It was a windy miserable day at Ralph Wilson Stadium and the Buffalo Bills entered a key showdown against the New York Jets without top receivers Stevie Johnson and Robert Woods, and with rookie quarterback EJ Manuel looking to rebound from his worst performance as a pro.
Beating the then wild-card slotted Jets seemed like a daunting task, but Manuel had perhaps the finest game of his young career. A big reason why that happened was the play of both Marquise Goodwin and T.J. Graham.
Pressed into having to help save the day, the two speedy young receivers did just that as both combined with Manuel on game-breaking touchdowns that led to the 37-14 grounding of Gang Green. Goodwin (six receptions for 81 yards, 43-yard TD) and Graham combined to catch eight passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns — both on deep bombs that had diehard fans thinking the best was still yet to come.
It still may, but it hasn’t since that wild, Nov. 17 contest.
In the two games since Goodwin and Graham were at their playmaking and difference-making best, they have not caught a single pass between them. Combined, they’ve only had nine passes thrown in their directions since their breakout performances out of the 65 the Bills have attempted.
In last Sunday’s demoralizing loss at Tampa Bay, Goodwin – the rookie from Texas and former Olympian – wasn’t targeted for even one single pass.
That’s a problem considering the 5-foot-9, 179-pounder has shown the ability to be more than just a vertical threat. While Goodwin’s three touchdowns average 47.3 yards per catch, only four of his 16 total receptions (261 yards, 16.3 yards per catch) have been on deep throws (20-plus yard completions). He’s credited with 12 receiving first downs. Four of his six catches against the Jets produced first downs and two of them came on third-down plays.
“Marquise Goodwin – and I’ve talked to Coach (Nathaniel) Hackett about this – we have to get him in there more,” Bills head coach Doug Marrone said. “I think T.J. has to keep working and become more consistent. … Those two guys, obviously they have great speed. We have to find a way to get them involved.”
One way could be to make defenses pay the price for taking away the deep ball. It’s no secret the Bills are trying to stretch the field when one or both line up wide. Perhaps a quick slant or curl route could be just the thing to open up the vertical game. Speed in the space is every defensive unit’s nightmare.
“We have to get a way to get the right group of people in the game that can be productive,” Marrone said. “That’s what we’re looking at with anybody.”
Of course, a lot goes into the success of a passing game. The quarterback play has to be good (it wasn’t Sunday). The line play has to be good (it wasn’t Sunday). And receivers have to get open.
Could targeting either Goodwin or Graham, who has caught five passes of more than 20 yards this year, more often help one or both get untracked and make the offense more lethal during the rest of the season?
“We’re spreading it out pretty evenly amongst all the receivers,” said Graham, the second-year man who was targeted three times in Sunday’s loss and has caught 18 passes for 272 yards and one TD this season. “In our offense, we have a lot of good receivers, a lot of good weapons. Getting the ball more than three times is asking a lot.”
“We could get them more involved,” Marrone said. “I think those guys have talent. No doubt, they have talent. They have, obviously, better-than-average speed.”
Speed is something Graham hopes he can flaunt this Sunday in Jacksonville.
“I’m running deep,” Graham said. “That’s all that matters. Run by people.”
The Bills activated defensive back Jonathan Meeks from the Injured Reserve/Designated for Return to the 53-man roster and cut linebacker Jamaal Westerman.
Meeks, selected in the fifth round of last April’s draft, played in the first six games of the season and has one tackle. He’s been out since Oct. 14 because of an ankle injury and returned to practice Nov. 25.
The Bills also changed receivers on their practice squad. They added Brandon Kaufman, a 6-5, 215-pounder out of Eastern Washington and released wideout Tommy Streeter. Kaufman, who joined the Bills as an undrafted free agent after the draft and was released prior to the regular season, caught 221 passes for 3,731 yards and 33 TDs.