Week 6 Preview: Buffalo Bills vs. Cincinnati Bengals

Jairus Byrd’s return to the Buffalo Bills may finally happen Sunday, and it could provide a big spark to their defense. (Photo: Kevin Hoffman — USA Today Sports)

BBD Editor: Dan Hope

The Buffalo Bills enter Week 6 at a critical, all-too-familiar stage in their season. Bringing a 2-3 record into a four-game stretch against teams with winning records, the Bills have to come up with multiple big wins to keep their season from falling apart.

The Bills were already set to be underdogs in each of their next four games, but the task of winning any of those games will be made significantly tougher because of the team’s quarterback situation. EJ Manuel is expected to miss at least those four games due to a sprained LCL in his left knee, which forced the team to promote Thad Lewis from their practice squad and make him the starting quarterback for Sunday’s game versus the Cincinnati Bengals.

Ranking 28th in the NFL with 196 yards per game, the Bills’ passing offense had already been sluggish this offseason, but it now falls upon the shoulders of Lewis to play the best football of his career and give the injury-plagued offense a necessary spark. That could prove to be a tough task against the Bengals defense, which ranks eighth in the NFL with 316.8 yards allowed per game and seventh in the NFL with 17.4 points allowed per game.

The Bills have alternated losses with wins through the first five weeks of the season, but continuing the pattern with an upset victory of the Bengals, with a quarterback who has not even been on an NFL 53-man roster this year until this week, could be too tall of a task.

Storylines

Is starting Thad Lewis the right choice for the Bills?

Buffalo and its fans certainly hope Thad Lewis can step in and lead the Bills to a victory in his second career NFL start, but the expectation and goal for Lewis should be to provide stability, not to create greatness. While Lewis has decent arm strength and athleticism and can run many of the plays Manuel does, he does not have the same physical gifts or playmaking ability.

The Bills, quite frankly, did not have many good options to choose from when Manuel was injured. After missing out on the Josh Freeman sweepstakes following his release from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (he chose to sign with the Minnesota Vikings), the Bills were left with the options of undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel, promoting Lewis from the practice squad or signing a free agent who would have to quickly acclimate to a new offensive system before starting.

My BBD colleagues Joe Marino and Ryan Talbot agree Lewis is the best option to start for the Bills this week. The question now becomes how well he will perform in his first start.

Expectations for the practice squad promotion should be tempered accordingly. If he can complete enough passes to put together a few offensive scoring drives, show some playmaking ability with his feet and avoid disastrous mistakes, the Bills should be satisfied with his play, win or lose.

Can C.J. Spiller carry the Bills offense?

Running back C.J. Spiller was expected to be on the brink of a career year heading into the 2013 season, but that hasn’t materialized thus far. Through five games, he has rushed for just 296 yards on 74 carries — a disappointing 4.0 yards per carry for the explosive back — and one touchdown, with only 29 receiving yards on nine catches out of the backfield.

The loss of Manuel makes the Bills offense significantly less explosive as it is, so Buffalo needs Spiller to step up his game with Manuel sidelined. Whether he starts confidently attacking lanes between the tackles, uses his speed to turn the corner outside or finally breaks free as a receiver, the Bills need Spiller to start taking greater advantage of his touches and force opposing defenses to account for him at all time.

Spiller’s potential for a breakout week could be limited by an ankle injury, which made him a limited participant in practice for the second consecutive week, but he should play although questionable. The Bills should go with a heavier dose of carries for their running backs in Manuel’s absence, nonetheless, which should mean plenty of opportunities for Spiller and Fred Jackson, who has actually outperformed his more heralded counterpart this season (309 rushing yards, four rushing touchdowns, 4.8 yards per carry).

The return of Jairus Byrd

While the Bills will be without their most important player on offense Sunday, they are expected to have one of the stars of their defense back. Free safety Jairus Byrd, who has missed the first five games of the season due to plantar fasciitis, is listed as probable for Sunday’s game and told the media Wednesday, according to BuffaloBills.com, that he expects to play.

The franchise-tagged safety will almost certainly leave Buffalo next offseason, but the Bills will be glad to have him back on the field for the time being unless they find a trade partner for him. He is one of the NFL’s best safeties, a three-down playmaker who can immediately make the Bills secondary better.

The Bills have relied on their defense to keep them in games all season long, and the defense has done a very admirable job, but they will certainly have their hands full this weekend. With a Lewis-led offense against one of the NFL’s toughest defense, the Bills are unlikely to put many points on the board, so the defense will need to come up with big stops and make big plays while avoiding giving them up.

Byrd should help the Bills’ effort to accomplish both of those tasks. He has big-play ability to make plays on the ball in the air and make big hits in run defense, while he should also provide stability to a secondary whose play has been shaky thus far this season.

Matchups

Bills Guards vs. Geno Atkins

Much ado has been made about the struggles of the Buffalo Bills’ offensive line this season, especially at the left guard spot, where Colin Brown has been arguably the NFL’s worst player at his position. Brown, right guard Kraig Urbik and possible left guard fill-in Doug Legursky will all be put to the test Sunday, when they will have to go up against one of the NFL’s most disruptive and explosive defensive tackles, Geno Atkins.

Atkins can put even the NFL’s best guards on skates, so the Bengals would be smart to line him up against the left guard and expose what may be the weakest spot on the Bills’ entire roster. Brown, who Pro Football Focus (subscription required) grades as the NFL’s worst guard by a wide margin with an overall rating of minus-28.1, has been dominated in both pass protection and run blocking. Legursky struggled in previous stints as a starting guard for the Pittsburgh Steelers, so even if he were to play in Brown’s place at left guard, he is unlikely to be more than a slight upgrade, especially coming off of a knee injury that kept him out of the first four games of the season.

If the Bills are going to keep Atkins in check, they are going to have to help their guards with double-team blocks and get the ball out of the backfield quickly. That could be problematic, however, against a defensive line that ranks as one of the NFL’s best, also including defensive ends Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap and powerful nose tackle Domata Peko.

Bills Linebackers vs. Gio Bernard

Running back Gio Bernard has quickly become one of the most dynamic players on the Bengals offense. Both a quick, shifty running threat out of the backfield and a dynamic open-field playmaker off of receptions, he is a player who NFL defenses suddenly have to account for every time he is on the field.

The brunt of that burden will fall upon the Bills linebackers on Sunday. Between the tackles, star rookie middle linebacker Kiko Alonso will be faced with the task of stopping Bernard from breaking any big runs up the middle, as Alonso seeks to continue his outstanding rookie campaign. The more concerning area may be when Bernard gets out in space outside the tackles, which will force players including Manny Lawson, Nigel Bradham and Arthur Moats to take good angles to the ball and use their quickness to chase down Bernard and stop him from breaking free for big plays.

Leodis McKelvin/Stephon Gilmore vs. A.J. Green

The Bills could possibly see the return of both of their top two defensive backs this week as No. 1 cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who has missed the first five games of the season with a fractured wrist, is considered to be a game-time decision. His return would certainly be welcome for the Bills on Sunday as they go against A.J. Green, one of the NFL’s elite wide receivers.

Gilmore’s size, physicality and athleticism make him the best one-on-one matchup on the Bills for Green, but even if he does play on Sunday, chances are good that it will be a limited capacity and not on an island with Green as he returns to the field following an extended absence. That means the matchup with Green is likely to fall primarily upon Leodis McKelvin.

Though McKelvin missed the final three quarters versus the New York Jets in Week 3 and did not play versus the Baltimore Ravens in Week 4 due to a hamstring injury, he has been the Bills’ best cornerback by far this season. He has been very solid in coverage, leads the team with seven pass defenses and his tackling has been sound. He will need to be at his best, however, against A.J. Green. He has not had to go up against a receiver of Green’s caliber yet this season, and has notoriously struggled against receivers with Green’s size and athleticism in past years.

Prediction

Neither of these teams sets the bar high for quarterback play, but Andy Dalton has much more experience with a much more talented team around him than Thad Lewis does. The Bills offense has already been struggling to put together drives this season, and playing against one of the NFL’s strongest defenses without their starting quarterback is going to make it very difficult to reverse that trend Sunday.

The return of Byrd and potential return of Gilmore could help stabilize a shaky secondary, and if the Bills’ defensive front seven can continue to play strong and make big plays, the Bills will have a chance to at least make this game competitive. Ultimately, however, chances are good they will come up short by at least two scores given their struggling offense which will be without Manuel and possibly No. 1 wide receiver Stevie Johnson (also a game-time decision).

Bengals 24, Bills 10

Tags: A.J. Green, Buffalo Bills, C.J. Spiller, Cincinnati Bengals, Game Preview, Geno Atkins, Gio Bernard, Jairus Byrd, Leodis McKelvin, Stephon Gilmore, Thad Lewis, Week 6

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