Sunday's Week 9 matchup will mark the sixth time that the Buffalo Bills (3-4) and Houston Texans (6-1) have met in regular season action. It will also mark the first time that the two teams have squared off against one another when one of the two was considered a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
Buffalo is 3-2 all-time in the series, but in the previous five meetings, only once was a team above .500 going into the game. (The 2009 Texans were 4-3, then 5-3 after trouncing the Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium). Every other meeting has been between two middling to poor teams, making a distant past even more irrelevant. This year's Texans team is by far the best that has shown up in this series, bringing far more meaning to the game than we've seen in years past.
Where does that leave the thus far disappointing Bills, then? It's pretty obvious: they face a difficult task this weekend. The AFC wild card race is ripe for the picking, but in order to get out to a fast start in that derby as we reach the half-way point of the regular season, they'll have to take out the best team in the conference - and arguably the best team in the NFL - in one of the toughest environments in the league in Reliant Stadium. There's a reason that Houston enters this contest as roughly 10-point favorites, friends.
Mario makes his Houston return
The big story this week, of course, involves Bills defensive end Mario Williams playing his first game against the franchise that made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft. While Williams' words about his former employer have drawn the most attention this week, the larger, overarching story is much more interesting: Williams is at the center of a tale involving two teams that have made radical defensive changes over the past two seasons, with starkly different results.
Entering the 2011 season, Houston - who had been terrible on defense essentially for the entirety of the team's existence - hired Wade Phillips as the new coordinator and moved from a 4-3 to his patented one-gap 3-4 system. No one was quite sure where Williams was going to play, but immediately, Houston made it work: Williams had five sacks in the team's first five games, and the Texans seemingly immediately fielded one of the better defenses in the NFL.
Then Williams got hurt, and a funny thing happened: Houston's defense stayed good. They stayed so good, in fact, that they let Williams leave as a free agent without putting up much of an effort to keep him. He then signed his mega-deal with the Bills, becoming the centerpiece of Buffalo's unprecedented efforts to transition from a misguided 3-4 front back into a 4-3.
Houston's defense, under the direction of Phillips, remains one of the league's most dominant outfits. Buffalo's defense, coordinated by a veteran coach in Dave Wannstedt and featuring the richest defender in NFL history, has somehow gotten worse. Mario Williams' story is not anywhere near its conclusion, but as it pertains to himself, his current employer and his former team, only one of those entities has come out ahead to date.
Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE
Bills offense vs. Texans defense
Now that the Bills' two best offensive players are finally simultaneously healthy, Buffalo has transformed into a running back heavy offense in recent weeks. Combined, Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller have accounted for almost 71 percent of the total touches divvied up amongst the Bills' skill players in their last two games: in a win over Arizona and a loss to Tennessee, Jackson and Spiller tallied 72 touches, while every other skill player combined had 30. They're even the focal point of the passing attack, as the two backs have 23 receptions combined in that time frame, while Stevie Johnson, Scott Chandler and the rest of the team's receiving threats have 22 in total.
There's no way that the Texans haven't noticed Buffalo's high level of dependence on two of the game's best running backs. Their focus this week will be a simple one: slow down that duo as much as possible and put the ball back into the hands of Ryan Fitzpatrick and the passing game. That's a simple goal, but one that should prove difficult to execute; Buffalo's offense is structured so that Ryan Fitzpatrick can change from run to pass (or vice versa) based on pre-snap reads, so Houston can't simply load the box against the spread or send pressure, as the Bills can toss in screen passes against blitzes or check to runs when Houston plans to drop defenders into coverage. Jackson and Spiller will get their touches.
As always, however, Buffalo's offense will sink or swim in its effectiveness at the point of attack. Buffalo is getting healthier along the offensive line - rookie left tackle Cordy Glenn appears set to return to the lineup along with right guard Kraig Urbik - but these blockers have a tough task awaiting them in J.J. Watt and a cast of aggressive and physical front seven Texans defenders. That matchup, it can be argued, will determine how functional the Bills are on Sunday. Nullifying Watt, the NFL's leading sack artist at the moment, will be especially critical - and, again, far easier said than done. The Bills will need to know where he is on every play.
Texans offense vs. Bills defense
Buffalo enters this game with the worst run defense in the NFL, surrendering 176.9 rushing yards to opponents per game. Since allowing just 33 yards on the ground to Trent Richardson and the Cleveland Browns in Week 3 (i.e. over their last four games), that per-game average is actually a breathtakingly bad 234.3 yards surrendered. This week, they get to try to stop the NFL's top workhorse running back in Arian Foster. As ESPN so eloquently put it, "it's almost not fair."
You don't need us to tell you how good Foster is, particularly if you play fantasy football; his 659 rushing yards and nine touchdowns this season tell that story. What's most shocking about Foster is just how hard the Texans are riding him: he's averaging 24 carries per game, more than four totes higher than the next most-abused runner, Seattle's Marshawn Lynch. Add in his not-insignificant receiving contributions (he's added a tenth touchdown through the air), and we're talking about a back that touches the ball almost 26 times per game. That's almost unheard of in today's NFL.
Everything the Texans do offensively is built around Foster and its zone-blocking scheme. Their passing game, featuring Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson, is not particularly dynamic, but it's always effective thanks to their impeccable (and perfectly set up) play-action game. Buffalo's emphasis will be on containing Foster almost by default, but if they bring it too hard, Schaub, Johnson and the rest of the Texans' underrated receiving weapons will make them pay over the top. That means that key back-seven defenders - especially younger guys like Kelvin Sheppard, Nigel Bradham, Stephon Gilmore and Aaron Williams, among others - will need to be ahead of the curve when it comes to their assignments and their run-pass recognition.
Video Review: Houston's play-action game
Speaking of that Texans play-action game, let's take a look at the best single example of it in practice from this season, shall we? In a Week 3 win over the Denver Broncos, Schaub found Johnson wide open down the middle of the field for a 60-yard touchdown in a big road win over Peyton Manning and company. The best part of the play: Houston only sent three players out into pass patterns.
The still below gives you an idea of the personnel used on the play; Houston lines up in trips formation to the right (the third member of the "trip" is just off of the screen to the left), with two wide receivers on the field along with Foster, the lone tailback. With the trips making up the strong side of the formation, this play fake will go to the right - directly into the teeth of Denver's alignment. Spoiler alert: they bit on that fake hard.
As you can see below, the Texans kept seven players (including Foster, who executed the play fake) in to block. They seal the back side of the rollout by bringing one member of the trips trio across the formation to the left; if there's a blocker to pick up, he does, and if there isn't, he's a check-down option. In this case, Denver's backside defenders are in position, and Schaub is forced to drift backwards a bit to stay alive long enough to allow Johnson's route to develop. The only other players out on routes: Owen Daniels and Kevin Walter.
The key to making a play fake with three receivers out in routes and max protection work? The immense respect that opponents have for Foster and that vaunted rushing attack. Denver's linebackers so aggressively attack the line of scrimmage that the Broncos effectively only have four players in coverage against the triple route combination; that should be enough to cover it up, but the protection holds and Johnson's route is absolutely superb, allowing the veteran to get wide open behind the safety for an easy score. Seriously: find this highlight and watch it on a loop. This play was a thing of beauty.
It's this type of play, unfortunately, that will perhaps stress Buffalo's defense even more than that running game. Buffalo's starting safeties, Jairus Byrd and George Wilson, will need to be particularly great on Sunday; both are likely to be key factors in run support, but if they're not careful and on top of their game, Houston has players that can burn them over the top if they commit too heavily toward the line of scrimmage.
Key Matchup No. 4: Mario Williams vs. Derek Newton
There will be a lot of eyeballs on Super Mario this week, and as such, second-year right tackle Derek Newton is likely to receive far more in-game notoriety than he's used to. Williams, as the Bills' left defensive end, will be lining up across from the 6'5", 318-pound Arkansas State product for the majority of the game.
Fresh off of bye week wrist surgery, Williams insists that he's feeling better - and the hope is that a healthier Williams will be better able to take advantage of matchups such as this that he should obviously win, but routinely hasn't this season. Newton won't be asked to handle Williams by himself all day, as you can expect the Texans to throw extra blockers at Mario often enough to try to keep the big fella off balance. But when push comes to shove, if Buffalo is going to have any success defensively against a superior opponent, it will start with its best player winning a winnable matchup.
This particular 1-on-1 is sure to receive a ton of attention during the game, but it's not atop our list of key matchups for one reason: if Buffalo can't stop the run, then Williams won't have many opportunities to rush the passer, which minimizes his impact.
Key Matchup No. 3: Stephon Gilmore vs. Andre Johnson
Johnson remains one of the highest-regarded receivers in the NFL, and though his numbers are not what they once were, that's largely due to the focus on the running game and the fact that he's not the lone quality receiving threat anymore. Foster is the focus on offense and Owen Daniels has nearly as many receptions (33) as Johnson does (34) this season, but there's no mistaking that Johnson is the team's go-to target and by far its most explosive vertical threat.
Buffalo is an injury short of a hot mess at the cornerback position, but Gilmore - the 22-year-old rookie out of South Carolina - has gotten steadier in coverage throughout the first half of the season, to the point where he is easily the team's most reliable cornerback. It's a tall task asking any rookie to line up against one of the game's premier players and expect an even battle, but that's what it might take if the Bills are going to keep Johnson from breaking the proverbial dam while the team throws every resource it can at slowing down Houston's rushing attack.
That's one option. The other option, of course, is allowing one of the team's other cornerbacks to regularly line up opposite Johnson and watching the veteran Pro Bowler have a field day. The Bills can't afford a Larry Fitzgerald redux, when Gilmore competed well with a top receiver only to watch other defenders give Fitzgerald big plays.
Mandatory Credit: Thomas Campbell-US PRESSWIRE
Key Matchup No. 2: Chan Gailey vs. Wade Phillips
Buffalo's head coach and Houston's defensive coordinator have a combined 83 years' worth of coaching experience. 55 of those years have come at the NFL level. That's a phenomenal amount of time spent in this grueling profession, and it's not terribly often that you see two wizened, old-school football coaches with excellent track records going toe-to-toe with plenty of weapons at their disposal.
We know what Gailey's Bills offense is at this point in time: it's a back-heavy attack built around formational disguise and spread concepts, designed to quickly get the ball to players in space and rely on the athletes to make plays with the ball in their hands. It's a deceptive offense pre-snap, which makes it difficult to prepare for - but it's also fairly easy to adjust to in-game thanks to the limitations of key personnel. We also know what Phillips' defense is: a one-gap 3-4 system based on penetration that allows Houston's various outstanding front-seven athletes to make plays at and behind the line of scrimmage. It's also a defense that relies heavily on dime looks against spread concepts, which we'll likely see plenty of on Sunday - and which have proven to be a weak point this season.
Phillips will have new tricks up his sleeve for Gailey. Gailey will have new wrinkles to unveil for Phillips. The game will come down to players making plays, as it always does, but the proverbial chess match between these two coaches will go a long way toward getting those players in position to make plays. The coach that comes out on top will have a big leg up in the contest.
Key Matchup No. 1: Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller vs. Arian Foster
There's no more important matchup this weekend than in the running game. It's a factor that seeps into offense and defense for both teams; sustaining drives, maintaining possession and eating up clock will be a priority for both teams. It's an especially important goal for the Bills, who don't have anywhere near the reliable defense that the Texans do.
As such, Buffalo's duo of Jackson and Spiller need to outplay Foster (and Justin Forsett, to an extent, who will see carries spelling Foster here and there while Ben Tate sits this one out). It would be especially helpful if they were considerably better than Foster. The best thing that the Bills can do to get better defensively is to make sure that the defense is on the field for as little time as possible. That's Houston's modus operandi, as well, which only makes a difficult task more difficult, as the Bills will be trying to beat the Texans at their own game.
Purely from a running back standpoint, this is one of the best matchups we're likely to see in the NFL this season; Jackson and Spiller are that good, and Foster is great. If Buffalo can come out ahead in the matchup of rushing attacks, it'll help their whole team - and that's important against a superior opponent.
The Bottom Line
Buffalo has a lot that they need to accomplish in this contest if they want to pull off a big road upset and resuscitate their playoff chances. Gailey needs to out-coach Phillips. The offensive line needs to block up Watt consistently. Buffalo's running backs need to have a huge day - not just to put up points against a great defense, but to keep the Bills' defense off the field as long as possible. Buffalo's league-worst run defense has to contain Foster while being wary of Johnson and an outstanding play-action passing attack.
That's a tall order. It's not impossible to pull off, but it's a lot to keep in mind. We'll know in a little over 48 hours just how good this Texans team is; we'll also know whether or not the Bills have proven themselves capable of taking on a huge challenge with desirable results.