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Bills vs. Cardinals: five things to watch

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The Bills could really use a win today, but will have to fight against a lot of setbacks to earn it.

The debut of Anthony Lynn

The first game of the post-Greg Roman era is upon us for the Buffalo Bills offense. Lynn, who has never called plays in a regular season game, shouldn’t deviate too far from the general idea that Roman had in place, but should make an effort to rotate in reserve players a bit more often than his predecessor did.

Lynn is held in pretty high regard in some circles, and earned a few head coaching interviews last offseason (I’ll reserve judgement as to whether those were strictly to satisfy the Rooney Rule and commend him for being in the position to even be a plausible candidate.) If he can turn the offense around, he should find himself in a similar position this offseason.

Of course, he’ll have some challenges today...

The Bills offense without Sammy Watkins

The Bills will be missing both Watkins and Greg Salas for today’s game. The offense, which was already dealing with a major change on the coaching staff, is going to be without its best player for a matchup against a very good Arizona Cardinals secondary.

Watkins missed three games last season. The Bills went 1-2 in those games, only scrambling for a one-point win against the worst team in the NFL last year against the Titans. If his foot injury lingers, there could be even more of those games in store this season.

The loss elevates Robert Woods to the top receiving role. In the two games last season where Watkins sat and Tyrod Taylor played, Woods combined for four catches and 39 yards. The best wide receiver from those two games? Chris Hogan (8 rec., 95 yards, 1 TD), now of the New England Patriots. Charles Clay did put in a very strong performance against the Giants last year (9 rec., 111 yards), and could be in store for another big outing.

The balance of the running game

One of the big things that Lynn needs to improve with the offense, regardless of the state of his top wideout’s health, is the rotation in the backfield. Through two games, running backs who aren’t named LeSean McCoy have carried the ball three times and lost four yards. All of those were by Reggie Bush, and all came in the season opener at Baltimore. Bush saw the field for two snaps against the Jets last Thursday, and it remains to be seen whether a switch in the playcaller role will give him new life in the offense (although the injuries at the receiver position may give him a chance to excel in the passing game).

Mike Gillislee has yet to carry the ball, but does have two receptions, including an 18-yard touchdown scamper at the end of the loss to the Jets. Jonathan Williams has yet to be declared active and may be dealing with an injury, but is active for today’s game. If either of them see the field in a significant role today, that should be a telling sign of what Lynn has in store going forward.

The Bills defense without Ronald Darby

The loss of Darby leaves the Bills in a very precarious position defensively. Stephon Gilmore is coming off an awful performance against the Jets, and the combination of Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd won’t make things any easier on him. Now he’ll need to step his game up even higher, something that should give him leverage in his contract talks if he can pull it off.

The more pressing issue, however, is what happens in Darby’s place. There are two main options to replace Darby on the outside. One is Nickell Robey-Coleman, a talented corner who is at least seven inches shorter than either of the Cardinals top receivers. the other is Kevon Seymour, the sixth-round pick who struggled in his NFL debut against the Jets.

Whatever happens, the famous Rex Ryan mantra about leaving his cornerbacks on an island should be scrapped until Darby returns. The Bills have a plethora of safeties (one of whom, Aaron Williams, has cornerback experience and could slide over if need be) to help out with coverage, and they’ll absolutely need it. Carson Palmer is more than capable of taking advantage of a serious mismatch on the outside, especially when Fitzgerald is involved.

On that note, let’s talk about blitzing

The Jets (and, to a lesser extent, the Ravens) seemed to have figure out the best way to attack Rex Ryan’s once-vaunted defense: throw the ball as quickly as possible, towards the middle of the field, and preferable low enough that the defender can’t attack over the top. The Jets also made great use of wide receiver screens, putting the ball on the outside of the field in quick order.

Most of this was made possible by Ryan’s general over-reliance on his cornerbacks. Gilmore and Darby both struggled mightily, which didn’t help matters, but single coverage is a common sight for a Bills defense that loves to send safeties either deep or on a blitz. That leaves the middle of the field open to an almost comical extend, and while Zach Brown and Preston Brown have both played well in 2016 it would be asking a lot of them to handle the league’s eighth-ranked passing offense, especially with the threat of standout running back David Johnson looming.

With the loss of Darby forcing Ryan to shuffle things around a bit, he should consider using those safeties to offer more help in coverage. Double-teaming Fitzgerald, even in 2016, is an entirely acceptable practice. Moving one of the safeties down to the middle of the field to allow the linebackers to cover the flat or rush the passer is also fine. Either way, it’s a safe bet that a repeat of last week’s performance will give Palmer an NFC Offensive Player of the Week award for his mantle.