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Pulling One Out
Paul Zimmerman
September 23, 1991
Led by the running and catching of Thurman Thomas, the Bills stayed unbeaten—barely
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September 23, 1991

Pulling One Out

Led by the running and catching of Thurman Thomas, the Bills stayed unbeaten—barely

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After that punt, New York launched its finest drive of the day—15 plays, 85 yards, 8:08 time of possession and seven points. The Jets looked like the Giants in Super Bowl XXV. In two possessions the Bills had been stopped twice, and the Jet defense was getting a nice long break to suck up some oxygen. The upset possibilities were real indeed, which was what defensive coordinator Pete Carroll had been saying in the week leading up to the game. "We have to rope-a-dope them," said Carroll. "Play it kind of soft, and let them dump it off. Take away what they kill you with. Try to pick the spot when Kelly's going to get kind of impatient, then send it all in. We're going to give up yards in that defense. We're not going to shut them down. We didn't shut down the Oilers' run-and-shoot last year, but we beat them. The problem is people, though. My god, do they have people."

The Bills came in with Kelly, the NFL's top-rated passer; Andre Reed, the league's No. 1 receiver; third wideout Don Beebe, the newest monster, who caught four touchdown passes against a Steeler defense that had given up only nine in 1990; and Lofton, who needs to average about 70 yards a game this year to become the alltime leader in pass-catching yardage. Then there was Thomas, the top rusher in the league and a formidable receiver as well.

"That's the guy who really scares me," Carroll had said. "He's tough enough to catch stuff inside on the linebackers, and fast enough to go out on the wing and get deep on the defensive backs. He's averaging 6.8 yards per carry, and the rest of their backs are averaging 3.2—behind the same offensive line. But if our offense can hold the ball long enough to let us catch our breath, we've got a chance."

Buffalo's high-scoring wins over the Miami Dolphins (35-31) and Pittsburgh to open the season overshadowed one important fact. Both the Dolphins and the Steelers were able to move the ball on the Bills, especially on the ground. Defensive end Bruce Smith still has not returned from preseason arthroscopic knee surgery. Noseguard Jeff Wright went out with a dislocated right kneecap in the game against Miami.

In desperation against the Jets, Buffalo went to an alignment that featured two down linemen and five linebackers. Buffalo's 2-5 called for Cornelius Bennett, normally an outside backer, to play a kind of interior rover, or soft noseguard. After only three Jet series, one of which was good for seven points and another for three, the Bills abandoned the 2-5 and returned to a normal 3-4. "We just let them run their stunts and picked them up and area-blocked them," said New York center Jim Sweeney.

Thomas returned to the game on Buffalo's third series and accounted for yardage on seven of the Bills' remaining eight possessions of the game, not counting two that consisted solely of a quarterback kneel at the end of each half. Reed, who plays the slot, was held to three catches for 26 yards by James Hasty, one of the league's toughest and most underrated cornerbacks. Beebe, the Steeler killer, had only one catch for 12 yards. Lofton, who wound up with five receptions for 79 yards, was effective, but he never got deep. Although Kelly's numbers looked impressive—27 completions in 37 attempts for 275 yards—he was sacked four times and hurried a few more.

The difference was that when Kelly is under pressure, he can move around and buy time until he finds someone. His Jet counterpart, Ken O'Brien, cannot. When O'Brien is comfortable in the pocket, when the running game is working, as it was on Sunday, he can be effective. But in the final minutes, when he had to put the ball up in the face of a heavy rush, he misfired twice and couldn't bring New York downfield quite far enough. Pat Leahy's 51-yard field goal, which would have sent the game into overtime, fell short with 16 seconds to play.

The Bills' postgame locker room was complimentary to an opponent that had played about as well as it was capable of playing. The Jets had missed getting on the board at the end of the first half, when they drove deep and O'Brien was intercepted in the end zone by cornerback James Williams. And they had gotten a bad call on that final drive, when Williams mugged wideout Rob Moore on a sideline route at the Buffalo 20 and no flag was thrown. The Bills knew how close they had come to losing.

"That Hasty," Reed said, shaking his head. "I voted for him for the Pro Bowl last year, and I will again this year. He's one of the four or five best cornerbacks in football. It's a shame no one knows it. Actually their whole scheme was very good. They dominated us. It just so happened that we won."

"It's going to be like this for us every week from now on," Thomas said. "For a lot of teams, the Bills game will be their Super Bowl, and anyone who thinks we can go out and score 40 or 50 points every week better look at this game again."

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