BBD Staff Writer: Eric Samulski
The Buffalo Bills were on the verge of a 17-3 lead against the Kansas City Chiefs last Sunday until quarterback Jeff Tuel threw an interception from the 1-yard line, which was returned for a game-tying 100-yard interception return that tied the game and changed the contest’s entire complexion.
If the Bills’ season could be summarized in one play, it would be that pass: on the verge of looking like a contender, they canno seem to make the jump. Now 3-6, the Bills travel to Pittsburgh to face a reeling Steelers team and begin a favorable second-half schedule that includes games against the Jaguars, Dolphins and Bucs. If the Bills have any hope of pushing for the AFC’s final playoff spot, this Sunday’s game is a must-win.
EJ Manuel is Back
It might be too late for the Bills to affect the playoff picture, but the biggest story this week is the return of rookie quarterback EJ Manuel. After being sidelined since the second half of the Bills’ Week 5 game against the Cleveland Browns on Oct. 3 with a sprained LCL, Manuel has been declared the starter for Sunday’s game.
The offense didn’t drag much in three games under Thad Lewis, who is also set to return from injury after missing the Chiefs game with bruised ribs, but Lewis lacks Manuel’s running ability and made more costly turnovers than Manuel, who has limited mistakes early in his career.
How Manuel is able to move and escape coming off his knee injury will be a big factor in how effective he is, but the Bills are playing for the future more than just this season. Manuel’s development might be the biggest part of that future.
Turnovers Are Getting Worse
The Bills finished the first half of the season +5 in turnover margin, but have been -6 in their last two games. The Bills have given the ball away three times in each of their last two contest, versus the New Orleans Saints and Chiefs, and failed to record any takeaways in those two games.
Part of that has to do with facing efficient offenses in New Orleans and Kansas City, but it also has to do with simply poor play at the wrong times. The Bills have incredibly ill-timed turnovers in their last two games, including three in their own territory against New Orleans, and three turnovers that led to 17 points for the Kansas City Chiefs, including two defensive touchdowns.
Considering 14 of the Bills’ 16 turnovers have been in their own territory, it is clearly not an issue the team has properly addressed. The Bills do not have enough talent to spot teams many points on turnovers and still expect to consistently come out on top.
Poor Red-Zone Efficiency
It was Fred Jackson’s inability to punch the ball on two straight rushing attempts from the one-yard line that forced the Bills to throw on third-and-goal on the first series of the third quarter of last week’s game against the Chiefs, and led directly to Tuel’s poor decision and game-changing series.
That series is part of the Bills’ bigger problem in struggling to score in the red zone this season. The team ranks 31st in the NFL in red-zone scoring percentage, scoring touchdowns on just 42.3 percent of their trips to the red zone. Additionally, the Bills’ collective quarterback rating inside the opponent’s 30-yard line ranks 27th in the league (77.7), almost 15 points below the league average, according to Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com. Also according to Brown, the Bills rank 26th in the NFL with a 28.6 percent conversation rate on third-down conversion attempts inside the red zone.
The Bills are young and are continuing to learn how to win, but they need to take advantage of the opportunities they are given.
Matchups to Watch
Buffalo defensive line vs. Steelers offensive line
On paper, this might be the biggest mismatch of the game. The Steelers have allowed 32 sacks to their opponents, tied for the second-most in the NFL, and both of their starting offensive tackles, Marcus Gilbert and Kelvin Beachum, had limited practices this week (Beachum was able to practice fully on Friday).
The Bills defense, on the other hand, has been improving against the run of late, including holding Jamaal Charles and the Chiefs to only 95 rushing yards on 23 carries. The Bills are tied for third in the league with 29 sacks, led by Mario Williams’ 11 sacks, tied for second in the NFL.
This matchup is already an advantage for the Bills, but if either Steelers tackle is unable to go, it would only seem to work more in the Bills’ favor. Big Ben could be in for a long day.
Ike Taylor vs. Stevie Johnson
The Steelers’ top cornerback, Ike Taylor, was cleared following a concussion at the end of last week’s game, while Stevie Johnson, the Bills’ top wide receiver, is not listed on the Bills’ injury report although he has dealt with numerous injury issues this season.
With Robert Woods listed as doubtful with an ankle injury and Marquise Goodwin also coming off a hamstring injury, the Bills will need to get Johnson going if they are going to come close to duplicating the success of the New England Patriots, who had 413 passing yards against the Steelers last week.
Taylor is one of the top cornerbacks in the league, and the type of physical cornerback who can interrupt Johnson’s unorthodox routes, so the challenge will be a tough one for the Bills’ top wideout.
C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson vs. Pittsburgh run defense
C.J. Spiller had his best game of the season against the Chiefs, rushing for 116 yards on 12 carries and adding 39 receiving yards on two catch-and-runs. He limped off the field a couple of times as he continues to deal with an injured ankle, but his explosion was certainly there. He broke off a few big runs, showcasing his trademark cutting ability, against the league’s No. 1 scoring defense.
The Steelers defense is not nearly as good as the Chiefs’. They currently rank 31st in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing more than 130 yards per game on the ground. If Spiller can continue to improve, and Fred Jackson can continue to grind on the ground, the Bills can control the clock and set a physical tone for this game.
It’s hard not to be optimistic for the Bills with Manuel back and Spiller getting healthy, and I think the Steelers are reeling enough for the Bills to capitalize. The Bills have advantages on both sides of the line. That said, the Bills have played better at home than on the road, and for that reason, I think the game will be closer than it should be, but the Bills should control the ground game and hit Big Ben enough to come out on top.
Bills 26, Steelers 21