Editor’s Note: Matthew Jones is a writer at our partner site www.NEPatriotsDraft.com. He was recently in Buffalo and attempted a Bills Training Camp practice. Below is his evaluation of the Bills overall and some thoughts from what he saw while at camp.
The Buffalo Bills enter the 2012 season under more pressure to make a playoff appearance than they have faced in a decade. Head coach Chan Gailey holds a 10-22 record with the Bills and is coming off of a 6-10 season; a third straight losing year could cost Gailey his job. Additionally, the Bills have made a number of significant financial commitments to players on their roster; the “rebuilding” excuse no longer applies to this team.
Ryan Fitzpatrick signed a seven-year contract worth up to $62 million last October which contains $24 million in guaranteed money; the Bills also signed RB Fred Jackson and WR Stevie Johnson to contract extensions this past offseason. Buffalo made one of the biggest free-agent splashes of all when they signed defensive end Mario Williams to a six-year deal with $50 million guaranteed and followed up that move by signing former Patriots defensive end Mark Anderson to a four-year, $32 million deal. In order to make the playoffs Buffalo will need to succeed within their own division; how do the Bills match up against last year’s division champions, the New England Patriots?
Chan Gailey is a long-time advocate of the no-huddle offense; in 1984, Gailey ran the no-huddle at the Division II level for an entire season. The Bills were in the no-huddle to open the preseason against the Washington Redskins; Gailey called sixteen straight passing plays and attempted to spread the field with multiple-receiver sets. Ryan Fitzpatrick will be forced to make quick reads, improve his accuracy, and limit turnovers in order for Buffalo’s passing attack to be successful, especially considering how thin the Bills are at wide receiver. The Patriots’ pass coverage was thoroughly exploited by opponents in 2011; Fitzpatrick passed for over 300 yards in both meetings. However, New England’s ability to force turnovers was underestimated as a result of their coverage deficiencies; Fitzpatrick threw two interceptions in week three and four in the season finale. Fitzpatrick seems to think that mechanical issues were to blame for his lack of accuracy in the second half of last season; Buffalo has almost no chance at making the playoffs next year with another 25-turnover season from Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick was clearly Buffalo’s best passer in training camp but appeared to slightly underthrow some of his deep passes; more precision will be necessary in order to prevent second-guessing Fitzpatrick’s $62 million deal.
Stevie Johnson is easily Buffalo’s most dangerous receiving threat, and Buffalo was wise to sign him to a five-year deal worth just over $36 million this offseason following his second straight season of over 1,000 receiving yards. Johnson was a major factor in Buffalo’s first matchup against the Patriots, catching eight passes for 94 yards and a touchdown; in the second matchup, he caught four balls for 40 yards and another score. Devin McCourty struggled against top wide receivers last year and Buffalo will be eager to test his coverage abilities in 2012. Aside from Johnson, the Bills have a number of complimentary wide receivers, including Marcus Easley, T.J. Graham, Derek Hagan, Donald Jones, and David Nelson. However, none of the players have been productive at the NFL level aside from Nelson, who caught six passes for 84 yards in the first matchup vs. New England and presents a potential size mismatch. Look for Buffalo to try and play the 6’5″ Nelson in the slot in hopes of drawing a coverage assignment from the relatively short Kyle Arrington, who stands 5’10″. Ras-I Dowling is another possible matchup for Nelson due to his size (6’1″, 210 pounds.) Buffalo will have a difficult time getting the ball to Scott Chandler, who totaled five receptions for 39 yards and a touchdown against New England last season; Chandler may have difficulty separating from New England’s young linebackers.
The Bills enter the season with question marks along the offensive line as well. Chris Hairston made seven starts last season but may have difficulty matching up against Patriots first-round pick Chandler Jones, who made short work of Jermaine Bushrod in his preseason debut; it’s also possible that Cordy Glenn will usurp Hairston before one or both of the matchups. Glenn’s length and athleticism could present a more challenging matchup for Jones, who uses his long arms to control blockers. The interior of Buffalo’s line is the strength of their unit, but Andy Levitre, Eric Wood, and Kraig Urbik have a difficult assignment in Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork. Luckily for Buffalo, New England lacks a difference-maker at left end, which should make right tackle Erik Pears’ job easier. Chan Gailey may try to implement the hurry-up offense against New England in hopes of preserving the stamina of his linemen against New England’s big, powerful front seven. Buffalo was able to protect Ryan Fitzpatrick well in 2011 and must maintain their level of success in 2012. Look for Bill Belichick to try disguising blitzes in an attempt to confuse Buffalo’s young line.
Before fracturing his fibula last November at Miami, Fred Jackson had put together the most efficient season of his career, averaging 5.5 yards per carry over 170 carries. This offseason, the 31 year-old Jackson signed a three-year contract worth $10.8 million, well below market value for a running back of his caliber. Bills fans most hope that Jackson has not lost a step as a result of age or his injury; Jackson’s big game in week three (161 total yards and a touchdown on 17 touches) was vital to Buffalo’s victory, and the Bills ended up losing when Jackson was not on the field in week 17. If the Bills are able to establish a running game, New England may be forced to stack the box with an extra defender, making their defense more susceptible to Buffalo’s passing attack. Backup running back C.J. Spiller was a non-factor in Buffalo’s first matchup against the Patriots (-4 total yards on two touches) but was more effective in week 17, with 100 total yards and a touchdown on 17 touches. Spiller’s development towards the end of the season is encouraging; Buffalo would be wise to challenge the speed of New England’s defense via Spiller, especially in the screen game.
Buffalo’s greatest weapon against New England is their defensive line, which the Bills have invested more money into building than any other personnel group. Buffalo will pay their top eight defensive linemen (in order of pay: Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, Shawne Merriman, Chris Kelsay, Marcell Dareus, Dwan Edwards, Spencer Johnson, Mark Anderson) almost $43 million in 2012, and they additionally owe Aaron Maybin over $5 million in dead money; these totals account for over one-third of Buffalo’s $127.69 million in 2012 salaries. The Bills can save a great deal of money by cutting Merriman ($5.25m), Edwards ($4.475m), and Johnson ($3.5m), which would deplete their roster depth but leave Buffalo’s top five defensive linemen intact; in training camp the Bills’ first-team defensive line has usually been Mario Williams at left end, Marcell Dareus as the under-tackle, Kyle Williams at nose tackle, and the Mark Anderson/Chris Kelsay platoon at right end. The Bills must get production from all of these players in order to prevent New England from matching the 40 points per game they averaged against the Bills last season.
Editor’s Note: This article was written prior to the Shawne Merriman release today
New England’s biggest question mark on offense is their offensive line; left guard Logan Mankins is on track to return by the start of the regular season, but right guard Brian Waters has been missing from practice and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is still on the physically-unable-to-perform list. Matt Light, last year’s starting left tackle, retired, leaving Nate Solder to step in. Free agent signing Robert Gallery retired before New England’s first preseason game.
Buffalo’s pass rushers must pressure Tom Brady if they hope to slow down New England’s offense; whether or not Waters and Vollmer are able to play in the games should significantly impact the effectiveness of the Patriots’ passing attack. Mark Anderson should be highly motivated against New England, where he will line up opposite from Solder, who has been inconsistent thus far. The interior of New England’s line will be challenged if Waters retires; Dan Connolly, Marcus Cannon, Ryan Wendell, Donald Thomas, and Nick McDonald would all be candidates for the right guard spot.
Buffalo’s safety play figures to be strong in 2012 with both Jairus Byrd and George Wilson returning as starters. However, Buffalo will need strong play from their cornerbacks as well in order to defend against the likes of Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker. Left cornerback Aaron Williams struggled in 2011 and will be tested by Lloyd on the outside; New England may also test rookie right cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who received the majority of the team’s training camp reps vs. Stevie Johnson in one-on-ones. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Buffalo’s secondary is the uncertainty surrounding the slot cornerback job; whoever emerges from that battle must cover Wes Welker. Terrence McGee is currently the front-runner for the slot but he is currently recovering from an injury and may not make the final 53-man roster. Unfortunately, the Bills lack appealing alternatives in the slot; rookie Ron Brooks (fourth round) was picked on throughout the practice I attended and appears to have a long way to go developmentally.
Buffalo’s linebackers are another area which should concern Bills fans; New England will attempt to exploit the likes of Nick Barnett, Kelvin Sheppard, and Kirk Morrison with plays designed for Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Look for Patriots playcalls designed to get one-on-one matchups for their tight ends. The Bills’ pass rush may not allow Tom Brady enough time to push the ball down-field to Brandon Lloyd, but could take advantage of man coverage on short-to-intermediate routes from Buffalo’s linebackers and corner backs this approach would go a long way towards negating Buffalo’s defensive line talent.
Buffalo will certainly be the underdog in both meetings, but their team is fairly well-suited to compete with New England thanks to their flexible offense and a defensive line which is expected to rank among the best in the league. Teams which have been able to disrupt Tom Brady in the pocket have traditionally been the most successful against the Patriots, and New England could be in for two tough games if their offensive line is operating at less than full strength. However, the Patriots have the weapons to create mismatches which will exploit Buffalo’s coverage deficiencies and another loss to the Bills in 2012 would be surprising. Buffalo may not be able to unseat New England atop the division, but they can still rebound from last year’s 1-8 finish with promising matchups at Cleveland, at Arizona, vs. Miami, at Indianapolis, vs. Jacksonville, vs. St. Louis, and at Miami.
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