The Bills did everything they wanted to accomplish in the first half of the season opener against the New Orleans Saints. The defense dominated, limiting the Saints to only one first down the entire first half. They established a running game and dominated the time of possession battle in taking a 6-0 halftime lead. In fact, they played such a solid first half that they decided to take the second one off.
In a stunning turn of events, the Saints ran off 24 unanswered points in marching to a 24-6 victory, leaving the Bills searching for answers. The new-look offense brought back memories of the Joe Pendry and Dan Henning era, as they were unable to free up receivers.
Rob Johnson looked like the same Rob Johnson, staying in the pocket and refusing to unload the ball. It was expected coming in that Johnson would take his fair share of sacks against a relentless Saints pass rush. While he did get sacked five times, what was more alarming was what happened when he actually did throw the football. Johnson threw a trio of interceptions to the Saints' strong safety Sammy Knight, who set a team record for interceptions in a single game. This was supposed to be the game in which Johnson would silence his critics. Instead, the chorus of boos resonated the around the Greater Orchard Park area.
The pivotal play of the game came on the Saints' first drive of the second half. New Orleans was moving the ball with three consecutive first downs, but the Bills were in position to stop them on a third and 16 from the Bills 46-yard line. Bills Defensive Coordinator Jerry Gray's defense, which had been aggressive throughout the contest played soft, enabling Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks to take his time and find a streaking Albert Connell in the end zone. Connell made a great play, fending off defender Ken Irvin and tipping the ball to himself before making a great juggling catch.
"We had our hands on their throat, and we just didn't squeeze. If we made that play it would have given our offense a boost. We didn't, and it just kind of ballooned on us after that," said defensive end Phil Hansen.
Did it ever.
Johnson responded to the challenge by demonstrating his superior arm strength in overthrowing his intended receiver Jay Riemersma by a good 15 yards - into the waiting arms of Knight, who returned it 27 yards setting the Saints up in great field position. Ricky Williams dropped a sure touchdown pass and the Saints kicked a field goal, going up 10-6.
Bills running back Travis Henry was rendered invisible in the second half, rushing for a grand total of three yards. With the Bills forced into a one-dimensional passing game, the Saints were able to double up on Johnson's primary targets, Eric Moulds and Jay Riemersma.
The result: you guessed it - another Sammy Knight interception. This time, the Bills defense broke and Brooks threw his second touchdown pass on the afternoon, a 12-yard strike in the corner of the end-zone to tight end Cam Cleeland, taking a 17-6 lead, all but putting the game out of reach.
For the Saints it was a game of threes wild. Knight had three interceptions. Saints defensive end Joe Johnson is no relation to Rob Johnson, but they sure spent a lot of quality time together Sunday. Johnson recorded three sacks, beating Bills tackle John Fina consistently and spending most of the day in the Bills backfield. Aaron Brooks threw three touchdowns, the last one a well constructed 19-yard screen pass to Ricky Williams to close out the scoring.
For the Bills, it's a matter of getting the first one and going from there. By the time the smoke cleared, the Bills were still looking for their first touchdown, Coach Williams was looking for his first win, and until the fourth quarter, it looked like all-pro receiver Eric Moulds would still be looking for his first catch of the season. He did eventually catch a 34-yard strike from Johnson over the middle, his only reception on the afternoon.
His frustration was mounting all afternoon, and reached a boiling point at the post game interview. "We didn't have enough plays, we got to move guys around and do different things. They knew where I was on the field all afternoon, I think we made it easy on them," said Moulds.
The Bills will try to get on the same page next week when they travel to Miami to take on the Dolphins. Their performance on their first exam only guarantees there will be many more questions heading into the second.