BBD Staff Writer: Eric Samulski
The first three weeks of the 2013 NFL season have been a roller-coaster experience for the Buffalo Bills. After hanging tough with the New England Patriots in Week 1, the Bills ultimately let a fourth-quarter lead slip away for a season-opening loss. After a thrilling comeback victory against the Carolina Panthers boosted morale and renewed hope, a sloppy loss to the New York Jets put a damper on the brightening mood.
The Bills limp into Week 4, likely to play without their top three cornerbacks and best safety against the perennially-contending Baltimore Ravens. Bills running back C.J. Spiller and No. 1 wide receiver Stevie Johnson are also both coming off limited weeks of practice due to injuries.
The short NFL season, however, leaves no time for excuses. If the Bills have any shot of contending for a playoff spot this season, they need to find a way to recover quickly and pull off wins.
Health of the Bills Defense
As mentioned above, the Bills’ defense is in dire shape health-wise. Defensive end Alex Carrington was lost for the season when he was placed on season-ending injured reserve with a quadriceps tear Monday. Cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Ron Brooks have already been ruled out of Sunday’s game with injuries. Cornerback Leodis McKelvin and free safety Jairus Byrd are both listed as questionable, while defensive tackle Kyle Williams, defensive tackle Marcell Dareus and defensive end Mario Williams are all dealing with leg/foot injuries that caused them to either miss time versus the Jets or miss practice time this week.
The team re-signed defensive tackle Jay Ross, who was cut to make room for Brandon Burton after Brooks’ injury, and plan to give defensive tackles Alan Branch and Corbin Bryant more snaps to spell the injured defensive linemen, but it’s not an ideal scenario for a defense that currently ranks 28th in total yards against, 31st against the run with 155 yards per game, and dead last in the NFL with five plays of 40 yards or more allowed.
If the Bills can’t put healthy players out on the field, they’re not going to be able to hang with competitive teams.
EJ Manuel’s Deep Passing
After EJ Manuel threw five deep passes that sailed out of bounds against the Jets last week, he has spent extra time in practice working on his accuracy downfield according to Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com. The rookie quarterback has limited his turnovers and generally displayed solid arm strength, accuracy and pocket awareness for the Bills, but his deep passing has been ineffective.
The Bills rank 25th with only seven pass plays of more than 20 yards and have been unable to take advantage of the speed of their deep receivers, like T.J. Graham. That has led to an even bigger problem: a rushing offense that has been ineffective against stacked boxes from opposing defenses.
Ineffectiveness of the Running Game
Coming into the season, Doug Marrone and the Bills coaching staff ensured fans that they would hang their hat on the running game, including a quote from offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett on WGR’s The Howard Simon Show that C.J. Spiller would “run until he throws up.” So far, the only people losing their lunch have been Bills fans who have watched their star running back average only 3.6 yards per carry.
Manuel’s inability to stretch the defense consistently has caused teams to stack eight defenders in the box against the Bills’ running backs, hampering their effectiveness.
While their overall averages of 4.4 yards per carry and 135 yards per game are solid, those numbers are aided by the Bills being one of only two teams in the NFL who have two runs of 40 of more yards, one of which came last weekend when Fred Jackson broke a tackle in the backfield and raced for 59 yards. If you take away those two runs, which totaled 105 yards, the Bills have rushed for 300 yards on 90 carries, only 3.3 yards per rush. For a team that was going to live and die with the run, they seem to be winding up with the latter too much.
Third-Down Success Rate
This one is really simple: the Bills are getting crushed on both sides of the ball in third-and-long situations.
The Bills defense has allowed opposing teams to convert on more than 50 percent of third-down situations of more than seven yards. That’s an absurdly poor number and another area affected by the Bills’ underperforming secondary.
On offense, the Bills have yet to convert on a third and seven or longer, going 0-for-17. If teams are going to stack the box against you and limit the effectiveness of the running game, you need to be able to complete passes that move the chains.
Matchups to Watch
Ray Rice vs. C.J. Spiller
Both of these two elite running backs are looking to get their seasons on track this weekend. Ravens running back Ray Rice has only rushed for 72 yards this season and missed last week’s game against the Houston Texans with a hip flexor injury, while Spiller has rushed for 153 yards and is also coming off an injury suffered versus the New York Jets last week.
On paper, the matchup seems better for Rice. The Bills have allowed the second-most rushing yards in the NFL, some of which, as ESPN’s Mike Rodak pointed out, can be attributed to the amount of time their defense spends on the field. With the Bills’ up-tempo offense ranking 31st in time of possession, opposing teams have been able to run the ball more against them (an average of 35.7 rushing attempts per game) than anybody else. As the defense gets tired, the opposing teams’ numbers have improved: the Bills’ first three opponents have averaging 5.81 yards per carry against the Bills in the third quarter and 4.25 per carry in the fourth, according to Rodak.
Meanwhile, the Ravens rank fourth in rushing yards allowed per game and seventh in rushing attempts allowed per game through the first three weeks. Spiller has the talent to go off versus any defense, but oddsmakers would likely gamble on a Rice breakout before one for Spiller.
Torrey Smith vs. Justin Rogers
Justin Rogers had a bad game versus the New York Jets allowing two long touchdown passes to Santonio Holmes (69 yards) and Stephen Hill (51 yards), with Holmes’ serving as the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter after the Bills had mounted a game-tying rally.
With Gilmore and Brooks out of the lineup, Rogers is likely to draw outside coverage assignments again for the majority of the weekend. Look for the Ravens to attack him with their own deep threat, Torrey Smith. The only Baltimore receiver with more than 140 yards receiving, their offense goes as Smith goes. If Rogers can limit big plays and make Flacco look elsewhere on his passes, the Bills could keep the game close enough to have a shot.
Colin Brown vs. Haloti Ngata, Cordy Glenn vs. Terrell Suggs
Bills left guard Colin Brown had a huge task last week trying to contain Muhammed Wilkerson. He failed miserably. Wilkerson went off for six tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble, and generally pushed Brown into the backfield at will.
With Doug Legursky back practicing with the team, it’s possible that Brown could begin to lose snaps if he can’t step up his production. More importantly for the Bills, if Brown can’t keep Ravens All-Pro defensive lineman Haloti Ngata out of the backfield, the Bills are likely to struggle the same way they did against the Jets, as it could force rushed throws from Manuel and continue to create little to no running room for Spiller, hampering the offense significantly in both cases.
Meanwhile, Cordy Glenn has continued to improve in his second season as the Bills’ left tackle. He has allowed only one hurry in 137 pass blocks, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, who only had three tackles when matched up against Glenn in Week 2, notched three sacks against the New York Giants last week.
The task, however, won’t get any easier for Glenn against Terrell Suggs. The Ravens’ outside pass-rusher has recorded a sack in each of the team’s three games this year. He will likely be used to put pressure on Manuel throughout the game, as Ravens coach John Harbaugh likely watched what the Jets’ defensive pressure was able to do to the Bills offense last week.
The Bills are beat up with injuries, and the Ravens are too well-coached not to take advantage. I’ve seen nothing in his career to make me think Justin Rogers won’t get beat deep at least once by Torrey Smith, and if Ray Rice plays as expected, he should continue a trend of running through a tired Bills defense. The Ravens don’t really have a lot of other weapons, but they might not need any. The Bills have been unable to score touchdowns consistently in the red zone, and I don’t see them hitting enough home runs against a talented defensive unit.
Ravens 27, Bills 17