BBD Staff Writer: Eric Samulski
Going on the road within the division is never an easy task. That’s even more true if you’re the Buffalo Bills, who haven’t had a winning record within the division since 2007. Things are finally looking up in Buffalo, with a seemingly competent coaching staff and the first hope at quarterback since Jim Kelly left town. However, if you can’t win on the road, and you can’t win within the division, there’s no chance you can be a competitive football team.
This week, the Buffalo Bills travel to East Rutherford, N.J. to take on the New York Jets in their first road game and the second divisional game of the season. This will the Bills’ first true test to show just how far they’ve come from last season.
Mike Pettine vs. his old team
When Mike Pettine turned down an extension to stay with the Jets after the 2012 season, there were a few sports media outlets that speculated he was tired of being in Jets head coach Rex Ryan’s shadow and ceding credit for his unit’s dominant performances. If that was indeed the case, the Bills’ new defensive coordinator has no better venue to stake his claim than in New Jersey on Sunday afternoon.
The leader of the Bills’ defense has the team playing more aggressively than in years past, which has led to performances like last weekend, where the Bills reached Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton for six sacks. Pettine is certainly familiar with Ryan’s schemes and coaching methods, so it will be interesting to see what new wrinkles these two throw at each other throughout the contest.
First road game
The crowds in Orchard Park, N.Y. have been boisterous to start the 2013 season. It’s an incredible advantage for a team, especially a team as young as the Bills, to have a loud fanbase.
With an average age of 25.3, the Bills are the third youngest team in the NFL. That gives the team a tremendous amount of energy and desire, but it also creates a question mark when it comes to how the team handles adversity. They seemed to do well in the closing moments of last week’s come-from-behind victory, 24-23 victory against the Panthers, but being on the road with the crowd against them will be another story.
With defensive leader Jairus Byrd questionable to play Sunday, a lot of pressure will fall on the shoulders of the younger Bills to keep their heads against the hostile crowd. It’s not an easy task, but one that’s essential if the Bills are going to win.
Battle of the rookie quarterbacks
When the draft process started last year, many Bills fans were clamoring for Geno Smith. At one time thought to be an option as the top pick in the draft, his draft day slide was seen as an opportunity for the Bills to scoop him up. Instead, the Bills chose EJ Manuel with the No. 16 overall pick, while Smith fell to the second round.
Both rookies’ veteran competition, Kevin Kolb for the Bills and Mark Sanchez for the Jets, were hurt during the preseason, pushing the rookies into starting jobs immediately. These two rivals are now resting their hopes of rejuvenation on the arms and legs of two raw rookie quarterbacks.
With incredible athleticism and strong arms, both of these quarterbacks are capable of creating impressive moments. That said, it will be the quarterback that limits his mistakes the most that helps lead his team to victory Sunday. Regardless, we might be watching the future of the AFC East under center this weekend.
Matchups to Watch
Mario Williams vs. Jets offensive tackles
Touted as consistent and highly-talented, Jets left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson is a handful for any defensive end. Mario Williams is sure to be moved around the field coming off of his 4.5-sack performance against the Panthers, but he will undoubtedly see his share of Ferguson.
That said, the most intriguing matchup might be when Williams finds himself opposite Jets right tackle Austin Howard. During the two teams’ first matchup last season, Williams was unable to get any production against Howard, and subsequently blamed the game’s replacement officials for failing to catch Howard’s illegal blocking techniques.
The best way to prove you’re right is to produce on the field. If Williams wants to continue to prove he remains a dominant defensive end, he’s going to need to get pressure on Geno Smith regardless of who he’s up against.
Bills interior offensive line vs. Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson
2012 was Muhammed Wilkerson’s breakout year. According to Pro Football Focus, his 54 defensive stops were 13 more than any other 3-4 defensive end in the NFL last season other than JJ Watt. Wilkerson consistently pushes offensive linemen into the backfield, and is a handful to move around.
When the Jets were able to select Missouri standout Sheldon Richardson with the No. 13 overall pick in this year’s draft, they created one of the most physical interior defensive line combinations in football. If the Bills are going to be able to run the ball like head coach Doug Marrone wants, the interior offensive line of Colin Brown, Eric Wood and Kraig Urbik need to win the battle up front and create running lanes against the Jets’ dynamic duo.
The Bills have a rookie quarterback on the road, but the Jets might have the more inconsistent rookie quarterback under center. I believe that Smith will wind up making more costly plays than Manuel, which will be in no small part thanks to what Pettine will dial up for the Bills’ defense.
Rex Ryan will surely bring pressure on Manuel, but Marrone’s offense has checkdowns built into each read, allowing Manuel to dink and dunk his way down the field in the face of pressure, like he did on the Bills’ final, game-winning drive last week. Smith doesn’t have that luxury or the weapons that can make people miss in the open field. The Jets will need the Bills to give the game away on offense to score enough points, and I just don’t see that happening.
Bills 23, Jets 10