It was only a few short days ago that Buffalo Bills fans - the memories of their favorite team's worst loss of the season still fresh in their minds - were talking about the potential of a Week 9 upset of the NFL's lone remaining unbeaten team this weekend. The Kansas City Chiefs, you see, were ripe for the picking, about to go on their bye week before two games against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in three weeks - and that made them vulnerable.
That rhetoric died down considerably throughout the week, tied directly to the injury status of backup quarterback Thad Lewis. (Which, yes, is a very weird and unfortunate position to be in.) The Bills, already on their second starting quarterback of the season with EJ Manuel sidelined for at least two more weeks with an LCL sprain, made contingency plans while Lewis participated in just one practice this week while dealing with a rib injury. He is doubtful to play on Sunday, though it's clear that Doug Marrone and the Bills will give Lewis every opportunity to prove himself healthy enough to give it a go.
If Lewis can't play, the Bills will trot either undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel or veteran Matt Flynn, released less than a month ago by the Oakland Raiders, onto the field to take on one of the NFL's most exotic, aggressive and productive defenses. Needless to say, fewer Bills fans are smelling an upset now than on Monday and Tuesday of this week.
Keep up with all of our Week 9 coverage
Back to basics
Particularly if they're starting an undrafted rookie quarterback, the Bills will need to place a greater emphasis on getting back to basics if they want to hand the Chiefs their first loss of the season. Kansas City, a year ago the league's worst team and holders of the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, are 8-0 based largely on the merits of their defense - coordinated by Bob Sutton, who worked under Rex Ryan (and, by extension, Mike Pettine) for the last four years in New York - but also because they do the simple things well.
Kansas City leads the NFL with a plus-12 turnover differential. They have turned the football over just eight times in as many games, while forcing 20 turnovers themselves - good for the second-highest total in the league behind Seattle's 21. By comparison, the Bills are no slouches - they're plus-2, with 15 takeaways to 13 giveaways - but certainly not in Kansas City's class in this one specific category. The bigger worry: Buffalo has turned the ball over at least once in seven of eight contests this season. Even if Lewis plays, but especially if he doesn't, it's tough to envision the Bills playing their second mistake-free game this weekend.
Under Marrone, the Bills have emphasized the game-day basics we see referenced so frequently, with turnover differential ranking at the top of that list. Whether or not the Bills change their game plan - specifically on offense - to account for their goal of improvement in this category remains to be seen. The Bills did not get more conservative when they transitioned from Manuel to Lewis, but a more buttoned-up approach may be prudent if Lewis sits, even if that makes life a bit simpler (note: simpler does not necessarily mean easier) for Kansas City.
Bills offense vs. Chiefs defense
Kansas City's defense is outstanding, and their ability to pressure quarterbacks is second to none this season. That goes beyond their league-leading 36 sacks, 20 of which have been split between elite edge rushers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston. 11 different Chiefs defenders have registered at least a half-sack this season, which speaks to Sutton's style - he'll send any one of his defenders after the quarterback, from anywhere on the field.
If the Chiefs have a vulnerability on defense, it's against the run, where they only (drench that word in sarcasm, if you'd be so kind) rank No. 10 in the NFL, giving up 103.2 rushing yards per game. With a third-string quarterback or a banged-up Lewis in the lineup, you can bet that the Bills will continue to run the ball in volume - and they'll be aided in that effort by the fact that Fred Jackson is healthy and, more notably, C.J. Spiller will be returning to the lineup after a week off for rest. The extent of Spiller's workload remains to be seen, as he is still not completely back from a high ankle sprain, so we'll probably see doses of Tashard Choice again, as well.
A week ago, the Cleveland Browns were able to fudge something resembling a competent offensive effort in a close game against the Chiefs with Jason Campbell at quarterback. They did so by getting the ball out of Campbell's hands as quickly as possible in the passing game, throwing in a flea-flicker (they scored a touchdown on the play), and using a lot of max protections to pick up blitzes. We should expect the Bills to mimic that game plan given its successes, with either Lewis, Tuel or Flynn looking to get rid of the football as quickly as possible to players that excel in space - and the Bills have a good number of those. Buffalo's offense may look a bit more conservative this week, but that doesn't mean plays can't be made.
That said, we'll circle back to blitz pickup, because as we discussed earlier this week, that is an area in which the Bills have struggled mightily - not just this season, but especially since Manuel succumbed to injury. You can read more about Buffalo's struggles in diagnosing, blocking and reacting to blitzes in the All-22 section below.
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Chiefs offense vs. Bills defense
The last time the Bills played against Alex Smith, he shredded them. In a 45-3 win with San Francisco in Week 5 of 2012, Smith completed 18-of-24 passes for 303 yards with three touchdowns, adding 49 rushing yards on three attempts. Granted, that was a very different Bills defense that Smith was playing, and he's no longer a 49er, but the fact remains: fans writing off the Chiefs as legitimate contenders with Smith at the helm are missing a good season from a good quarterback.
Smith hasn't thrown for 300 yards since that game against Buffalo last season, and he's not going to wow anyone by routinely making great throws or carrying a franchise on his back. At his best, Smith is a guy that takes what the defense gives him with a high level of efficiency - as evidenced by his surprising 258 rushing yards this season - and minimizes mistakes to maximize chances of victory. He, head coach Andy Reid, and the Chiefs' diverse group of skill players are finding ways to make enough plays to complement their stingy defense and win football games. Jamaal Charles is an elite running back (and will almost certainly be the focal point of Pettine's game plan), wideout Dwayne Bowe presents problems despite a down year statistically, and Kansas City has been anything but pushovers offensively during their eight-game winning streak.
That said, it's not difficult to imagine that Mike Pettine and Buffalo's defense are eagerly anticipating this game following last week's struggles to defend Drew Brees and New Orleans' high-octane attack. The team is healthier than it's been all year - Stephon Gilmore played his first game with a functional left hand this season last week, Jairus Byrd is playing more like his usual self, and the only major contributor missing from the defense fans imagined this summer is end Alex Carrington, replaced capably by Alan Branch - and they'll get to play in front of a home crowd for the first time in three weeks, as well.
Buffalo's charge defensively will be a simple one: make more plays than they have been making. Kansas City's offense emphasizes ball control, and it's tough to envision the Bills handing the Chiefs their first loss of the year without significantly adding to the Chiefs' giveaway total.
All-22 film review
Not only do the Chiefs lead the NFL in sacks, but they also run one of the most unique defensive systems in the league, featuring blitz calls that would inspire even Rex Ryan's creative process. Kansas City will send players from anywhere on the field, and that's something that the Bills have struggled to deal with since Manuel's injury (and did to a lesser extent before, even). Flip through the gallery above for an extensive look at some of the Bills' issues with recognizing and dealing with pressure in last week's loss to New Orleans. Full write-up
Buffalo runs an aggressive, pressure-first defense, and on several occasions per game, that means that Bills players are doing things that they're not wholly accustomed to doing. We saw live, first-hand evidence of that last week, when Jerry Hughes was repeatedly beaten in coverage for big, game-changing plays by New Orleans. Buffalo isn't going to stop playing their style of defense - it'll help that Manny Lawson, a more natural coverage player than Hughes, is back on the field for these blitz calls - but you can bet that the Chiefs have noticed this tendency and devised a way to exploit it if they can pinpoint when it'll be used. Full write-up
Two sleeper Chiefs
WR Dexter McCluster. The Bills have issues defending second and third receiving options with talent this season (see: Marvin Jones and Kenny Stills in two of the last three weeks), and the speedy and versatile McCluster fits that player type. He's coming off a strong performance in a win over Cleveland, and is a featured player in Kansas City's passing attack. Plus, he has the ability to hurt teams as a punt returner, much like Travis Benjamin did to the Bills in Week 5. Buffalo has bigger fish to fry (chiefly the aforementioned Charles and Bowe), but they need to be cognizant of McCluster in all phases on Sunday.
CB Marcus Cooper. His is a pretty crazy story - Cooper, a rookie out of Rutgers, was a seventh-round draft pick in San Francisco this past April. He spent his first two years at Rutgers as an also-ran at wide receiver, but made the switch to cornerback and did enough in his final two years to sneak into this year's draft class. San Francisco released him in final roster cuts, Kansas City claimed him, and Cooper has quickly emerged as a playmaking depth corner in Sutton's scheme. He's picked off two passes and recovered a fumble for a touchdown despite established veterans ahead of him on the depth chart, and should be in prime position to make more plays against a banged up Bills offense on Sunday.
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Two sleeper Bills
WR Robert Woods. With Manuel out of the lineup and Lewis under center, Woods has disappeared. He's been targeted a total of six times in the last three games, stymied by circumstance while Stevie Johnson, T.J. Graham and Scott Chandler have provided most of the team's receiving production. Woods is simply too talented a player to be held down for long, and has the type of yards-after-catch ability that could make him a valuable asset as the Bills look to get the ball out of their quarterback's hands quickly against the Chiefs' vaunted pass rush. Even more interestingly, Woods may actually return to relevance if Lewis sits, as those two clearly don't have much of a rapport at this point.
S Da'Norris Searcy. Kansas City is a ball control team, and Smith is a quarterback that makes his living taking what the defense gives him. Searcy is now an in-the-box safety with Byrd and Aaron Williams playing deep, and you'll see him move all over the alignment in various coverage assignments, as well as utilized as a blitzed. Searcy is a nice athletic fit for this role and has made some nice plays this season, but he's also a player that opponents will look to target. As such, you should expect a lot of plays to head into Searcy's area of the field on Sunday, not just because the Chiefs don't take too many shots down the field.
Doubtful usually means out in the NFL. Yes, the Bills are clearly holding out hope that Lewis can play, and it's important to remember that the venerable league source believes he will. Rest assured, however, that Buffalo's chances at an upset diminish significantly if Lewis sits; why else would the team be so willing to play him over Tuel or Flynn despite little to no practice this week? And if Lewis does suit up, his chances at leading an upset have dwindled simply because he didnt practice all week. If Lewis can't play, either the Bills will become more conservative (and therefore predictable) on offense, or they'll make more mistakes. Either way, they'll need a huge performance out of their defense to pull the upset - and given Kansas City's tendencies on offense, it may be asking a lot to expect too many game-altering plays from Pettine's outfit. Chiefs 24, Bills 13