Sitting at 4-8 and only technically alive in the AFC playoff race, the Buffalo Bills begin the final quarter of their 2013 campaign this afternoon with a road game against the 3-9 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Here's an abbreviated preview of today's game, which the Bills would very much like to win (and you should want them to, too):
In their first year under head coach Doug Marrone, the Bills have been bad on the road - again. Including last week's game in Toronto (because, let's face it, that's a road game), the Bills are 1-5 away from Ralph Wilson Stadium this season, and have been outscored by 52 points in those six contests. By comparison, they're 3-3 at home, outscoring their opponents by 12 points. One of the big reasons that the Bills aren't in better playoff position today is because they haven't played well on the road. This game in Tampa is an opportunity to start to turn that around.
The 2013 NFL Draft class was muddled at quarterback leading up to draft day, without a clear-cut favorite among the group. Buffalo, as you're aware, made EJ Manuel the third quarterback drafted with the No. 16 overall pick. 57 selections later, at No. 73 overall, Tampa Bay made Mike Glennon the third quarterback selected. Here's how they measure up thus far in their rookie seasons:
Clearly, less than one season isn't enough time to judge developing players. Bucs fans think their team picked the best quarterback in 2013, however, and it's hard to envision the Bills beating the Bucs today unless Manuel can outplay Glennon by a significant margin.
Run and stop the run
The Bills are a run-first team. There's no getting around that. Offensively, they're at their best when the running game is clicking and Manuel can pick his spots to attack via the passing game. Buffalo showed signs of life with a 195-yard rushing effort in last week's loss to Atlanta, but they're still a team that had been held under 100 rushing yards in four of their five previous games. Tampa has allowed over 100 rushing yards in three straight games, but they've also had dominant performances in that area this season (Atlanta had 18 yards rushing in Week 7, and Miami had two - yes, 2 - in Week 10). Buffalo needs to keep running the ball effectively to have a chance in this game.
Similarly, the Bills need to improve drastically against the run. They've allowed opponents to gain 120 or more yards in eight of 12 games this season, including each of their last three games. Tampa Bay has been corralled by strong run defenses in Detroit and Carolina over the past two weeks, but behind Bobby Rainey, they'd put up huge performances prior to that stretch against Seattle (205 yards), Miami (140) and Atlanta (186). You can bet that the Bucs expect a big day from Rainey and the running game, and it's on Buffalo to fix the problems you see below in order to win this game.
- Atlanta, like Pittsburgh before them, used a lot of unbalanced lines against the Bills. A third tackle was brought onto the field for 27 snaps, and Tony Gonzalez lined up on that side of the line, as well. That stressed Buffalo's base defense, with Manny Lawson moving further away from the football and Arthur Moats (in red) assuming a role closer to the line of scrimmage. You should expect teams to continue to do this over the next four games.
- (Play 1, 1 of 2) On Steven Jackson's 27-yard TD run, Atlanta's blocking can't account for every Bill in the box, and the players isolated in red are key: the fullback won't be able to account for both Jim Leonhard and Aaron Williams (circled). Note also that Jairus Byrd, circled in blue, is away from the play side due to a receiver lined up wide right. (Also notice the use of the unbalanced line again.)
- (Play 1, 2 of 2) Here's the breakdown: both Leonhard and Williams move toward the blocker to engage. Williams gets there first, Leonhard can't slow his momentum, and he harmlessly squirts by Jackson in the hole. Jackson marched untouched into the end zone.
- (Play 2, 1 of 2) On Antone Smith's 38-yard TD run, Atlanta bunches their formation to the left, with Roddy White and Gonzalez cracking down (in red) and the fullback, left tackle and left guard pulling to lead block on the toss play.
- (Play 2, 2 of 2) The breakdown on this run is simple: Kiko Alonso and Aaron Williams simply overrun the play, leaving a gaping running lane for Smith to attack. There's not enough pursuit on the back side, and again, a Falcons runner is off to the races untouched.
- (Play 3, 1 of 2) On a draw play, Atlanta is again operating out of a bunch formation, this time to the right. Alonso plays the right assignment - he has to handle the gap highlighted in red - but the draw action has him frozen in place. In most cases, he'd be standing in that gap, forcing the action to his left and ready to chase.
- (Play 3, 2 of 2) As Jacquizz Rodgers makes his cut, Alonso is out of position. Jamaal Westerman and Moats have been effectively blocked by a fullback and White, leaving Leodis McKelvin (red arrows) to stand in place and wait for Rodgers to make a cut one way or the other.
- (Play 4, 1 of 2) Atlanta spent a lot of time double-teaming Marcell Dareus on Sunday; this was a play that Dareus didn't handle particularly well. The focus, however, is on Alonso, who will be manipulated here by the blocking assignment and Jackson's initial move.
- (Play 4, 2 of 2) Hidden behind the double-team on Dareus, Alonso is moving to his left following Jackson's initial cut, which was to Jackson's right. That movement helps the Falcons seal Alonso to the left side of the formation, and Jackson picks up a much bigger gain here if he doesn't trip over the feet of No. 66, who is driven backwards at the last moment by Dareus.
- (Play 5, 1 of 3) Atlanta's left tackle and left guard step quickly to their left, sealing Westerman and Stefan Charles inside. The fullback will meet Moats off of left tackle, and Alonso is left responsible for Jackson as the run moves left. Note the double-team on Alan Branch in the middle of the line.
- (Play 5, 2 of 3) As Matt Ryan hands the ball to Jackson, Branch has been driven two yards backwards and turned. That allows center Joe Hawley (61) to scrape up to Alonso, changing the linebacker's angle of pursuit to Jackson.
- (Play 5, 3 of 3) This play looks like an overrun by Alonso (though not an especially egregious run), but it's actually a nifty play by him to avoid the block from the center and force the back into back side pursuit. This was a five-yard gain, but Alonso did a nice job containing the play.
Here is, perhaps, the most damning statistic about the 2013 Bills: in three of their four wins, they have been the beneficiaries of bad days by teams in the turnover department. Baltimore spotted them five turnovers in Week 4. Miami gave them three in Florida, and New York another four prior to the bye week. (The lone exception: they beat Carolina in Week 2 while forcing just one turnover.) Of the Bills' 21 forced turnovers this season, 13 have come in their four wins, for an average of 3.25 per game.
The Buccaneers, meanwhile, have turned the ball over three times in a game just once this season. Unless they're uncharacteristically bad in that department this afternoon, the Bills may need to win a road game without the benefit of gobs of turnovers coming their way. It's been a while since they've done that.
There are a lot of similarities between these two teams. Rookie quarterbacks command offenses with a good amount of skill talent (though the Bills edge the Bucs in that category at the moment, even as dangerous as Vincent Jackson is). Defenses with a lot of individual talent suffer through peaks and valleys, and only occasionally live up to their potential. Coaching staffs helmed by former college head coaches have yet to establish consistent programs at the NFL level (though the Bucs are a year ahead in that department).
Buffalo, without a doubt, has a winnable matchup here. The question is whether or not they can get out of their own way to take advantage of said winnable matchup. There is too much that remains inconsistent about this football team to feel comfortable about picking them on the road, especially considering how well the Bucs have played over the last several weeks. If the Bills pick up their fifth win of the season today, they'll do so hitting on all of the keys above. Buccaneers 23, Bills 20