BBD Staff Writer: Eric Samulski
As we approach the second half of the season, one undefeated team remains in the NFL. Despite being a surprise to most, the Kansas City Chiefs have surged to an 8-0 start on the back of an elite defense, a ball-control offense and the NFL’s best turnover margin (+12). Although the Chiefs don’t appear as if they are a truly dominant team, they are not giving games away.
The Chiefs will play their Week 9 game Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium against the Buffalo Bills. If the Bills want to start the second half off right (see my review of the season’s first half), they are going to need to make plays and limit their own mistakes, two things that have been hard for them to do so far in 2013.
Winning the Turnover Battle
The story of the Chiefs’ season has been their lack of mistakes and ability to create mistakes. Their plus-12 turnover differential is the best in the NFL by three turnovers heading into week 9; they rank fourth in the league with only eight giveaways, and are second in the NFL with 20 takeaways.
The Bills have a solid turnover margin at plus-2, but that pales in comparison. The Bills have not made as many mistakes as some NFL teams this season, but many of their mistakes have been crucial, with all but one of their 13 turnovers in their first eight games coming in their own half of the field.
It’s a near polar opposite to the way Alex Smith and the Chiefs offense have played. Including his eight seasons in San Francisco, Smith’s game has never been particularly pretty and has often defied expectations, but the former No. 1 overall pick rarely gives games away.
When the Bills defensive playmakers, such as cornerback Stephon Gilmore and free safety Jairus Byrd, get opportunities on Sunday, they are going to need to take advantage. The Chiefs’ wide receivers are not a physically-imposing group, with the possible exception of underutilized wideout Dwayne Bowe, so the Bills should play press coverage and try to force Smith to make throws into tight windows.
Bills Continue to Lose Battle with the Injury Bug
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Bills are banged up. Gilmore and Byrd both seem to be getting back into football rhythm after each missed the first five games of the season, and running back CJ Spiller is expected to play after missing last week’s game against the New Orleans Saints with an ankle injury. That said, the Bills might be forced to turn to undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel or recently-signed veteran Matt Flynn at quarterback.
Thaddeus Lewis is listed as doubtful on the Bills’ injury report and only practiced in a limited capacity Friday because of bruised ribs, so it seems unlikely he will play or be at full strength if he does. Lewis might be on the low end of starting quarterbacks in the NFL, but he has been doing an admirable job of filling in for injured starting quarterback EJ Manuel, something neither Tuel nor Flynn has shown to be capable of doing when they have received NFL playing time.
Tuel is expected to start Sunday, while Flynn is expected to be Tuel’s backup, according to a Saturday night tweet from Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports.
If you want to beat the best team in the NFL, you need to be at your best. Starting Tuel or Flynn does not make the Bills at their best.
Which Team Can Get to the Quarterback More?
In a game that could be ugly and low-scoring, this contest could come down to which team can disrupt the other offense’s rhythm. Ranked first and second in the NFL in sacks, both the Chiefs and Bills have created opportunities for themselves by getting after the quarterback.
The Chiefs have catapulted to the top of the league on the legs and swim moves of outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston. Of the Chiefs’ 36 sacks, 11 come from Houston and nine from Hali. Containing them will be a tall task for the Bills’ offensive line, but one Buffalo must answer to if they have any shot of winning.
Meanwhile, the Bills pass-rush and their 27 sacks come primarily from one source: defensive end Mario Williams. Williams leads the Bills with 11 sacks, while no other player on the team has more than four. It provides a different set of challenges for the Chiefs offensive line since the Bills have too many pass-rushing threats to key on each one individually, but if the Chiefs game plan against Super Mario, fellow defenders like defensive tackles Marcel Dareus and Kyle Williams and outside linebacker Jerry Hughes are going to need to keep finding ways to hit the quarterback.
Matchups to Watch
Cordy Glenn and Erik Pears vs. Houston and Hali; Eric Fisher vs. Mario Williams
As mentioned above, the biggest matchup of the week is going to be each team’s offensive lines against the opposing pass-rushers.
The Buffalo Bills offensive line has been under-performing all season, allowing the fourth-most sacks (28) in the NFL. Left tackle Glenn has been the strong link: rated as the NFL’s 12th-best offensive tackle by Pro Football Focus, Glenn will need to protect the blindside of whichever quarterback is under center if the offense has any chance of moving the football and keeping its defense from being worn down. The problematic matchup for the Bills, however, could come on the other side of the line, where right tackle Erik Pears, ranked as the NFL’s 37th-best offensive tackle by PFF, will have to hold either Houston or Hali in check throughout the game.
The Chiefs defense has allowed 4.7 yards per rush this season, so if the Bills can keep the Chiefs’ defensive front out of the backfield, it might give running backs Spiller and Fred Jackson a chance to shine. Against a defense that includes Houston, Hali and other talent including nose tackle Dontari Poe and inside linebacker Derrick Johnson, that task will be a tall one for the Bills offensive line.
On the other side of the ball, Mario Williams will likely be matched up against the Chiefs’ underperforming No. 1 overall pick from the 2013 NFL draft, right tackle Eric Fisher. Graded as PFF’s third-worst offensive tackle this season, Fisher has allowed 27 quarterback hurries. His flaws might really be exposed by MarioWilliams, who lines up against the right tackle frequently, in the middle of Williams’ career-best season.
Kiko Alonso vs. Jamaal Charles
The Kansas City offense has lived and died with the production of running back Jamaal Charles for a number of years, and that has not changed much on this year’s team, on which Charles is the leading rusher and receiver this year.
Charles leads the NFL this season with 1,018 yards from scrimmage, and he has scored eight touchdowns through Kansas City’s first eight games. In his sixth NFL season, Charles remains one of the league’s most dangerous open-field runners.
Rookie middle linebacker Kiko Alonso will be one of the key players responsible for corralling Charles on Sunday. The second-round pick leads the Bills with 81 total tackles in eight games, and has been a dynamic addition to the Bills defense. While Alonso will not be directly responsible for defending Charles on every play, he will be a key in keeping the shifty runner accounted for and ensuring that he doesn’t get loose in space.
Donnie Avery vs. Buffalo Secondary
The Bills defense gives up far too many deep passes, having allowed a league-worst 12 passes of 40 or more yards this season, including two to New Orleans Saints wide receiver Kenny Stills in Week 8.
The Chiefs have only gained 20 or more yards on 27 plays this season (five percent of their total plays from scrimmage), but they do have a legitimate deep threat in wide receiver Donnie Avery. Avery has been longer on potential than actual results in his NFL career, but he might become a factor in this game.
Stephon Gilmore’s physical style of cornerback play should match up well with Chiefs No. 1 wide receiver Dwayne Bowe, and is coming off a very good game against the Saints. In not allowing a single reception on 39 coverage snaps, Gilmore appeared to finally be back healthy after two bad performances in his first two games back from injury.
Aside from Gilmore, however, the secondary may have to zone in on Charles and the Chiefs’ short offensive attacks. If that is the case, watch out for Avery to sneak by the Bills secondary for a deep play or two, which could really crush the Bills’ chances of an upset victory.
With Thad Lewis in the lineup at quarterback, the Bills had a chance to pull out a win if they made enough plays. With Tuel or Flynn, however, the Bills are unlikely to have much success moving the ball against a Chiefs defense that has been dominant through the first half of the season.
The Bills defense may be able to respond, but it is likely to get worn down if the Bills offense is unable to sustain drives and keep the defense off the field. If that is the case, this game may not be close.
Chiefs 27, Bills 13