BBD Staff Writer: Eric Samulski
It’s gut check time for the Buffalo Bills. After getting dismantled by the Patriots in the second half last week, the Bills head into the toughest part of their schedule. Including their game in San Francisco this week, the Bills will play four teams with winning records over the next five games. Three of those teams (New England, San Francisco, and Houston) made the playoffs last year and are considered among the best in their respective conferences.
If the Bills have any hope of being considered a legitimate threat to make the playoffs, they’re going to need to show up to compete against proven playoff teams.
If they can find answers to the following questions, it might be a good start.
Question One: How will OL respond to last week’s injuries?
The Bills survived the injuries to Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller only to get hit by two more last week. Both Cordy Glenn and Kraig Urbik will miss, at least, the next two weeks with sprained ankles. It’s a tough blow for a unit that was playing physical and coming together as the most productive group on the team. However, for the first time in years, the Bills do have depth to cover for the injuries. Chris Hairston spent plenty of time at left tackle last year after “Demetrius” Bell’s injury, and Chad Rinehart is pretty much a carbon copy of what Kraig Urbik offers. In fact, at times, he even plays more physical, his first play from last week excluded. If the reserves can step up and prevent a drop off in production, the Bills can continue to control the game on the ground and stand a chance against the talented defenses on their upcoming schedule.
Question Two: Can the Bills play with the heart that Gailey wants?
After last week’s collapse, Chan Gailey repeatedly commented on the fact that he wants his team to play every snap with a dedication and purpose that is befitting of the final drive in a close game. It’s a level of “heart” that he says he made it a point to instill since he was hired. However, after rolling over last week and continuously being beaten down by the Jets since he was hired, it’s fair to ask if Chan is actually capable of instilling the “heart” that he keeps referring to.
Question Three: Can the running game take the pressure off Fitz?
Last week demonstrated what happens when the Bills rely on Ryan Fitzpatrick’s arm to win games. He had to throw the ball a lot in week one and the results were similarly horrendous. With Spiller and Jackson recovering form injury and unable to produce at their normal level, the Bills went to the air more often in order to move the chains. It worked for the first half, but Fitzpatrick is just not a consistent quarterback. The Patriots continued to dare him to throw long, and he continued to fail in his response. If the Bills stand a shot of beating the 49ers, they need to beat them at their own game: control the clock and cut down on the mistakes. The only way that happens is if Spiller and Jackson lead the way.
Question Four: How will Mario Williams respond?
Williams has taken a real beating in the media after last week’s game. A breakdown of game tape showed that he was blocked one-on-one on 85% of snaps, but he still failed to produce a QB hurry. That’s not exactly why the Bills shelled out $100 million for him. Yes, he might be dealing with a wrist injury that saps him of his usual power, but if he’s one of the premiere edge-rushers in the game, he needs to beat one-on-one assignments. The task is tougher this week against a solid and powerful 49ers line, but Williams is a player who has a lot of pride. After taking his lumps this week, it’s time for him to step up and start proving people wrong.
Question Five: Can the run defense force Smith to win it?
After shutting down opposing rushers in the first three weeks, the Bills vaunted run defense was shredded by the Patriots and undrafted free agent rookie Brandon Bolden. Most game tape shows that this was the result of the Patriots offensive scheme. They spread the Bills out wide and ran up the gut. However, with all the strength and talent shared between Kyle Williams and Marcel Dareus, the run defense should never find themselves beaten down like that. If there is any week to respond, it’s this one. The 49ers offense is driven by their running game. They use it to control the clock and set up easy passes for Smith to convert. If they can stifle the run and force Smith in third and longs, they can create some turnovers of their own.
Question Six: Can Gilmore keep improving?
The lone bright spot in last week’s game, Gilmore has continued to get better with each week. He’s playing receivers close, jumping routes, and making plays on the ball. It hasn’t resulted in any turnovers, but there is no doubt they will come in time. The 49ers don’t have any receivers with Brandon Lloyd’s ability, so the task should be a bit easier, but it’s not less important. If the Bills are able to stop the run on first and second down and force Alex Smith to throw for first down, the secondary needs to come up with big stops. Shutting down Crabtree is a good way to ensure that happens.
Question Seven: Can the Bills make us believe again?
There are other questions more specifically related what happens on the field, but in essence the entire game comes down to this. The Bills gave us such high hopes entering into week one and then shattered them. They were just starting to rebuild the hopes when they came crashing down like a Jenga set. We Bills fans can be fickle and we’re not likely to give them many more chances. If they show up to play this weekend, win or lose, we’ll keep the slight glimmer of hope alive that this season may not be over just yet. But if they get manhandled again, it’s likely that many fans will be setting their sights on April’s draft and another season of disappointment. The Bills have to prove they’re not the same old losers.
Prediction: 49ers 20 Bills 13
I think the Bills use the criticism as a gut-check and show up to play. I just don’t think they’re as good as San Francisco. That’s not a knock on the Bills, the 49ers are one of the best teams in the league, and they’re playing at home. Their running game is solid, their defense is fast and strong, and Harbaugh is a talented coach. It’s not an easy team to beat. I think the defense will respond to the challenge, but the 49ers defense is a bit ahead of ours, even at the top of their game. In a quick, run-oriented game, I think the 49ers make a few more plays on defense and take the win.