As many Bills fans are aware, the team is currently on their bye week after a much improved start from last year, now 4-2. Those of you who are still waiting them to play today, don't get your hopes up for a Monday night appearance, at least this year. The bye week may seem inopportune given the Bills' early success early on in the year, but in actuality its timing couldn't be better. While the Bills are still playing strong, they have been lacking the momentum that elevated them to their first three wins. Of greater concern is that a number of key injuries across the roster. But optimism still prevails across the Bills base, and they seemingly have the tools to put together a strong run this year. Here’s my take on how the Bills can overcome injuries and regain momentum coming out of the bye week.
For the Bills, positions ranging from left offensive tackle, nose tackle, outside linebacker, wide receiver and the secondary were hit hard by injuries this past week against the Giants. Starting LT Demetrius Bell has performed well all season, but injured his shoulder against the Eagles while backup LT Chris Hairston (also doing well) went down with a leg injury in the second half against the Giants.
Bell luckily seems set to return after the bye while Hairston will miss a game or two as he heals. Andy Levitre, also sitting out a few practices took over and while not as prolific in defending rushers on the end, performed well. Bell back in the line keeps Levitre at LG and shores up a line that is tied for the fewest sacks allowed (6).
Nose tackle suddenly became as issue with both pro-bowl starter Kyle Williams out with a hurting foot and backup Torell Troup (leg) missing most of the season so far. Williams regrettably is likely to miss one or two games still, a main reason why pressure was lacking against Eli Manning and the Giants’ run game was able to get momentum. Backup DL Kellen Heard and DE Marcell Dareus took turns in the middle, but both have spent most of the year on the end which in turn diminished their play.
Troup has a decent chance of playing (and starting) after the bye, so it should be interesting to see how his additional bulk stands up. By having Troup in the lineup, rookie Marcell Dareus particularly can stay at the end position where he has been improving every week. Moving in Shawn Johnson from outside linebacker back to the DE rotation will also give the line more flexibility while preserving speed on the outside.
A big worry for the Bills and their anemic pass rush was the fact that both starters, Chris Kelsay and Shawne Merriman were out. While both players are not looking too good statistically, Merriman at least has two sacks while Kelsay has a few knock-downs and has done better stopping the run on the end. Kelsay is definitely not used to bench warming and should be ready to go. Merriman and his history of leg injuries may rest a bit more during the game, but Merriman should be hopefully turning off a few lights in Toronto.
Interestingly enough, one way the Bills can help their overall disappointing pass rush is not a change of personnel on the outside (from the current starters) but rather inside. Rookie Kelvin Sheppard has usurped captain Andra Davis at the Mike position on the roster. Davis has been barely averaging three tackles a game, while Shepp in limited play has shown good speed and instincts in stopping the run and blitzing. Backups Arthur Moats should see more time with Merriman still recovering while ILB Kirk Morrison will see time in passing situations, but is still adjusting to a 3-4 defensive scheme.
When Donald Jones went down at the Eagles for 4-6 weeks with a high ankle sprain, the Bills not only lost a budding #2 wide-out but their “deep-threat” as well. Now Ryan Fitzpatrick is not a deep-ball thrower, choosing to distribute it closer to home with good success. However, by doing this, the Bills receiving patterns have become easier to cover, causing Fitz to stay too long in the pocket and either get sacked or throw the ball away too soon. Fitz’s last two picks admittedly were just badly underthrown. Fitzpatrick’s numbers went from averaging 280 yards and 3 TDs in the first three games to just 212 yards and 1 TD in the last three.
The way to remedy this in the short term is not only to have C.J. Spiller and Brad Smith acting as the deep threat, but to actually throw them the ball 15+ yards down the field. Spiller’s 4.27 40-time in particular should provide the good burst for separation. By doing this and involving slot receiver Naaman Roosevelt more, pressure can be taken off of starting receivers Stevie Johnson and David Nelson who went from catching 256 yards and 233 yards in the first three games to just 126 and 86 yards respectively. The other thing is to bring back TE Scott Chandler in the pass attack. By spreading the field and increasing the number of targets, not only do the Bills take pressure off the run game, but they also can spread the field to improve the pass game results.
Lastly, a potential reason for the pass rush failure may not lie so much in players/schemes, but a lack of coverage in the secondary. Safeties George Wilson, Jairus Byrd have been fairly solid in protection although Bryan Scott has been on/off so far. More pressing is the situation at cornerback. The Bills headed in with four potential starters, but between Terrence McGee’s injury in the first game and Aaron William’s out indefinitely after a win against the Pats, the Bills have been a bit thin (but currently have 7 corners on the roster).
Fortunately, McGee is back and had a huge game with 11 tackles and a few break-ups including a potential touchdown against the Giants. With teams using three receivers as a norm nowadays, that also puts more pressure on Leodis McKelvin and Drayton Florence, both of whom have had good moments on the field, but have been very inconsistent. McKelvin has tight coverage, but needs to do better to keep the ball away at the last second (which he has been doing better lately). Florence meanwhile jams really well, but that also brought three penalties last week (just have him turn around more). With these three healthy, depth corners like Corner can play better in turn.
The other area that I can see improvement, not directly relating to injuries is how the Bills implement the run game. First off Fred Jackson has been nothing short of spectacular this season and is the second best rusher in the league with 601 yards on the ground (9 behind the leader). But despite this, Jackson is only averaging 16 carries a game. I’m not saying the Bills need to give Jackson more reps in general but when the third and short opportunities arise, the Bills should try running it more rather than passing all the time.
To add an additional level of attack, the Bills could also put in Brad Smith at QB on some of these plays. So far, Smith has been used sparingly (less than 3 carries a game) in the wildcat and only passed the ball once for an interception. Smith firstly has to pass the ball once in a while so that teams won’t clog the lanes when they do run and also hand off to Jackson or Spiller (or option it) rather than have him keep it.
With the Bills seemingly a lot closer to surviving the post season, Bills fans want more than ever their team to win. Hopefully be implementing some of these changes, and maybe running the ball a bit more, the Bills will maintain better control and consistency of the ball offensively. Defensively, the Bills pass attack can only survive as long as the defenders do not let receivers get ten yards of separation on plays. Tighter coverage is a must while putting Sheppard in the lineup can only further development and increase speed on the field. By limiting the pass game, the run game, which has done a great job of stopping (starting) runners early in the game will have less pressure in turn as well.