Hey! Did you hear that the Buffalo Bills are playing the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football? That happens in a hair over two days' time, folks. Whether the Bills or their fans are prepared or not, the 2009 NFL regular season is about to begin - perhaps in brutal fashion in Western New York.
Knowing how these Bills/Patriots have unfolded in the past - i.e. the Bills have been playing from behind far more frequently than not - it's not exactly a stretch to say that the Bills will be throwing the ball a lot in this particular matchup, either. Add in other factors, such as personnel and injuries, and the likelihood skyrockets. Trent Edwards' right arm should be sore Tuesday morning, even if he avoids hits - and, perhaps unfortunately, putting the ball in the air is by far the Bills' best chance to pull off a huge upset.
The isolation of Fred Jackson
Much has been made about the fact that in his last game against New England, RB Fred Jackson - starting in place of suspended starter Marshawn Lynch - rushed for 136 yards on 27 carries. Somehow, I sincerely doubt that Bill Belichick and the few Patriot defenders that remain with the team from last year have forgotten that impressive performance. Jackson will be the first player that Belichick will try to erase from this game.
Considering Buffalo's depth and skill at receiver, Belichick will almost certainly concentrate resources early on eliminating Jackson and the running game from the equation, putting all of the pressure on Edwards to win the game. One-dimensional offenses are dreams come true for opponents. Given the fact that the Bills' two backup runners, Xavier Omon and Corey McIntyre, have a combined six career NFL carries, Belichick doesn't need to worry about seeing waves of fresh runners. Jackson will get all of the work, and Belichick knows it.
That doesn't, however, mean that Jackson will be ineffective - just keyed on. He'll still have opportunities to make plays if the run is stopped - but, obviously, he'll need to do it through the air.
The hamstring of Derek Fine
Many won't factor this into their thinking, but the likely DNP for TE Derek Fine is significant in this game. The Bills only employ two tight ends aside from Fine - Derek Schouman and Shawn Nelson. Nelson, a rookie out of Southern Miss, is expected to see the bulk of his playing time in red zone situations and from the slot, where his biggest assets (size, speed, hands) are put to best use, and where his biggest weaknesses (in-line blocking) are a non-factor.
Without Fine, and with Nelson's inexperience blocking factored in, the number of two tight end sets the Bills can run in New England dwindles significantly. Buffalo, in years past, has used two tight ends in most of their run fronts. Without that extra in-line blocker - and without McIntyre's natural fullback position being a significant part of the offense - Buffalo will be running from one-back, three-wide sets frequently, which is difficult to do. Once again, this increases the chances of throwing on a play-by-play basis.
Getting your best players on the field
Given the lack of depth at running back and tight end, easily the deepest and most gifted skill position for the Bills is, obviously, wideout. Much will be made of Lee Evans and Terrell Owens heading into this game. A key decision to make, however, is which secondary personnel to put on the field to keep defenses honest in covering Evans and Owens (and, to an extend, keeping an eye on Jackson as well).
Nelson will see work. Omon will see some carries as well, just to keep Jackson as fresh as possible. But their snaps will be severely limited, as they should be, because players like Josh Reed, Roscoe Parrish and Steve Johnson are, quite simply, better football players. Buffalo doesn't have a chance at winning this game if they don't get the ball into the hands of their best players. In this particular instance, players like Reed, Parrish, Johnson and even Nelson will need to make chain-moving plays to sustain drives. They won't be doing so unless the ball is thrown. Jackson, too, has that capability, but if he can't do it on the ground, he'll need to do it through the air.
You see where we're going with this. Everything, seemingly, dictates that the ball will be thrown early and often - and that's without mentioning the fact that the Patriots, with their potent offense, have a strong chance at grabbing an early lead. The no-huddle offense may be Buffalo's one saving grace, no matter what Ron Jaworski believes.
The no-huddle factor
Evaluating all of the above, it's easy to see why Dick Jauron has been interested in the no-huddle. Everything above are things that the Bills, in reality, cannot control. Their personnel hand has been forced. The no-huddle offense puts some of that control back into their hands.
It's risky. The no-huddle would need to function nearly perfectly, and it would need to do so in a quick, yet time-occupying manner. Ideally, the Bills will keep the ball out of New England's hands as long as possible; in order to do that, they need to sustain drives. The quick pace is the only way they can force New England into anything, particularly exhaustion, and more importantly, it might be their only chance at keeping the offense balanced. We all know what will happen if the plan backfires - the exact opposite of what the Bills would like to do.
I mentioned earlier this week that Edwards, entering his make-or-break season, is necessarily under a ton of pressure simply because of the position he plays. That pressure amplifies any time you play a tough opponent on a national stage, and it will only grow further if the Bills are forced to throw early and often. We'll see if the no-huddle attack can abate some of that pressure.