Things have not been going particularly well for the Buffalo Bills lately.
The Bills are 1-5 in their last six games, falling to 3-7 after a 2-2 start. In their last performance, a 23-10 loss to Pittsburgh, the team experienced by far their roughest-looking outing of the season, particularly from rookie quarterback EJ Manuel. It was a performance that riled up the fan base after two-plus months of moderate approval despite the team's record, and the environment around the franchise could darken quickly if the struggles continue.
Making matters worse, the Bills are about take on a New York Jets team that thoroughly dominated them in a 27-20 Week 3 win; Buffalo was in that game almost exclusively because of the generous heaping of turnovers (two) and especially penalties (20 for 168 yards) that New York provided. Sitting at 5-4, the Jets are primed to make a playoff push behind their excellent defense, a solid running attack and opportunistic play from rookie quarterback Geno Smith.
This is not a matchup that shapes up well for the home team, but the friendly confines of Ralph Wilson Stadium are a worthy discussion-starter for this Week 11 matchup.
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A tough out at home
When a team is 3-7, they're probably not particularly good either at home or on the road. That is the case for the Bills; they're a dismal 1-4 on the road this season, but aren't much better sitting at 2-3 in games played in Orchard Park. That is not, however, the whole story.
Of Buffalo's three home losses, one was a two-point defeat at the hands of New England in the season opener, and another was an overtime loss to AFC North leader Cincinnati with backup quarterback Thad Lewis under center. (A third loss, to undefeated Kansas City two weeks ago, was a 10-point defeat with third-stringer Jeff Tuel in the lineup.) They beat the currently 6-3 Carolina Panthers on a last-second score in Week 2, and the defending champion Baltimore Ravens by a field goal two weeks later.
Only one of the Bills' four losses by 10 or more points has occurred at home. They average 171.8 rushing yards per game at home, as opposed to an average of 109.6 yards rushing on the road, and have forced 10 opponent turnovers at home, with just six coming in away games. The Bills are very clearly a more competitive team at home than on the road this season, and they'll need to keep that trend a trend if they're going to beat a Jets team that controlled the action from start to finish in the first meeting.
Bills offense vs. Jets defense
With a rookie quarterback under center - that's pretty much been true each week this season, even as the Bills have been forced to start three different players there - the Bills are a run-first offense. A 241-yard effort against Kansas City has been the lone aberration of the past month, as Buffalo has been held under 100 rushing yards as a team in three of their last four games. This week, they'll try to produce against a Jets defense that ranks No. 1 in the NFL in both yards allowed per game (73.8) and yards allowed per rush attempt (3.1).
In fact, the Jets have only given up over 100 yards rushing to a team once this season - in Week 3 against the Bills, who needed a 59-yard Houdini act from Fred Jackson to even get there. Without that run (which, yes, was a fantastic play from Jackson), the Bills may have been held to under 60 yards on the day. C.J. Spiller was particularly ineffective in that contest, gaining nine yards on 10 carries.
It will not be easy for the Bills to get right in the running game against a Jets defense led by one of the league's best defensive lines. Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, Damon Harrison, Quinton Coples, Kenrick Ellis and Leger Douzable are all capable of making plays up front for Gang Green, giving the Jets an embarrassment of riches up front (and of those six players, four of them are 25 or younger). The Jets' game plan will be simple: stop the run again and force the game into Manuel's hands.
The Jets' job will be made easier by the fact that the Bills will likely be without their top two receivers, Stevie Johnson (groin) and Robert Woods (ankle), in the contest. It's possible that Manuel will be trying his hand at a rebound performance without much of a running game and T.J. Graham and Marquise Goodwin serving as his top wideouts. You'll see an increased emphasis on Scott Chandler and Chris Gragg at tight end, and the backs out of the backfield, but they'll hardly compensate for what is already missing. Rex Ryan will give Manuel rush looks that he hasn't yet seen at the NFL level, and there may not be enough receiving talent to bail Manuel out. Long story short: things look pretty bleak for the Bills offensively on Sunday, especially if they can't find a way to run the football.
Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
Jets offense vs. Bills defense
Here, at least, the Bills have a chance for a major turnaround from what we saw against the Jets in Week 3. In that game, Smith threw for two long touchdowns and several more big plays against a depleted Bills secondary that didn't have Stephon Gilmore, Leodis McKelvin or Jairus Byrd in the lineup. Aaron Williams played cornerback most of the day, and Justin Rogers - who has been inactive for the past several weeks - was the team's top (and oft-attacked) cornerback.
Buffalo is obviously much healthier in the secondary, and while they've still had their share of struggles on the back end - Gilmore, in particular, has been picked on by the Bills' last two opponents - they're also obviously significantly better than they were in Week 3. Add in a pass rush (keyed of late by Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Jerry Hughes) that is still humming along nicely - the Bills still rank second in the NFL with 33 sacks, even as Mario Williams has been blanked for two weeks running - and Buffalo will almost certainly be better against the pass than they were in the first matchup.
The real story of that game, however, was the Jets' running attack. Bilal Powell, of all people, ran for 149 yards on the day, and the Jets have only gotten better on the ground with the emergence of Chris Ivory. Buffalo, meanwhile, has looked relatively soft against the run for long stretches in recent games against Miami, Kansas City and Pittsburgh. Buffalo will want to attack Smith and force turnovers - the Jets are minus-11 in the turnover department in their four losses, after all - but they'll struggle to do so if they can't first stop the run.
Give the Jets some credit, too, for what they've been able to accomplish offensively with an inconsistent rookie quarterback and a slew of replacement-level receiving options brought in to account for injuries (one of which you'll recognize, and is discussed below). The Jets will get another big break this week with Santonio Holmes returning to the lineup at receiver.
All-22 film review
- (Play 1, 1 of 2) The Jets line up in a Pistol formation with two running backs, Chris Ivory (33) and Bilal Powell (29) behind Geno Smith. The quarterback has the option of handing off to Ivory, or keeping it and potentially tossing to Powell on an option play. The blue lines indicate the Saints' play call; outside linebacker Parys Haralson is looping inside.
- (Play 1, 2 of 2) The Saints have two unblocked defenders in the hole, but Haralson over pursues and Curtis Lofton takes a poor angle. He can't catch up, and Ivory is off to the races for a huge gain.
- (Play 2, 1 of 2) Trapped near their own goal line, the Jets run a very basic power running play: double-team the right end, pull the left guard to meet the linebacker, and let the fullback lead the way.
- (Play 2, 2 of 2) This works to perfection for the Jets. The fullback contains the edge defender (24), the left guard pulls to take out Lofton (50), and Ivory has a massive, gaping hole through which to run. This play took the Jets all the way out to midfield.
- (Play 3, 1 of 2) David Nelson is making himself a valuable Jet on plays like this: he runs a simple drag across the formation, working a level lower than tight end Zach Sudfeld off of play-action (and, you'll notice, out of the Pistol formation again).
- (Play 3, 2 of 2) A linebacker moves forward to account for Ivory (blue arrow), who is in pass protection. This leaves one Saints defensive back (red circle) to account for Sudfeld; he runs underneath that route to try to pick off a pass that instead heads for Nelson (yellow circle), who picks up 19 yards on the play.
- (Play 4, 1 of 2) The Jets operate out of a two-back shotgun look a lot; here, they do it with Josh Cribbs lined up at quarterback. He pulls out of a run to Powell, rolling out with Sudfeld (yellow arrow) running the only non-receiver route on the play. A safety moves forward to account for the threat of a run (right blue arrow).
- (Play 4, 2 of 2) Cribbs extends the play just long enough for Sudfeld to get behind 10 of 11 Saints defenders (blue X), save for one defensive back running upfield with Stephen Hill. A better throw from Cribbs may have resulted in a touchdown.
- (Play 5, 1 of 2) On another play featuring Cribbs, they line him up in a trips to the right, but with Sudfeld and a fullback beside him. The fullback will pull to take the weak-side contain defender, and left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson will move forward to block Lofton as Cribbs takes the end-around.
- (Play 5, 2 of 2) Tommy Bohanon, the fullback, seals the edge and Ferguson gets enough of Lofton to give Cribbs space to make a first-down run. A play-fake to Ivory prior to the end-around flip helps to freeze the strong-side defenders.
Marty Mornhinweg, the Jets' offensive coordinator, has been forced to get creative in recent weeks with top skill players sidelined by injury. True, he's getting help from that defense and an improving running game, but he's also dialing up some creative play calls out of a two-back shotgun formation, some Pistol sprinkled in, and a new Wildcat package featuring October free agent signing Josh Cribbs. Take a look above at how these new wrinkles picked up big chunks of yardage in an upset win over New Orleans two weeks ago. Full write-up
- (Play 1, 1 of 2) Blue circles isolate EJ Manuel and the end responsible for him on the read-option, Quinton Coples. This run play is going to the right of your screen, with Colin Brown and Lee Smith cracking back and Eric Wood and Cordy Glenn pulling to the edge.
- (Play 1, 2 of 2) The play breaks down when Erik Pears can't effectively cut Sheldon Richardson (lower red circle), Richardson holds Kraig Urbik, preventing him from getting to the second level (upper red circle), and Demario Davis (56) meets Spiller in the hole, forcing Spiller to the sidelines.
- (Play 2, 1 of 2) Blue circles identify Manuel and David Harris, responsible for contain on the read-option. Scott Chandler is moving across the formation to serve as a lead blocker if Manuel keeps it. Yellow circles single out Wood and Glenn, and the red circle identifies Davis. They're the key figures on this play.
- (Play 2, 2 of 2) Wood gets a shoulder into Damon Harrison (94) before getting up to the second level, but takes a bad angle based on how Davis aligns his feet; Davis makes Wood think that Spiller is running straight upfield. Glenn, meanwhile, doesn't get his head around fast enough to pick up the unblocked Davis, who blows up the play.
- (Play 3) Things are pretty straightforward on this run, which lost yardage: Muhammad Wilkerson (96 in blue) penetrates upfield on Erik Pears; Wood (blue circle) can't get upfield to David Harris because he's held in place by Harrison (94); Spiller has to run backwards to get past Wilkerson, and Harris cleans the play up.
- (Play 4, 1 of 2) Blue circles once again identify the read-option players, Manuel and Coples. Glenn and Brown will double-team their defensive lineman, with one peeling up to take out Davis (top red circle).
- (Play 4, 2 of 2) Harrison dominates Wood at the point of attack (red circle), pushing him back far enough that Spiller has to change course and run straight upfield. The double-team (blue circle) is gobbled up, leaving both Davis and Harris unblocked and in control of the two gaps Spiller can choose. Note the red arrow, indicating Coples crashing toward the run action; Manuel could have prevented a bad play with a correct read and keeping the ball himself.
- (Play 5, 1 of 2) We've been highlighting the read-option parts of these play calls (and do so again on this play) for a reason: this was the game in which Manuel was pretty bad at making the correct reads on those runs.
- (Play 5, 2 of 2) Wilkerson (red arrow) crashes hard toward Spiller, but Manuel gives him the ball anyway. On the play side of the base run call, Brown (blue circle) is dominated at the point of attack by Leger Douzable, who easily sheds the block (controlling two gaps in the process) to make the stop.
- (Play 6, 1 of 2) Blue circles for the read-option again. Fred Jackson is moving behind Manuel on that side of the play as a pitch option, which the Jets pick up effectively. We'll use Kraig Urbik to highlight the issue with this play: the Jets play it to the outside (red line), because that's how the Bills had been running Spiller most of the day, when the Bills would have liked the play to move in the direction of the yellow line.
- (Play 6, 2 of 2) Pears and Urbik have to block to the outside, accounting for Coples and Richardson, who gets far enough upfield on Urbik to direct Spiller back inside (yellow circle). Both of the Jets' linebackers, Harris and Davis, are unblocked. This play is going nowhere.
- (Play 7) On a more traditional handoff, which the Bills don't do as much of with Spiller this year (but on which he looks more comfortable), Spiller is able to jab outside to take Harris out of the equation (blue arrows), but Wilkerson beats Glenn to get to Spiller's ankles (left red arrow), and Harrison disengages from an Urbik block to meet Spiller in the hole (right red arrow).
- (Play 8, 1 of 2) The Jets send Davis on a run blitz (red arrow) on another more traditional running play call for the Bills. Douzable is highlighted with a red circle, lined up across from Urbik at right guard.
- (Play 8, 2 of 2) Because of Davis' run blitz, Urbik has to slide over to take him out of the picture, leaving Pears to take on Douzable (red circle). Spiller jabs to the outside to cut upfield, where he has a big hole, but Douzable easily sheds Pears' block to stop the run at the line of scrimmage.
- (Play 9, 1 of 2) Blue circles for the read-option again, with a blue arrow to locate another contain defender out of frame. Chandler is running a pop route off of the read-option (yellow arrow). This weak-side run looks good pre-snap, given the way the Jets have lined up; all they really need to do is account for Davis.
- (Play 9, 2 of 2) Richardson (red circle) eats up a double-team to prevent Wood from getting upfield to Harris, who then closes off the cutback gap. The play would still be okay if Urbik can get a hat on Davis; instead, he whiffs (red X), and Davis is able to get outside to stop Spiller one more time.
Circling back to the Jets' defense, flip through the gallery above for an in-depth look at how they completely erased Spiller from the land of big plays in Week 3. You'll note that there was nothing done specifically from a game plan standpoint on Ryan's part; his defense was simply dominant at the point of attack, Spiller was trying to do too much, and Buffalo's run game play calling was a little too predictable before Spiller exited early with a knee injury. Buffalo can ill afford a repeat performance of what you see above. Full write-up
Two sleeper Jets
WR David Nelson. You'll likely remember Nelson if you've watched any Bills games in the past four years; Nelson is the 6'5" former undrafted slot receiver that was unceremoniously allowed to leave as a free agent this past offseason. After an injury prevented him from making the team in Cleveland this past summer, Nelson latched on with the Jets last month and has surprised pretty much everyone that wasn't aware of his skill from his days in Buffalo. You can bet that Nelson (16 receptions for 199 yards in five games with the Jets) will be chomping at the bit to turn in a big performance against his former employer.
S Ed Reed. Long renowned as one of the best safeties to ever play the game, Reed is a shell of his former self, and was released by the Houston Texans just this week. He signed with the Jets and his former coach in Baltimore, Ryan, on Thursday, and is expected to play on Sunday against the Bills. He won't start, and may only appear in specific packages, but given the way the Jets match up against the Bills, would it really surprise anyone if we saw a rushed, floated pass end up in Reed's arms on Sunday?
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports
Two sleeper Bills
WR Marcus Easley. Buffalo's reserve receivers will have plenty of chances to shine with both Johnson and Woods out of the lineup, and while Graham and Goodwin will see the most playing time, Easley has the best chance to shine among the quartet of receivers likely to play. Graham and Goodwin are speed guys, sequestered to running outside in Buffalo's offense, so Easley and Chris Hogan will see plenty of time working out of the slot, where Easley's 6'2" frame and above-average speed could lead to him turning in a sneaky-good performance. Bills fans have been waiting for Easley's break-out performance for four years; the opportunity is now sitting in front of him.
CB Nickell Robey. One of the more pleasant surprises for this Bills team in a down year, Robey is squarely on most Bills fans' radar right now, but the nickel cornerback is worth mentioning as a sleeper this week based on what we saw in Week 3. He played 45 snaps in that first game against the Jets, and had at least two instances in which he just missed jumping a route to make a big play. We saw him do just that in a win over Miami, and he has the ability and the opportunity for another one this week.
Buffalo needs a big performance out of its defense to win when the offense is struggling as badly as they are almost certain to do on Sunday. That has been true for several weeks, as the Bills have shuffled quarterbacks in and out of the lineup, and they've gotten just one such performance - a three-turnover fiesta in that win over Miami. Otherwise, Buffalo's defense has ranged between good (see: Kansas City, who didn't turn the ball over) and bad (see: stretches against New Orleans and, well, everybody else). It's hard to envision the Bills doing enough offensively to win this game, but if the defense can force turnovers against the streaky Smith and hand the offense short fields, that could be enough to pull the upset. Jets 20, Bills 13