BY SEAN DONOVAN
And while most of Sunday's 15-12 loss to the St. Louis Rams was a continuation of that improvement, ultimately it was the defense that surrendered a game-winning drive to the visiting Rams.
Even during that final St. Louis possession, Buffalo's effort was good and it nearly sealed the victory on a couple occasions. Instead, Rams quarterback Sam Bradford was able out-duel the Bills' defenders on critical plays and dealt a killing blow when Buffalo gave him the opportunity.
Midway through the drive, the Bills literally let the game slip through their fingertips.
Two plays after penetrating Buffalo territory, the Rams faced a third-and-1 on the Bills' 37-yard line with 1:56 to go in the game. Bradford lined up under-center in a single-back, four-wide formation.
In a short yardage situation, Bills safety George Wilson lined up just 3 yards behind his defensive line.
Bradford saw that the slot cornerback was playing off of the speedy wideout Chris Givens, with just one deep safety. At the snap, Bradford would quickly look for Givens on a slant.
A completion could have resulted in at least a big gain, or possibly a touchdown.
After quickly diagnosing the pass, Wilson fell back into coverage. After a peek to the outside, he made a break on the slant but dropped a would-be game-ending interception.
Despite the blown chance to clinch the win, the Bills now had St. Louis in a fourth down situation.
For the critical play, the Rams lined up with three receivers wide to the left. The Bills countered with two deep safeties. Wideout Austin Pettis, shadowed by Bills corner Leodis McKelvin, went in motion across the formation.
In adjustment, Wilson retreated deeper in coverage. Pettis crossed the formation again and returned to his slot position, but Wilson had created a void behind McKelvin's coverage.
In addition, McKelvin lagged behind Pettis and did not get into stance by the time the ball is snapped. Pettis got by him with ease, and Bradford found him wide open in the void created by Wilson.
St. Louis, after converting the must-have first down, ran a few more plays to advance to the Bills' 13-yard line. From here, with just 55 seconds left in the game, Bradford dealt the fatal blow.
The Rams lined up with three receivers wide to the right, with Brandon Gibson alone to the left, covered by Bills corner Ron Brooks. Safety Jarius Byrd was Brooks' deep support. Pettis was lined up in the inside slot on the right side.
Gibson ran a deep post to the end zone and Pettis ran a post to the goal line. This combination brought both receivers into Byrd's area.
After the ball was snapped, Bradford eyed Pettis to the right on the short post. Byrd, reading the quarterback's eyes, stepped up to deny Pettis from getting the reception.
By this time Gibson had gotten behind his coverage, and without Byrd in deep support, Bradford was able to accurately deliver a go-ahead touchdown pass over the safety's head.
Ryan Fitzpatrick failed in getting the Bills' offense in range for a field goal in the final seconds, and Buffalo lost a game that would have kept a slim hope alive of ending the franchise's 13-year playoff drought.
After giving up just over 200 yards all day, the Bills' defense surrendered a 14-play, 84-yard game-winning touchdown drive. It may be unfair to pin this loss on the defense after only giving up two scores in the contest, but it had the chances to close out the game.
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