDermott. Clay is second on the team behind running back LeSean McCoy in receptions with 20, but he has a team-high 258 yards and two touchdowns. Clay, in fact, has three of the Bills' four longest pass receptions of the season. Without him, an already crippled passing game minus injured wide receiver Jordan Matthews figures to struggle even more.
"I never want to see a guy get hurt, let alone a player of Charles' caliber," said McDermott, who then added when asked who will pick up the slack, "next man up, that's what we do."
For now, third-year pro Nick O'Leary is the next man up. After Clay went out in the first quarter in Cincinnati, O'Leary had his best game as a Bill as he set career highs for snaps played (59), catches (5), and yards (54). O'Leary was a 2015 sixth-round draft pick out of Florida State where he caught 114 passes for 1,591 yards and 17 touchdowns across four seasons, and as a senior he won the John Mackey Award as the best tight end in college football.
Heading into this season, O'Leary had only 10 receptions, nine coming last year for 114 yards, but those figures will be surpassed soon enough.
"Nick played his butt off," quarterback Tyrod Taylor said of O'Leary's performance Sunday. "He battled, he competed and he did what we asked him to do. I'm proud of him."
--Through five games, second-round draft pick Zay Jones has been a disaster. College football's all-time leading receiver with 399 catches has just five for the Bills for 66 yards. He has struggled to get open, especially against press coverage, and he has dropped a few passes, too. However, the Bills are happy with the way three others in their rookie class have performed.
First-round cornerback Tre'Davious White, despite a rough game against A.J. Green, has played like a veteran and leads the NFL with 12 passes defensed. The second of the team's second-round picks, tackle Dion Dawkins, has started four games in place of injured Cordy Glenn and has held his own. And now fifth-round linebacker Matt Milano is on the board as he started Sunday in place of injured Ramon Humber and was in on three tackles while playing 62 percent of the snaps.
"I thought he did a good job," McDermott said. "The first thing we look at is really the look in his eye and we talked about that. I've talked about that with (Bob) Babich, our linebackers coach, and he said he had the right look in his eye on the boundary and I thought he handled himself well. It wasn't too big for him and now, knowing Matt, he'll continue to improve. He puts a lot of time into his job and again, another young guy that was out there on the field and did good job at times for us."
Of the draft class as a whole, McDermott said, "I would say great contributions early on. That said, much like our team, we're building, and you learn from one game to the next, positives and negatives. Really, what I'm looking for is for us to continue to grow from one game to the next. You want to play your best football in November and December."
NOTES: TE Charles Clay underwent arthroscopic knee surgery Monday and will miss "multiple weeks" according to head coach Sean McDermott. ... CB E.J. Gaines missed Sunday's game with a groin injury, and he will be week-to-week, though it remains possible he could return when the Bills play again Oct. 22. ... CB Leonard Johnson suffered a hamstring injury in Cincinnati, but it appears he should be ready to play after the bye. ... LT Cordy Glenn has essentially missed four games with foot and ankle injuries, and while he will probably be ready to play when the Bills return to action, it isn't a certainty that he'll be on the left side. Head coach Sean McDermott hinted that he's still evaluating what the starting five will be, and how it will look. ... SS Micah Hyde, the Bills' big-ticket free-agent acquisition, leads the NFL with four interceptions and he also has nine passes defensed. ... QB Tyrod Taylor has absorbed 18 sacks, tied for second-most in the NFL. His yards per attempt average of 6.7 yards is tied for 29th in the league. ... WR Jordan Matthews tops the Bills' wideouts with 10 catches, but that figure ranks him tied for 131st among all players who have caught passes including tight ends and running backs. ... RB LeSean McCoy is averaging 55.8 yards per game, far below last year's average of 84.6 yards and less than his career average of 75.7 yards. ... K Stephen Hauschka has connected on 11 of his 12 field-goal attempts and all eight of his extra points.