When they were needed most, the Buffalo Bills' top three 2013 NFL Draft picks came up big Sunday.
E.J. Manuel threw for 167 yards and a touchdown, Robert Woods had 80 yards receiving and a score and middle linebacker Kiko Alonso picked off Joe Flacco twice as the Bills earned their second win of the season with a 23-20 victory over the Baltimore Ravens.
Manuel did make some mistakes against the Ravens defense. He threw two interceptions and lost a fumble, but he also led the Bills on five scoring drives. The highlight of his day: A 42-yard touchdown pass to Woods in the second quarter.
While Manuel turned the ball over a few times, it wasn't as bad as Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco's performance. Flacco threw five interceptions, including one on the final drive that sealed the win for the Bills.
There is a lot of praise -- and criticism -- to hand out this week. Here is this week's Buffalo Bills report card:
GRADING THE UNITS
OFFENSE - C
The Bills offense had an up and down day against the Ravens defense.
Manuel was good at times, but he also struggled to make some throws. He did commit three turnovers, which made things interesting and allowed the Ravens to get back in the game. He coughed up the football late in the fourth quarter, but Stevie Johnson bailed him out by recovering the fumble.
It wasn't Manuel's greatest game, but he did have his moments. On the first drive, he made two good throws to T.J. Graham and Scott Chandler to set up a Dan Carpenter field goal. The touchdown pass to Woods in the second quarter was a perfect strike. He also had a nice touch pass to Chandler that set up Fred Jackson's touchdown run in the second quarter.
The key for the Bills offense, though, was the running game. The Bills rushed for 203 yards against the Ravens defense. Jackson led the way with 87 yards and a score. C.J. Spiller had a decent day, with 77 yards on the ground. Graham and Woods also got involved. Both had first down runs on wide receiver reverse plays.
So why the "C" grade? The red zone offense. The Bills had four red zone opportunities, but only scored one touchdown. They won this game, but the red zone offense was a problem in last week's loss to the New York Jets. It needs to improve. It could be the difference between winning a close game or losing.
Another problem for the Bills offense: Third down efficiency. The offense only converted five of their 18 third down opportunities. They need to better on third down, especially in close games.
DEFENSE - A-
There was very little I hated about the Bills defense Sunday. While they did allow 20 points, they sacked Flacco four times and forced five turnovers.
The defensive line was solid. Mario Williams wasn't a huge factor, but he did chase Flacco down for a sack. Marcell Dareus had a big day, with seven tackles and two sacks. Linebacker Manny Lawson had the other sack.
But even with a depleted secondary, the Bills came up big and forced Flacco to make mistakes. Aaron Williams had two interceptions and safety Jim Leonhard added one. Linebacker Kiko Alonso also chipped in with two interceptions of his own. Justin Rogers struggled again. He was beat on both Baltimore touchdowns, but his teammates made up for it with big plays.
It's tough to give the Bills defense credit for stopping the Baltimore running game since the Ravens abandoned the run in the second half. But when Baltimore did run the ball, the Bills defense stopped them. The Bills only allowed 24 yards on nine carries, with the longest run going for seven yards.
Like the offense, the Bills defense has had issues on third down. Teams have been able to convert on third down against the Buffalo defense, but not Sunday. The Ravens only converted three of their 16 third down opportunities. That was a major accomplishment for the Bills defense.
SPECIAL TEAMS - C+
Kicker Dan Carpenter continued to be a factor, thanks to the Bills' red zone troubles.
Carpenter, who is filling in for injured rookie kicker Dustin Hopkins, booted three field goals -- two 27-yard field goals in the first quarter and a 22-yarder in the third quarter.
Through four games, Carpenter has booted 10 field goals. If the Bills keep having red zone issues, you will continue to see a lot of Carpenter.
Reserve wide receiver Marcus Easley also shined for the special teams unit. He had four solo tackles covering kicks against the Ravens. He also serves as the Bills' kick returner, but he didn't get any return opportunities against Baltimore.
As for punter Shawn Powell, he didn't have a good game. He had eight punts, but his directional kicking issues continue. He's great at booting the ball 50 or 60 yards down the field, but he isn't very good at pinning teams deep in their own end.
There was one punt by Powell where it appeared he was aiming for the corner, but the ball hung up in the air and went straight down the middle. The returner caught the ball at the 15-yard line. That's probably not what he was going for.
COACHING - B-
The Bills looked prepared for the Ravens. They came out and executed a great game plan in the first half, which helped them take a 20-7 lead into halftime.
But the second half was a different story. Maybe it was just me, but it seemed like the Bills went into conservative mode on offense, especially after Manuel threw two second half interceptions. The fans booed when the Bills called a draw play on third and 11 late in the game instead of going for the first down. I wasn't a fan of the play call, either. You never want to give a team like the Ravens another chance to tie or win the game. That's exactly what the Bills did. Luckily, it worked out for them.
Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett does deserve credit for getting the running game going. The Bills rushed for 203 yards Sunday and Hackett leaned on Jackson and Spiller throughout the game. Spiller and Jackson combined for 39 carries, which is a bigger workload than they had last week against the Jets. (Jackson and Spiller combined for 17 carries against the Jets.)
On the other side of the ball, how about that Bills defense? Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine deserves a lot of credit for his work with this unit. It's a work in progress, but the Bills defense forced turnovers, sacked the quarterback and stopped the run Sunday. What more do you want out of your defense? It was a great example of why Pettine is a much different coordinator than his predecessors.
PLAYERS OF THE GAME
OFFENSE: Robert Woods. Woods was Manuel's No. 1 target against the Ravens. He caught four passes for 80 yards and a touchdown. He almost had two touchdown grabs, but one was called back after a review. He also had one carry for 13 yards.
When the Bills drafted him in April, he was one guy that stood out as someone who could come in and contribute right away. Four games into his rookie season, Woods has 201 yards receiving and two touchdowns.
DEFENSE: Aaron Williams and Kiko Alonso. Williams was in and out of the lineup with some injuries, but had a great game. He had two interceptions, two tackles and four passes defensed. With some key players missing in the secondary, Williams shifted over from safety to corner and played well. He also made a touchdown-saving tackle on a long pass from Flacco to Torrey Smith in the fourth quarter.
Alonso is a repeat winner for a reason. He has been a major factor in every game this season. He had two interceptions Sunday, including a diving pick late in the game to seal the win for the Bills. He also registered five tackles.
It appears the Bills have found a strong presence in the middle they have been lacking for a few years. Alonso is certainly an early candidate for rookie defensive player of the year.
E.J. Manuel. Manuel made some good plays against Baltimore, but he can't commit three turnovers every week and expect the Bills to win. Early in his rookie season, he hasn't made too many errors. You don't want to play too conservative, but you don't want to take too many risks either. He has to protect the ball if they are going to run the read option and he needs to make smart throws. Turnovers will happen, but you need to minimize them.
STAT OF THE GAME
Time of possession. One reason the Ravens were forced to throw the ball a lot was the Bills offense had the ball for a long time. Buffalo's time of possession was 36:26. The five turnovers committed by the Ravens and the Bills' successful running attack were key reasons why Buffalo had the ball for so long.
STAT OF THE GAME II
Flacco's interceptions. How many times has Joe Flacco thrown five interceptions in his career? Zero, until Sunday. While two of the interceptions came off of tipped or deflected passes, three of the picks were due to positioning. Both of Aaron Williams' interceptions came because he put himself in the right spot.
It was a day Flacco will want to forget. But the Bills defense will remember it for a long time.
It is a short week for the Bills (2-2). They will play their second away game of the season at 8:25 p.m. Thursday at Cleveland. The Browns (2-2) started the season with two losses, but are now on a two-game winning streak. The game will be aired on NFL Network.