BBD Staff Writer: Eric Samulski
With the NFL season only 16 games long, every week matters in a team’s push towards the playoffs. Although the Buffalo Bills played the New England Patriots tough in week one, they ultimately fell short, placing themselves “behind the eight ball” going into Week 2.
The average NFL team needs 10 wins to make the playoffs, so the Bills need to beat the Carolina Panthers on Sunday to avoid a situation where they’d need to go 10-4 over the final 14 weeks of the season to enter the playoff discussion. Avoiding an 0-2 start might not seem like a big deal, but with a fan base that hasn’t seen a competitive season in more than a decade, the Bills should feel more pressure than most teams to hang around and give their fans something to cheer for.
1. Can the Bills stop the run?
The Bills defense allowed 2,333 yards rushing and 5.0 rushing yards per carry last season, both second-most allowed in the league. In 2011, they allowed 2,224 yards on the ground at 4.8 yards per carry, both among the league’s bottom five. In 2010, the Bills allowed a league-worst 2,714 rushing yards at 4.8 yards per carry. By now you get the picture. Despite the claims the Bills have one of the most talented defensive lines in football, the Bills continue to get gashed on the ground.
Last week was no different. Even though the Patriots benched starter Steven Ridley after only nine carries, the Patriots ran for 158 yards on 4.5 yards per carry with a combination of Shane Vereen, Ridley and LeGarrette Blount.
Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams is not a world-beater, but he did rush for 81 yards and 5.1 per carry against a Seattle Seahawks team that some experts, including Vinnie Iyer of the Sporting News, picked to win the Super Bowl this year. If the Bills are going to be a competitive team, they are going to need to figure out how to stop the run. Sunday is a good day to start.
2. How bad might the Bills offensive line be?
We assumed the Bills offensive line might take a step back this year after left guard Andy Levitre bolted for Tennessee. Then right tackle Chris Hairston was placed on the season-ending Reserve/Non-Football Illness list, while left guard Doug Legursky is out indefinitely with a knee injury, after both Legursky and starting left guard Colin Brown disappointed in the preseason.
The team didn’t bring in any new bodies of note to compete for snaps, leaving them with Brown and right tackle Erik Pears as Week 1 starters. In Week 1, running back C.J. Spiller was hit in the backfield all game long and the Bills running backs totaled only 108 yards on 28 carries, 3.8 yards per carry. For a team meant to make its identity running the football, they’re going to need to start doing a better job.
3. Can Manuel continue to limit mistakes?
Rookie quarterback EJ Manuel had a very successful debut for the Bills. He took what the Patriots gave him, limited his mistakes and threw two beautiful passes on his touchdowns.
For a rookie quarterback, limiting mistakes is the key to a successful year. The task figures to get tougher, however, against a Panthers defense that seems much improved after holding the Seahawks to just 12 points last week.
The Panthers’ pass-rush should get into the backfield occasionally during the game, so if Manuel can withstand the pressure and continue to limit mistakes, he can begin to prove to Bills fans that he may legitimately be the quarterback of the future in Buffalo.
Matchups to Watch
1. C.J. Spiller vs Panthers run defense
Spiller had a season debut to forget. He wasn’t able to break again big runs and was a non-factor in both the run and pass game. He did fumble inside his own 20-yard line, so I guess that did make him a factor, just not in the way the Bills hoped for.
Spiller’s still the most skilled player on the Bills offense, but he needs to find a way to put up numbers even against tough defenses. That includes the Panthers, who limited Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch to 43 yards and 2.5 yards per carry in Week 1.
2. Cordy Glenn and Erik Pears vs. Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson
Carolina Panthers defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson combined for 23.5 sacks last season, adding themselves to the list of the most dangerous defensive end tandems in the league. Even though the Bills run an up-tempo offense with quick routes designed to allow EJ Manuel to get rid of the ball early, containing Hardy and Johnson will be a tall task for the Bills’ offensive tackles, Cordy Glenn and Erik Pears.
If the Bills can keep the pass-rushers out of the backfield, it will allow Manuel to feel relaxed and composed, which should only improve his performance and confidence.
3. Kiko Alonso vs. Luke Kuechly
These two won’t square off against each other, but Alonso and Kuechly are intriguing as two of the most talented young middle linebackers in the NFL. Kuechly, the Panthers’ first-round pick from the 2012 draft, seems to be all over the field for a very speedy Panthers’ linebacker unit. Alonso, a rookie who the Bills selected in the second round of the 2013 draft, made a solid NFL debut last week with nine tackles and a fumble recovery.
The performance of both middle linebackers helps drive the intensity of their teams’ entire defenses. Watching them fly around the field making tackles should be fun viewing for all.
Playing at Ralph Wilson Stadium has become an advantage for the Bills again, so this could be a game that sets up nicely for them.
DeAngelo Williams might be able to run with some success, but he’s not the type of back to carry a team to victory on his own. The Bills defense should have some familiarity dealing with big, mobile quarterbacks like Panthers quarterback Cam Newton after going up against EJ Manuel throughout training camp.
The Panthers don’t have enough receiving options behind Steve Smith to really take advantage of injuries in the Bills’ secondary. Meanwhile, the Carolina Panthers have a thin secondary of their own, and the Bills have a much deeper wide receiver core.
Bills 20, Panthers 16