BBD Staff Writer: Eric Samulski
Football season is upon us. After the Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos opened the NFL regular season Thursday night, the rest of the league is ready to take its turn.
No one should be more welcome to see the end of the NFL preseason more than the Buffalo Bills, whose training camp and preseason included injuries to top cornerback Stephon Gilmore, top defensive playmaker and free safety Jairus Byrd, top wide receiver Stevie Johnson and a possible career-ending injury to quarterback Kevin Kolb.
While Johnson is ready for the start of the season, the rest will all be on the sidelines (Byrd is listed as doubtful on the team’s injury report) when the Bills take the field against their AFC East rivals, the New England Patriots, on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.
Players to Watch
Manuel underwent a minor knee procedure following the Bills’ second preseason game, but the eyes of Bills fans are back on him once again as he is back and prepared to start Sunday. The No. 16 overall pick in the first round, Manuel has a lot of responsibility on his shoulders; there might not be an NFL city that is as hungry for a legitimate quarterback as Buffalo.
The Bills haven’t put a game-changing quarterback under center since Jim Kelly left town and while many people acknowledge that Manuel has the tools to be that guy, not many think he’s ready now. However, with Kolb’s career potentially over and Tarvaris Jackson long gone, the Bills have to turn to Manuel.
Manuel impressed in limited preseason action, but the regular season is a whole different story, and you better believe that Patriots head coach Bill Belichick won’t hold anything back. Manuel’s Week 1 performance could go a long way toward determining what kind of year it will be in Western New York.
Undoubtedly Buffalo’s most talented offensive weapon, C.J. Spiller has now become the face of the Bills attack. It’s an exciting development—but also a scary one—when you consider that Spiller has never carried the ball more than 207 times in an NFL season and has a history of sustaining bumps and bruises dating back to his college days at Clemson.
Nathaniel Hackett told WGR’s The Howard Simon Show that he’s going to ride Spiller until he pukes, but the real question might be whether the 5’11″, 200-pound running back can carry the ball 20 times or more a game and make it out healthy. Running up against Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork will be a good first challenge.
It’s been quite a preseason for McKelvin. After being re-signed by Buffalo and handed the job as the No. 2 cornerback, Leodis missed the first two games of the preseason due to injury. He was able to work his way back, but looked shaky in his lone preseason outing versus the Washington Redskins.
That was the game in which Gilmore suffered a fractured wrist, however, and McKelvin went from a question mark as the Bills’ No. 2 cornerback to the top cornerback on the depth chart. It’s certainly not a promotion that is warranted based on his on-field performance since being the No. 11 overall pick in the 2008 draft, but what choice do the Bills really have?
The biggest free agent signing in Bills history, Williams was a disappointment early last season before a minor wrist procedure helped him to get his physicality back. With the Bills secondary banged up and in real trouble, it will be crucial for Williams and the defensive line to generate pressure early and often.
Williams is the biggest name healthy enough to take the field for the Bills defense on Sunday, and he needs to set the tempo if the Bills have any chance of rattling Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and keeping the Patriots out of the end zone often.
Matchups to Watch
Bills Nickel Cornerbacks vs. Danny Amendola
With the Patriots down to mostly rookie pass-catchers in tight end Zach Sudfeld and wide receivers Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce, Brady figures to be looking for Danny Amendola, the Patriots’ key veteran free-agent addition at wide receiver, a lot over the middle of the field.
That recipe worked time and time again with Wes Welker, who Amendola is essentially replacing in the Patriots’ lineup, in the past. It could be trouble again for the Bills, given the inconsistent play of cornerbacks Ron Brooks and Nickell Robey, who are likely to see the most time in the slot Sunday. But if the Bills can find a way to take Amendola out of the game, it could make moving the ball very hard for Tom Brady.
Kiko Alonso vs. Steven Ridley
Ridley rushed for over 200 yards against the Bills last season, which was a common theme with the Bills linebacking corps. In response, the Bills re-tooled the position in the offseason, letting go of Nick Barnett and Kelvin Sheppard and recently cutting Bryan Scott. The biggest addition, however, might prove to be rookie Kiko Alonso, who the Bills drafted in the second round.
A physical, fast and attacking linebacker, Alonzo has taken to the NFL quickly, even showing an ability in the preseason to read offensive schemes and help lead the linebacking corps. If the Bills have any chance of containing Ridley, Shane Vereen and the Patriots rushing attack, Alonso needs to take to his first regular season action from the first snap.
I always hate to go against the Bills, but I think the losses of Gilmore and likely Byrd are going to be too much for them to overcome against Brady, regardless of who his wide receivers are. Brady is a composed veteran and Belichick is a smart coach who figures to make EJ Manuel beat him. I think if Manuel looks good in this game and can make some plays, the Bills can come out optimistic for the rest of the season, even if they do fall short.
Patriots 24, Bills 17