Things have gone fairly well for the Buffalo Bills of late.
In their last live game action, they blew out the New York Jets, 37-14, to improve to 4-7 and keep themselves in the thick of a crazy AFC wild card playoff chase. Since then, teams in that chase that needed to lose have lost, and when the Bills take on the Atlanta Falcons this Sunday at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, they'll do so in need of a win to keep themselves one game out of the conference's final wild card slot.
Matt Warren has your Week 13 rooting interests covered - there are still several very important games to be played this weekend - but if the Bills can't hold serve and defeat a struggling, 2-9 Atlanta team, all of the playoff talk that occurred through Buffalo's bye week will have been for naught.
The stakes are high, but the mood around Buffalo is on the rise, as well. The Bills are healthier than they have been all season - defensive lineman Kyle Williams is questionable with a tweaked back, which represents the most serious injury on the 53-man roster at the moment - and they're trying to sell that win over the Jets as a season-changer. That very well could be the case, considering that the Bills' next four opponents (Atlanta and the three teams from Florida) are a combined 12-32 entering Week 13.
Keep up with all of our Week 13 coverage
Back to Toronto
Keep those positive vibes about the Bills' season in mind as best as possible, because the fact that this game is being played in Toronto puts a serious damper on Buffalo's playoff chase.
The Bills are 1-4 in five regular season games in Toronto, with their last appearance north of the border a 50-17 shellacking at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks last December. Circumstances have changed - this is a very different Bills team, and the 2013 Falcons aren't remotely in the same class as the 2012 Seahawks - but the venue hasn't. This is a series that current, well-respected Bills players like Eric Wood have openly panned in the past, after all.
Buffalo's lone win in Toronto came during the 2011 season, when they blanked the Washington Redskins, 23-0, to improve to 5-2 that season. Those Redskins wound up finishing 5-11, and are the only team with a losing record that the Bills have ever played at Rogers. Atlanta will be the second.
Bills offense vs. Falcons defense
For the first time since Week 1, the Bills will have their full contingent of offensive skill players healthy and in the lineup. EJ Manuel is back in the saddle at quarterback, and is coming off of his best performance as a pro against the Jets (20-of-28, 245 yards, two touchdowns, no turnovers and a 121.9 rating). Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller are healthier than they've been since the very early portions of the season. Stevie Johnson and Robert Woods are recovered from injuries and will line up next to Marquise Goodwin and T.J. Graham at receiver. (And though they're not skill players, it's also worth noting that Buffalo's current starting offensive line has played five straight fully healthy games together.)
That's the good news. The better news is that there is genuine belief in the building that One Bills Drive that Manuel has taken his first major step as a pro quarterback, and is ready to close his rookie season on a hot stretch; those efforts will be aided by line continuity and a full repertoire of passing game targets. If the Bills are going to make a playoff push, however, they need to fix their suddenly-problematic running game - and this might be the perfect week to do so.
Atlanta comes into this contest ranked 29th against the run, surrendering 130 yards per game at 4.6 yards per rush (tied for 27th in the league). That's good news for Jackson (24 carries for 89 yards in his last two games) and especially Spiller (21 carries for 29 yards in the same time frame), who have been non-factors offensively since exploding to combine for 254 yards from scrimmage in Week 9 against Kansas City. The Bills still rank fifth in the NFL with a rushing average of over 134 yards per game, but after being held to under 100 yards as a team in four of their last five outings, they've looked more like a middle-of-the-pack outfit.
Manuel carried Buffalo's offensive essentially by himself in the win over the Jets, but that won't be a recipe for success if the team wants to sneak into the playoffs. Buffalo needs its dominant running game back. The hope is that two healthy backs and a reprieve from playing against some of the NFL's best run defenses will aid that effort; starting with Atlanta should help. Without a running game, teams will be able to amp up the pressure on Manuel - and even against teams like the Falcons, who struggle to pressure opposing quarterbacks, that's something the Bills should try to avoid.
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Falcons offense vs. Bills defense
As healthy as the Bills are now on offense, the Falcons are just as unhealthy. Atlanta's offense suffered a major blow early in the season when receiver Julio Jones was lost for the year, and they have yet to recover. Making matters worse: the injury struggles of receiver Roddy White and an offensive line that has left tackle Sam Baker and, had he made it to the regular season, right tackle Mike Johnson on Injured Reserve.
The story of Atlanta's offense begins up front: star quarterback Matt Ryan has been sacked 24 times this season, well above his usual pace, and has been hit much more frequently than that. They also rank 31st in the league with just 74.7 rushing yards per game, though that figure is certainly aided by playing with a lot of fourth-quarter deficits. Those two issues have compounded into Atlanta relying heavily on receiver Harry Douglas and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez for their offensive production, with mixed success.
On paper, this is a matchup that the Bills should win. Buffalo is currently tied for the NFL lead in both team sacks (37) and interceptions (16), and they've gotten notably better at preventing big gains with the likes of Jairus Byrd and Stephon Gilmore back in the lineup. All of a sudden, this Bills defense is one of the better young outfits in the league, spearheaded by its defensive line (featuring the aforementioned Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Mario Williams) and featuring playmakers in the back seven.
Buffalo's task will be simple on Sunday: ensure that the Falcons stay one-dimensional, do what they can to disrupt the Falcons' screen game (where Kiko Alonso and Nickell Robey have excelled all season) and the rhythm of their short passing game, and then tee off on Ryan. Third down defense will be especially critical, as Ryan is the type of efficient thrower that can keep defenses on the field for long stretches if they're not at the top of their game.
All-22 film review
- (Play 1, 1 of 2) The Bills run plays like this a lot - slant the line one way, run a weak-side blocker across the formation as a lead blocker (here, Frank Summers). It's a counter, but there's a problem here: the Bills don't block Muhammad Wilkerson, one of the best defensive linemen in the league.
- (Play 1, 2 of 2) Cordy Glenn and Doug Legursky double-team one defender, leaving Wilkerson completely unblocked. Glenn should have stepped backwards to at least slow Wilkerson's progress towards C.J. Spiller. Spiller can't outrun Wilkerson because Kraig Urbik can't sustain his block, clogging up the lane.
- (Play 2, 1 of 2) This run is heading left, with Glenn helping to seal the edge off left tackle before heading to the second level to block David Harris.
- (Play 2, 2 of 2) The Jets send a run blitz, with Dawan Landry streak off of left tackle unblocked. Spiller sees him and looks to the cutback lane, which is sealed off by Wilkerson, who has rendered a Legursky block utterly ineffective. Spiller was leveled by both players at the line of scrimmage.
- (Play 3, 1 of 2) Here's another counter run, with the addition of a pulling right guard (Urbik). Lee Smith is the other lead blocker.
- (Play 3, 2 of 2) Fred Jackson misses an opportunity for more yardage on this play. In red, Demario Davis is focusing on EJ Manuel rolling out, with Scott Chandler (circled in red) the potential receiving target. Davis doesn't pursue quickly, leaving a lane (in yellow) for Jackson to attack. Instead, he presses to the outside, and Quinton Coples (circled in yellow) easily disengages for a stop.
- (Play 4, 1 of 2) The Bills dial up an end-around fake (in blue) on this play; the Jets ignored it, so they ran the end-around three plays later (Ed Reed sniffed it out). On this play, you'll want to focus on the double-team inside on Kenrick Ellis, in red.
- (Play 4, 2 of 2) Eric Wood and Legursky execute their assignment well: they double Ellis until Legursky can establish an edge, and then Wood moves forward to take on David Harris (who bit hard on the end-around fake). Spiller does not hit the hole hard enough; had he taken the blue route, he'd have had at least a modest gain, but instead he presses the hole to the outside and then tries to cut north, giving Landry (26) enough time to meet him at the line.
- (Play 5, 1 of 2) No fancy diagrams are needed for this play. Note here that Wood is lined up on the 31-yard line, directly across from nose tackle Damon Harrison...
- (Play 5, 2 of 2) ... as the handoff is made, Wood has been driven two yards backwards, and Harrison plugs the lane up sufficiently that Spiller is forced to bounce outside. We all know how things turn out when Spiller is forced outside.
- (Play 6, 1 of 2) This is a more straightforward power running call, with one double-team inside (on Harrison, between Wood and Legursky), Summers the lead blocker into the A gap, and Jackson picking a hole to exploit.
- (Play 6, 2 of 2) The Bills block this up fairly well (Urbik has even taken care of Davis at the second level, in yellow), save for one area: Summers doesn't get enough of Harris going low. Harris keeps his balance and prevents Jackson from running straight upfield between Glenn (blocking 91, Sheldon Richardson) and Summers (in red).
- (Play 7, 1 of 2) Again, no fancy diagramming needed here. Just focus on Legursky (in yellow) and Wilkerson (in red).
- (Play 7, 2 of 2) That's a whiff and a half on Legursky's part. Wilkerson steps by him like he's not there, and hits Spiller as soon as the ball is tucked away.
- (Play 8, 1 of 1) Wood had the block of the day on Summers' second-quarter touchdown run. It's a typical block that's well-executed in confined space: he takes care of his first assignment, then moves to the second level.
- (Play 8, 2 of 2) Wood scrapes off of his first assignment and seals the edge, allowing Summers to squeak through the narrowest of lanes and waltz into the end zone.
- (Play 9, 1 of 2) The Bills are running another counter here, with T.J. Graham throwing a key block on the play (right red arrow). Jackson takes a step in the direction of the line, then plants and explodes to his left.
- (Play 9, 2 of 2) Buffalo blocks this up exceedingly well, and it's a well-timed play call - Jackson has the widest running lane any Bills runner will see all day. Dee Milliner (27) is the man Jackson has to evade, and he can't: he essentially runs directly into Milliner (yellow arrow), rather than planing and getting north (blue arrow).
- (Play 10, 1 of 2) The yellow circle focuses on Legursky, lined up across from Harrison (in red). This is another weak-side run, with Smith serving as the lead blocker and the line slanting toward the strong side of the formation.
- (Play 10, 2 of 2) Legursky is so positively overwhelmed by Harrison that he ends up in the path of Smith. The two players collide, Spiller has absolutely nowhere to go, and he's again forced to try to make something happen outside. This play lost yardage.
Buffalo's problems running the football of late are many and varied, ranging from poor play from the running backs to bad blocking up front - and, in the case of Spiller, including predictable play-calling. The gallery above goes into further specifics about those issues as they cropped up against the Jets; these are the issues that the Bills will be trying to resolve on the fly against the Falcons. Full write-up
- (Play 1, 1 of 2) Working out of a nickel package, the Bills send five rushers, including Jairus Byrd (31) off of right tackle. You'll want to focus next on Marcell Dareus, lined up directly over center.
- (Play 1, 2 of 2) Dareus loops around Jets left guard Brian Winters with ease, forcing Geno Smith up into the pocket. His hurried throw is batted down at the line of scrimmage for a harmless three-and-out.
- (Play 2, 1 of 2) Now in a dime formation, the Bills overload their rush off the right side of the line, sending Nickell Robey on a rush in the gap between Mario Williams and Kyle Williams. Kiko Alonso and Jerry Hughes, circled in yellow, drop into coverage.
- (Play 2, 2 of 2) Note that Robey is currently unblocked, and that center Nick Mangold (circled in blue) is trying to make his way over to cut off his angle of pursuit. Smith is again forced to step up into the pocket, where he lands in the waiting arms of Kyle Williams for a sack.
- (Play 3, 1 of 2) The Jets send a receiver in motion to the right, leaving Jairus Byrd free to blitz off the left side of the line. Buffalo effectively has four players for three Jets blockers to defend, so one will be free. Alonso and Hughes, again circled in yellow, drop into coverage once more.
- (Play 3, 2 of 2) Byrd is the defender untouched off of left tackle - that's standard blitz pickup behavior, to leave the outside guy so as to maximize pocket time for the quarterback - and the right guard is left to spectate as Byrd picks up a sack.
- (Play 4, 1 of 2) When the Bills weren't overloading, they were typically rushing five out of their base defense. Here, Mike Pettine dials up a simple stunt inside between Dareus and Alan Branch, but it's Kyle Williams (in red) that you'll want to pay attention to.
- (Play 4, 2 of 2) Williams roasts Winters off of left guard again, sneaking around to strip the ball out of Smith's throwing hand. Manny Lawson (here working off of right tackle) pounced on the ball to ultimately set up the Bills' 17-3 lead.
- (Play 5) This isn't necessarily rush-related, but it's worth pointing out nonetheless: when the Bills are worried about the screen (here, they're reacting to Josh Cribbs lining up in the backfield), they'll line up in a base alignment with nickel personnel, using Robey (in red) as the second proverbial inside linebacker. Robey is the defense's screen eraser.
- (Play 6, 1 of 2) On a third and long, the Bills do what we've seen them do before: overload a rush off one side of the formation (here where the Jets have bunched receivers), drop Hughes and Alonso into coverage, and leave Mario Williams isolated on the other side.
- (Play 6, 2 of 2) The Jets do a nice enough job with the rush to keep Smith alive, but Smith can't get his head back around due to late blocking breakdowns. He forces a pass in the direction of Leodis McKelvin (in red); more time might have gotten the ball to David Nelson (in yellow).
- (Play 7, 1 of 2) Remember on the previous play, when the Bills overloaded off the right side of the line and a hot receiver was open up the left hash? This time, Pettine rolls coverage to that route, guessing that Smith will look for it first. Alonso and Aaron Williams (in blue) double up the red route, with the rush highlighted in yellow.
- (Play 7, 2 of 2) Smith is locked onto Santonio Holmes - with good reason, because Robey is unblocked and ready to make a hit - but you can see how Alonso and Williams have both jumped the route already. Alonso wasn't in position to make a play, but Williams arrived with the ball to register a pass break-up; if he reacts a hair sooner, he might have had a pick.
When Buffalo's defense is clicking, the Bills are able first to pressure quarterbacks, then to place coverages behind that pressure that bait quarterbacks into making mistakes. That's exactly what happened against Geno Smith (four turnovers). Ryan is not nearly as turnover-prone as his rookie counterpart, but has thrown two or more interceptions in three of his last five games. Don't expect Buffalo to deviate much from what you see above on Sunday. Full write-up
Two sleeper Falcons
WR Darius Johnson. Knowing that the Falcons are going to try to get the ball out of Ryan's hands quickly, Johnson is a name to pay attention to. The 175-pound slot receiver caught six passes in the Falcons' loss to New Orleans last Thursday, raking in a lot of underneath throws from Ryan as Atlanta opted for a ball-control passing attack. The approach should be similar against the Bills' ferocious pass rush, and Johnson could again see a lot of targets this week.
LB Joplo Bartu. Atlanta found themselves a playmaking outside linebacker this past spring among the ranks of the undrafted. A product of Texas State, Bartu quickly assimilated to the pro game and emerged as a starting linebacker for the Falcons; he has since accumulated 57 tackles and 3.5 sacks as a rookie. As Atlanta's strong-side linebacker, Bartu will figure heavily into the equation as the Falcons try to prevent the Bills from re-establishing their running attack.
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Two sleeper Bills
TE Scott Chandler. Buffalo's top red zone threat has not scored a touchdown since October 13 against Cincinnati. Now that the Bills have a healthy stable of skill players, Chandler's streak of games without a score should end soon. In his two career games in Toronto, Chandler has recorded a combined seven catches for 93 yards and two touchdowns, both of which came in 2011 against Washington. He's due.
S Da'Norris Searcy. As the Bills have gotten healthier in the secondary, Searcy has quietly stepped into the nickel linebacker role that veteran Bryan Scott handled for so long. It's an in-the-box role that suits Searcy's strengths as a player, and though his playing time has dipped dramatically, he's playing very well at the moment. He'll be in the area of the field where the Falcons have the best success attacking with the passing game, and will try to add to his Week 11 pick-six and 2.5 sacks this season.
Aside from the venue, which favors neither team, this is a matchup in which Buffalo holds an advantage in nearly every conceivable way (save for the quarterback position). They're the healthier team, they're the better team, and they're playing for much more at this point in the season. Buffalo should be able to get its running game on track, and the ever-improving defense should not be particularly challenged by an Atlanta offense without much of a running attack and with major pass protection issues. Then again, we've played the "should" game a lot with the Bills before and watched them lose. This is a prove it week for a young Buffalo squad: can they handle their business, or will they stumble early in their desperation bid for the post-season? Bills 24, Falcons 17