After their first four games, the Bills were 3-1. Now at the halfway point, they are 5-3 having split their wins and losses during the last five weeks (including the bye). The Bills won a close game against the Philadelphia Eagles and trounced the Washington Redskins in Toronto. However, they lost a close game against the New York Giants and all-but routed by the New York Jets. Offensively the Bills have been more sluggish without a few key players while the defense has had its ups and downs, but are starting to gel despite their own injuries. While the Bills are technically out of the playoff picture with their latest lost, a few key division opponent games remain to regain lost ground.
We begin our review with the Bills passing game. Ryan Fitzpatrick was awarded a major contract extension after the bye week and while he wasn't as prolific of a passer as he was in the first four weeks still did well especially given that deep threats Donald Jones and Roscoe Parrish (IR) were not available. In this span, Fitz went 78 for 115 (68% completion) while throwing an equal number of picks as touchdowns (6).
Without a complimentary deep threat, both Donald Jones' and Stevie Johnson's production went down during this span but on a brighter note, Johnson managed to get 84 yards on Revis, one of the best corners in the NFL. Brad Smith and C.J. Spiller both attempted to establish themselves as deep threats, but went reelatively unnoticed. Scott Chandler also saw his production go down, but in the last two games caught 5 passes for 59 yards and 2 TDs.
One person whose numbers went up in both receiving and rushing yards and the likely MVP for the Bills was Fred Jackson. Jackson became a vital part of the passing game and saw his numbers rise from 13 grabs for 147 yards to 17 catches for 244 yards. Despite running for two fewer TDs and having his run average diminish by half a yard a carry Jackson continues to be the primary playmaker for the team. In the last four games, Jackson ran 86 times for 434 yards or 5 yards a carry. Jackson is currently in third for rushing yards (803) and second for total yards (1,194). C.J. Spiller's role in the running game all but vanished in this time frame while Brad Smith was used a bit more in the wildcat with some success.
Despite having been without both left tackles Demetrius Bell and Chris Hairston (LG Andy Levitre has currently been starting), the Bills offensive line still has surrendered the lowest amount of sacks in the NFL (9). While Bell is still out for at least another week, Hairston may return to active duty as early as this Sunday.
The Bills run defense is looking a lot more poised. Although they have given up over 120 yards rushing in three of their four match-ups, the Bills have shut down the primary rushers of each game, at least through the first three quarters of play. Nick Barnett has been a beast as has the front three linemen. They also kept the Redskins to 26 yards on the ground.
The Bills pass defense likewise had fair success, but also can be prone to inconsistencies and penalties.Terrence McGee returned to the lineup and has performed really well. McKelvin and Florence have done alright but had a few errors. The Bills safeties, George Wilson and Jairus Byrd have been solid assets in the backfield. The Bills continue to dominate in interceptions despite slipping to second in the NFL with 15.
The Bills pass rush still has a ways to go. Starting SLB Chris Kelsay had been in and out with injuries while (unsurprisingly) JLB Shawne Merriman went on the IR. The Bills did manage to get 10 sacks against Washington between moving Marcell Dareus to NT in place of the injured Kyle Williams (IR) and Torell Troupand a weak offensive line, but still lag with the 6th fewest sacks in the league with 15 on the year. With Kyle Williams on the IR now, Marcell Dareus will show his flexibility and play predominantly at NT with Troup backing him up.
Special Teams Review
Brian Moorman continues to be the usual, excellent punter on the field averaging 47.5 yards on 15 punts with 4 landing inside the 20. Kicker Rian Lindell has done well as well making 6 of 7 field goals, but after injuring his shoulder on a tackle, will be replaced in the lineup for the third quarter by Dave Rayner. At the same time the Bills have managed to block not one, but two field goals! Disappointment with regards to Spiller and Smith on the return game. Coverage has been fair, but also could be better.
A 5-3 team is a big turn around from last year. Overall Chan Gailey has performed well not only as the head coach, but also in managing the offense, with exception to the last game against the Jets. George Edwards has shown much improvement with the defense particularly against the run. Areas for improvement include reestablishing a deep pass threat offensively. Defensively, the Bills need to shut down the short pass game while not causing the oft-gotten interference penalties.
2012 Draft Predictions
Re-signing Ryan Fitzpatrick has all but ruled out the Bills taking a quarterback in the first three rounds, although given that Thigpen is the only other true QB on the roster (until Smith completes a pass that is) the Bills could still nab a QB in the back four rounds. Stevie Johnson is in the midst of renegotiating his contract as well. More likely is the Bills selecting an offensive lineman or two in the first three rounds given that three starters (both tackles) and the primary backup guard are set to become free agents. The Bills similarly have a need at tight end with Scott Chandler's contract expiring this year, and Chandler, while good, is not a true #1 TE.
Defensively, the Bills are starting to become more solid, but have an area or two to address in that they are letting opposing QBs have too much time to throw the ball. With that it could be that the middle linebackers are not covering the tight ends enough or lock down potential slant routes; it could be a lack of pressure generated by the outside linebackers; or the corners have not been applying smart enough coverage. Chan Gailey has already attempted to remedy the inside linebacker position by giving rookie Kelvin Sheppard more reps and giving Kirk Morrison reps as well. 3 out of 6 ILBs set to become free agents, the Bills will likely draft another ILB this year.
The Corners have suffered a few key injuries first with starter Terrence McGee and then with 2nd rounderAaron Williams. McGee is already showing his stuff and Williams holds promise, while McKelvin flashes brilliance at time. That leaves the pass rush where Kelsay is doing well, but not great and Merriman cannot stay healthy. With the Bills struggling to get sacks, the organization will likely draft a 3-4 OLB in the first two rounds in 2012. From a defensive line standpoint, all starters and backups have done well in pressure and stuffing the run. Although Edwards and Johnson are getting old, still play well and have another year at least under contract.
Here's my mock right now:
1: OLB Courtney Upshaw (Alabama) alt: OLB Brandon Jenkins, CB Chase Minnefield, OL Barrett Jones
2: OT Matt Reynolds (BYU) alt: OL Nate Potter, OLB Cam Johnson, WR Mohamed Sanu
3: TE Coby Fleener (Stanford) alt: TE Tyler Eifert, OG Lucas Nix, DB Trumaine Johnson
4: CB Donnie Fletcher (BC) alt: CB D'Anton Lynn, OT Zerbie Sanders, WR T.Y. Hilton
4: OG Lonnie Edwards (Texas Tech) alt: OL Rokevious Watkins, DL J.R. Sweezy, OLB Devin Taylor
5: ILB Kevin Reddick (North Carolina) alt: ILB Tanner Brock, SS Winston Guy Jr, QB Kellen Moore
6: QB Case Keenum (Houston) alt: QB Chandler Harnish, WR Marquis Maze, TE Ladarius Green
6: SS George Iloka (Boise State) alt: SS Jerrell Young, OT Landon Walker, DL Matt Conrath
7: WR Patrick Edwards (Houston) alt: WR Derek Moye, OLB Darius Nall, OG Austen Pasztor
Despite their good record right now, the Bills may be out of the playoff picture. The few games can be won as Dallas, Miami and Tennessee (and to a degree the Jets) are suffering from some sort of shortcoming in their passing game, arguably one area the Bills defense has struggled. More of a concern is the offensive inconsistencies that have hindered the Bills over the past few games. If the Bills can win the next few division matchups, the Bills can overcome the tiebreaker and be in a better position to make the playoffs.