This weekend's matchup between the Buffalo Bills (5-7) and the St. Louis Rams (5-6-1) - two teams on the fringe of their conference's respective playoff races, daring to believe - is one of the more interesting games we'll see this season when it comes to the battle in the trenches.
With 30 sacks this season - including 10 in the last three games alone - the Bills have already surpassed their team total from a year ago, and they continue to improve in that department. Mario Williams is a half-sack away from becoming just the third Bills player since the turn of the century to record double-digit sacks in one season (yes, seriously). Meanwhile, Rams quarterback Sam Bradford has been sacked - you guessed it - 30 times, tied for the third-highest total in the league.
On the flip side, the Rams have recorded 34 sacks themselves this season, with starting defensive ends Robert Quinn (8.5) and Chris Long (7.0) pacing those efforts. Only five quarterbacks that have started every game this season have been sacked fewer than the 20 times Ryan Fitzpatrick has, but St. Louis' excellent pass rush will nonetheless be playing a banged-up Bills offensive line featuring a new starting right tackle in Sam Young, and a new interior starter in undrafted rookie free agent David Snow.
I asked Joe McAtee, a.k.a. '3k' of Turf Show Times for some perspective on the Rams' offensive line.
"While this year's line has been the definition of patchwork (I don't think many teams lost sleep over facing a line that has included Wayne Hunter, Barry Richardson, Robert Turner, Quinn Ojinnaka and Shelley Smith at different times), offensive line coach Paul Boudreau may have been the most valuable coach on the staff over Jeff Fisher given what he's gotten out of his unit. While they haven't been perfect (and it's not like Rams fans expected anywhere near as much), they've been serviceable."
Yet still, they've given up the third-most sacks in the NFL this season. Richardson, a former Kansas City castoff that beat out Hunter for the starting right tackle position, will see Mario this week. Buffalo's defensive tackle duo of Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus will be expected to win their matchups inside against the trio of Smith, Turner and Harvey Dahl. In short, Buffalo will look to continue to drive Bradford into the turf early and often as teams have done all season.
McAtee and Rams fans are likewise licking their chops at the prospect of St. Louis' very underrated defensive line matching up against Buffalo's re-tooled front. The Rams are not exotic schematically, much like Buffalo, so McAtee says to expect a lot of four-man rush.
"They don't bring a ton of blitzes partly because they don't have to," McAtee said. "Long and Quinn can close off the edges as well as nearly any defensive end duo in the league, and Michael Brockers' raw strength disrupts the pocket relatively often. Knowing this, the Rams can sit in coverage and force the quarterback to play a shorter passing game."
A "shorter passing game" is what Buffalo aims for offensively on a weekly basis, with the idea to get the ball out of Fitzpatrick's hands as quickly as possible (often via screen passes), but teams are expecting it now, and it plays right into the Rams' hands. Despite that, St. Louis is susceptible to a few things that Bills fans will be able to identify with thanks to the strategy.
"While it's been frustrating for Rams fans to see cornerbacks giving huge cushion to opposing receivers on third and short, it's been pretty successful otherwise," McAtee writes. "And as quarterbacks get sufficiently frustrated and try to hold the ball a bit longer, the Rams have either picked up sacks or forced bad decision more than enough to justify that gameplan on the whole."
In any given week, the battle in the trenches will make or break a football game for a particular team. This weekend's Bills versus Rams game has the potential for a lot of big plays in that area.