It is difficult to remember a time in Buffalo Bills history in which a team, and the men that assembled it, entered Week 1 of the regular season under as much pressure to win as the 2014 outfit is.
The Bills haven't made the playoffs in 14 years, and as a result, the Bills' fan base has never been quicker to turn on a regime than they are at present. Following the death of team founder and owner Ralph C. Wilson, Jr., the franchise is being sold - and that puts the long-term job security of key second-year figures Doug Whaley, Doug Marrone, and EJ Manuel into serious doubt. The effects of that pressure are already beginning to show.
Buffalo needs to win, and quickly. A high-pressure season begins in a high-pressure environment, as the Bills will travel to take on the Chicago Bears in their season opener. The Bills have never beaten the Bears at Soldier Field, losing all five contests between the two teams in that venue since 1970.
Keep up with our Week 1 coverage
The opposite of road warriors
One of the biggest obstacles that Marrone and the Bills must overcome if they're going to make a playoff push in 2014: their woeful performance on the road. Marrone's Bills were just 2-7 away from Ralph Wilson Stadium in his first season coaching the team (we're counting a "home" game in Toronto into that equation); while the Bills were 4-3 at home and had a plus-31 scoring differential there, they were a pitiful minus-81 on the road.
Here are some facts!
- The Bills have not won more than two games on the road since the 2009 season, when Dick Jauron and Perry Fewell split the year coaching the Bills, and Terrell Owens was their top wide receiver.
- The Bills have not gone .500 (4-4) in non-home games since 2008, a season that the Bills started 4-0 under Jauron and Trent Edwards, only to lose nine of their last 12 games.
- The Bills have not had a winning record on the road since 1999, which just so happens to be the last time they appeared in the postseason.
For the first time since the 2007 season, the Bills will play eight games at home thanks to the one-year suspension of the Bills in Toronto Series. Having the extra date at the Ralph will help, but it'll be a moot point if the team can't make huge gains in their level of play while traveling. Again: they've never won in Chicago. This is, without a doubt, a very difficult first test.
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Bills offense vs. Bears defense
In their final nine games of the 2013 season, the Bears' miserable run defense gave up at least 150 rushing yards to their opponents a whopping seven times. They ended up yielding over 161 rushing yards per game at over 5.3 yards per carry, in what was one of the worst defensive performances not just in franchise history, but in recent memory.
It stands to reason, then, that despite the fact that the Bears spent tons of resources to rectify the issues (committing big money to Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, and Willie Young in free agency, then drafting Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton) this offseason, the Bills are probably licking their chops heading into this matchup. Nobody ran the ball more than the Bills did last season - a telling statistic, given that they went 6-10 and rarely had the luxury of icing away fourth-quarter leads - and that won't change in 2014, given the Bills' doubled-up depth at running back and tweaks to improve efficiency along the offensive front.
Chicago's defense should be pretty good against the pass this season, given their major improvements at end. Allen is still one of the best pass rushers in the game, Houston is solid in that department, and Young, who played under Bills defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz in Detroit, is seriously underrated as an edge rusher. Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker's simplified, zone-based system limits yards after the catch, and demands efficiency from quarterbacks to beat it. It's not a difficult defense to solve - they spent the overwhelming majority of the time shifting between a base 4-3 defense and a nickel alignment with four linemen - but that doesn't necessarily mean it's easy to beat. The Bills did, after all, focus on revamping their receiving corps with after-the-catch athletes like Sammy Watkins and Mike Williams; the Bears build to limit the effectiveness of players like that.
Whether or not the Bills will be able to pass efficiently will come down to whether or not they can establish the run. The Bears know it's coming based on Buffalo's tendencies and how bad they were in that area a year ago. The Bills know the Bears know it's coming. That battle of wills will determine whether or not the Bears have to commit extra defenders to stopping the run, thereby opening themselves up to deep shots and the play-action (Chicago gave up an abysmal 8.6 yards per play against play fakes last season), or if they'll be able to drop seven into coverage and force Manuel to play darts all afternoon. If the Bills are going to compete in this game, they're going to have to run the ball extremely well.
That's music to the ears of Buffalo's young offensive line and their deepened stable of running backs, C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson in particular. It would be an encouraging first step for Buffalo's offense if they're able to establish the run against the Bears, specifically, who know it's coming and are hell-bent to improve there.
Bears offense vs. Bills defense
Schwartz knows this Bears offense all too well. Buffalo’s new defensive coordinator saw it twice last season as the head coach of the Detroit Lions; the Bears were defeated in both of those contests, but the first was a 40-32 shootout in which Chicago accumulated 417 yards of total offense.
Marc Trestman earned most of the credit for turning the Bears into one of the league’s best passing offenses (though he had a lot of help from coordinator Aaron Kromer, who like Buffalo's Marrone was a Sean Payton understudy in New Orleans), and he did it largely by fixing the team’s horrendous offensive line. Starting two rookies and featuring baseline-acceptable left tackle Jermon Bushrod, the Bears went from atrocious to average up front in 2013, which allowed the team’s outstanding group of skill players to shine, regardless of who was playing quarterback.
Matt Forte had been a matchup problem for years, even before the line was fixed; he’s a do-everything back capable of hurting you on the ground or in the air. The Bears feature arguably the best starting pair of receivers in the NFL, with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery combining for an incredible 189 receptions, 2,716 yards, and 19 touchdowns last season. Even tight end Martellus Bennett (65 receptions, 759 yards, five touchdowns) has emerged as one of the best in the business.
It’s there, with that passing attack, where Schwartz and the Bills’ new defense will need to shine in Chicago. Trestman’s concepts are not revolutionary, but they are modern, and the yield is undeniable. In those two Bears-Lions games last year, Marshall, Jeffery, and Bennett combined for 40 receptions, 558 yards, and three scores. Schwartz never had the secondary talent in Detroit that he is now working with in Buffalo; the team’s top-six defensive backs (Stephon Gilmore, Leodis McKelvin, Aaron Williams, Corey Graham, Da’Norris Searcy, and the diminutive Nickell Robey) are all highly talented athletes, but there’s no question that they have their work cut out for them. Jay Cutler, the Bears’ quarterback, saw heightened degrees of efficiency in his first season under Trestman after developing a reputation for being a bit of a gunslinger in his previous four years with the Bears.
The Bills ranked fourth in the NFL defending the pass in 2013, but they’ll take on the Bears without two key players from that quality unit: free safety Jairus Byrd, who departed via free agency, and linebacker Kiko Alonso, who is out for the season as he rehabs from a late-June ACL tear. Buffalo has plenty of depth in the secondary, but may find it difficult to replace Byrd’s playmaking flair; the same is true of Alonso at linebacker. The Bills will also be without their most athletic player at the position, Nigel Bradham, who is serving a one-game suspension. (He'll be replaced predominantly by third-round rookie Preston Brown.) Brandon Spikes, one of the league’s better run-defending linebackers but a fairly large liability in coverage, could end up on the field in passing situations, which will put extra pressure on Buffalo’s safeties to cover well.
Buffalo’s all-star defensive line, which features three 2013 Pro Bowl members (Mario Williams at end, and Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus at tackle) and 10-sack end Jerry Hughes, will attempt to alleviate some of the pressure on the back seven by providing a consistent pass rush, but that isn’t always easy to do against a passing scheme as well-timed as Chicago's. Buffalo should expect to give up a lot of yards in this contest; if they can contain Forte and limit the number of points scored, Schwartz and the Bills will like their odds of coming away with a win. That was the Lions’ formula in Week 10 last season, when Forte rushed for just 33 yards on 17 carries and Detroit eked out a 21-19 road win.
(Note for mobile users: the above All-22 gallery, studying the Lions' road win over Chicago from last season, is best viewed in landscape mode. Pay particularly close attention to the explanatory captions.)
Santonio Holmes: Bills fans will remember this name; Holmes, formerly of the New York Jets, has only been with the Bears for three weeks after signing on with the team on August 16. The Bears needed to bolster their depth at the position following a collarbone injury to third receiver Marquess Wilson, and Holmes is a proven veteran with big-play ability. Marshall and Jeffery are still the alpha dogs in Chicago's passing offense, but Holmes is clearly a player the Bills can't sleep on. In two games against the Bills in 2013, Holmes was a nuisance, hauling in seven passes for a whopping 225 yards (yes, that's over 32 yards per catch) and a touchdown.
Kyle Fuller: Chicago's first-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft is a long, tough zone cornerback that, eventually, will replace veteran Charles Tillman in the starting lineup. For now, however, he's staring up at both Tillman and Tim Jennings on the depth chart, and will be a sub-package player for the Bears until further notice. Chicago's shaky safety situation will get most of the attention as potential weaknesses are discussed, but the Bills might choose to pick on Fuller a bit in his first NFL game, as well.
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Marquise Goodwin: No one is exactly sure what the Bills' receiver rotation will look like, or which players will line up where, but we do know that Goodwin is the team's go-to deep threat. The second-year pro out of Texas had a quiet preseason as he was held out by a few minor injuries, but he proved in 2013 that he has the potential to emerge as one of the best speed receivers in the league if afforded opportunities. The Bears know the Bills are going to try to run as early and often as possible, and it'll be up to players like Goodwin to keep Chicago honest by providing a threat - and, ideally, big plays - over the top.
Corey Graham: Jeffery, 6'3", and Marshall, 6'4", make the game look easy because they're enormous, and they're excellent at playing the ball in the air. Holmes is only 6'0", but another slot receiver, Josh Morgan, also comes in at 6'4". (Even the aforementioned Wilson, the injured No. 3 receiver, is 6'4". The Bears like to throw to trees.) Bennett, the highly underrated tight end, is 6'6". Robey is an excellent football player, but if the Bills think their 5'7" slot corner can match up in any sort of coverage against this group of receivers, they're crazy. The 6'0" Graham, whether he's the slot corner, a hybrid safety, or both, will be a vital strategic piece for Schwartz on Sunday.
Despite the crushing amount of pessimism emanating from those that follow the Bills closest - including their fans - there is an awful lot to like about this 2014 Bills outfit, even in a rather difficult Week 1 matchup against a team some consider a sleeper Super Bowl contender. The Bills are capable of beating the Bears in Chicago; don't let anyone, even yourself, tell you any differently. That said, Chicago's advantages within the context of this one-game matchup outweigh Buffalo's, and their home-field advantage is a tremendous asset to have early in the season, as well. Bears 31, Bills 20