Buccaneers Bills Football

Buffalo Bills free safety Jordan Poyer (21) gestures to the crowd following a defensive play during the first half of an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Rich Barnes)

Rich Barnes

Remember when the Buffalo Bills' 2017 season was going to be one to forget? Remember when tanking was all the rage? 

It seems like that was so long ago.

At the halfway point of the 2017 season, the Bills are 5-3. A quick look at the standings will tell you that the team is second in the AFC East and, if the playoffs started today, they would have one of two AFC wild card spots. 

Head coach Sean McDermott said he was here to win and he clearly wasn't kidding around. But there's a long way to go. The playoff drought isn't over yet. Yes, the Bills are 5-3. But there's a tough road to head. This will be the true test of whether this team is playoff material.

Here is the Buffalo Bills 2017 midseason report card: 

OFFENSE

Quarterbacks - B-

Tyrod Taylor has been efficient. He's never going to wow you on the stat sheet, but he's going to take care of the ball and put the Bills in a position to win every week. His stats through eight games: a 65.3 completion percentage, 1,628 passing yards, 10 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. He's added 210 rushing yards and two touchdowns. He also leads the Bills with a 4.2 yards per carry average. 

This is all impressive when you consider Taylor really hasn't had much of a connection with his wide receivers over the first eight games. His top target was tight end Charles Clay, who has been out with a knee injury and may return for the Week 10 game against the New Orleans Saints. 

That may change. The Bills traded for wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who will add size on the outside. Taylor may take some shots down field with Benjamin being able to go up and beat smaller corners for the ball. Jordan Matthews has been a contributor after a slow start and some injuries. With a healthy receiving corps, Taylor can put up bigger numbers. 

Running backs - C+

It hasn't been easy for LeSean McCoy, who has embraced the role of workhorse in the Bills' offense. But he is on pace for another 1,000-yard season. Through eight games, he has 546 yards and three touchdowns. 

The concern, though, is he's been limited because of an inconsistent offensive line. McCoy has a 3.7 yards per carry average, which would be the worst single-season performance of his career if the season ended today. It's also nearly a full yard below his career average. By comparison, he had a 5.4 yards per carry average in 2016. 

One factor could be that McCoy doesn't have a guy like Mike Gillislee who is versatile enough to come in and break off big runs and handle some of the pass catching duties. Mike Tolbert is the Bills' No. 2 running back and while he's a bruiser, he's not a big producer. He has 48 carries for 181 yards, an average of 3.8 yards per carry. 

Some of McCoy's best work so far has been as a receiver. He leads the team with 38 receptions through eight games. He's second on the team with 242 receiving yards. He has been a safety valve for Taylor, who didn't have much to work with early in the season. 

Receivers - C-

It's difficult to be hard on this group when injuries played a role. Newly acquired wide receiver Jordan Matthews had to shake off an injury before he could get on the field, and then he got hurt again. 

Tight end Charles Clay was Taylor's favorite weapon. Clay caught 20 passes for 258 yards and two touchdowns. He has four receptions of 20-plus yards this season. The good news for Taylor: Clay may return this week after missing time with a knee injury. 

The Bills received a boost from some players who are usually in reserve roles. Tight end Nick O'Leary has 14 catches for 221 yards this season. Even with Clay in the lineup, O'Leary has been a contributor. He offers a nice change of pace in the Bills' passing attack and he's a solid blocker. 

Deonte Thompson has had two good games with the Bills since being signed by the team. In his most recent game, he caught 7 passes for 81 yards and a touchdown. 

With the addition of Benjamin, the Bills now have a lot of options in the passing game. That should help Taylor, and it should boost the rushing attack. 

Offensive line - D

The Bills need to get its offensive line figured out or it could be the biggest reason why they don't make the playoffs. This unit has been inconsistent. The rushing attack has struggled because of poor run blocking and while the pass blocking has been slightly better, Taylor has been under siege at times. (He has been sacked 26 times this season. Only Jacoby Brissett has been sacked more.)

After the bye week, the offensive line seemed to have rebounded. But then the Jets game happened and it was a reminder of the unit's early season struggles. 

Health has been a factor. Cordy Glenn has missed time at left tackle. With him healthy, the line is better. Dion Dawkins, a rookie, has been a capable substitute. 

If the offensive line can turn it around, it will help this team. The offense needs to be more effective to take some pressure off the defense. 

DEFENSE

Defensive line - C-

The Bills had seven sacks in their first two games. Since then? The team has seven sacks in six games. The pass rush needs to play a bigger role. Jameis Winston and Derek Carr each threw for 300-plus yards against this defense and faced very little, if any, pressure. Jerry Hughes, who leads the team with three sacks, needs to have a bigger impact. The same is true for Shaq Lawson. The Bills' top pick in 2016 has two sacks this season.

The defensive line has helped contain opposing rushing attacks, although that took a hit in the Jets game when the Bills gave up 194 rushing yards. Through eight games, the Bills rank eighth in rushing yards allowed per game. That has forced teams to attack the Bills through the air. 

Linebackers - C+

Preston Brown has embraced his role in the middle of this defense. He leads the team with 64 total tackles. Ramon Humber has been effective as the weak side linebacker in this scheme. He is third on the team with 44 total tackles. 

Rookie Matt Milano has an interception, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in his limited action. 

Linebackers play a key role in McDermott's defense. This unit could do more. They need to factor into the pass rush. Brown and Humber don't have any sacks this season. There are defensive backs with sacks. Lorenzo Alexander, who typically plays outside linebacker, has two sacks. The team needs to be more active off the edge and up the middle. Part of it is personnel. Part of it is coaching. 

Defensive backs - A-

There was a time when the Bills' secondary was its biggest weakness. Now? It's his biggest asset. Despite giving up a lot of yards through the air, the secondary has produced some big plays this season. 

Micah Hyde is second in the NFL with five interceptions. Jordan Poyer has two sacks, two interceptions and is fourth on the team with 40 tackles. 

Tre'Davious White, the Bills' top pick in 2017, leads the team with 12 passes defensed. He's given up a few big plays this year, but he's been one of the defense's best players. 

The secondary has 10 of the Bills' 11 interceptions and four of the team's fumble recoveries. The takeaways have made a huge difference and is one of the reasons why the Bills are 5-3 this season. 

SPECIAL TEAMS

Kicking and punting - A

Steven Hauschka has been a great addition for the Bills. He has converted 16 of 18 field goal attempts and all 18 of his extra point tries. Extra points were an issue when he was kicking in Seattle, but that hasn't been a problem in Buffalo. He's also 5-for-5 from 50-plus yards. Those kicks have made a difference in close games. 

Colton Schmidt is quietly having a solid year. He is 15th in punting average with 46.1 yards per punt. He has 15 punts inside the 20, which is tied with three others for 12th in the NFL. 

The Bills' kicking unit struggled at times in 2016. It has been one of the team's strengths through the first eight games of the 2017 season. 

Returns and coverage - B-

The Bills have one of the best punt return coverage units in the NFL. Teams are averaging 5.6 yards per return on punts, which is seventh-best in the league. That says a lot about how far Schmidt has come and the special teams unit as a whole. 

The kickoff coverage unit has allowed 22.2 yards per return, which places the Bills in the middle of the pack. 

The return game is tougher to analyze. The Bills average 22.7 yards per kickoff return, which is 10th in the NFL. But the team only has 204 kickoff return yards, which is 26th in the league. The Bills have only returned nine kicks, which explains the limited yardage. 

It's a similar story on punt returns. The Bills have a 9.5 yards per return average, which is 12th in the NFL. But they have only returned 14 punts, ranking them 25th in the league. 

Brandon Tate has been the Bills' top returner, but McDermott has made him inactive for three games this season. 

MIDSEASON AWARDS

Most valuable player: Tyrod Taylor. The Bills wouldn't be where they are without his steady presence and ability to extend plays. He's a good enough passer and his ability to break off big runs helps, too. He doesn't need to throw for 300 yards to help the Bills win. 

Top offensive player: LeSean McCoy. McCoy is Taylor's top target in the passing attack and while he's not having his best year in terms of running the ball, he's still on track to have a 1,000-yard season. Taylor and McCoy are a nice one-two punch on offense. 

Top defensive player: Jordan Poyer. He brings so much to the secondary and defense. He's a good tackler and even better in coverage. His stat line tells the story. He has two sacks and two interceptions. He's fourth on the team in tackles and third with seven passes defensed. He has a fumble recovery, too. If the Bills defense is making a big play, usually Poyer is involved. 

Rookie of the year: Tre'Davious White. He is playing like a veteran. Sure, he's made a few mistakes. But overall, his play has been impressive. He's usually covering some of the best receivers in the NFL. Rookies usually don't have as much success as he's had in that role. He leads the Bills with 12 passes defensed and two fumble recoveries. He has one of the defense's two touchdowns this season. 

Most improved player: Colton Schmidt. Kicking is a difficult position. If you're not cutting it, teams don't mind cutting you. There are other candidates and NFL teams usually don't hesitate bringing others in to try out. Schmidt struggled in 2016 and there was a competition for his job this year. He handled it well and had a good first half in 2017. Consider this: Last year, Schmidt was 30th in punting average and ranked near the bottom for punts inside the 20. Through eight games this season, he ranks 12th in punts inside the 20 and 15th for punting average. 

Unsung hero: Nick O'Leary. He blocks and he catches passes. With Charles Clay out, he has proven to be a reliable pass catching tight end. The Bills have brought in some new receivers that could limit O'Leary's opportunities, but he will still have a role in this offense. 

Player to watch: Zay Jones. There is a budding connection between Taylor and Jones that we started to see in the Jets game. Jones had six catches for 49 yards and a touchdown in that game before he had to leave with an injury. These two could have more success with the addition of Kelvin Benjamin, who should be able to free up some space for Jones to get opportunities in the middle of the field. 

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