BBD Staff Writer: Eric Samulski
Laying a dud against in a 23-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers wasn’t exactly the momentum the Buffalo Bills were hoping to seize after almost toppling the best team in the league and getting their quarterback healthy again. Nonetheless, the Bills travel back home in Week 11, where they have had more success this season, to take on the division rival New York Jets.
Standing at 3-7, any chance at a playoff berth is all but lost for Buffalo, but with so many young players on the roster, each game continues to prove valuable for its development and the team’s future success. The question beyond that is, how will the team respond to their rookie head coach once the playoffs are firmly out of sight?
Did EJ Manuel come back too soon?
Rookie quarterback EJ Manuel looked bad last week. That is to be somewhat expected after missing four full weeks, but the Steelers defense had allowed 610 yards against the New England Patriots in their previous game, so they weren’t exactly playing at a high level. Manuel, however, spent the game checking down or overthrowing his receivers.
Although it was clearly the worst start yet of his young career, in which Manuel threw for just 155 yards with 22 completions on 39 passing attempts, the Bills organization has come to Manuel’s defense, citing his youth and likely growing pains. With a preseason knee scope behind him, as well as the sprained LCL suffered in Week 5 that kept him out for the next four games, it’s safe to wonder whether the rookie’s knees are actually at 100 percent.
Since the Bills’ future is closely tied to how well Manuel progresses and fine-tunes his skill set, making sure he doesn’t develop bad habits or put himself at risk of further injury is a huge concern.
Does Rex Ryan own the Bills?
The Bills have not had a lot of success against fellow AFC East teams in recent years. However, it seems as though all the attention paid to the dominance of the Patriots has taken attention away from the New York Jets having the Bills’ number since Rex Ryan took over as New York Jets head coach 2009. In Ryan’s first nine games against the Bills, the Jets have had a 7-2 record against Buffalo.
The Bills have scored more than 21 points in only three of those meetings, and five of the seven losses have come by more than two touchdowns. These numbers are despite the Jets, who are sitting at 5-4 this season, having gone 6-10 and 8-8 the past two seasons. Even when the Jets have to struggled to beat many other teams, they have seemed to be able to best the Bills. It’s a trend that is going to need to stop if the Bills intend to get back to the playoffs, at least while Ryan is still coaching the Jets.
Who will EJ Manuel throw to?
The Bills will be forced to turn to rookie Marquise Goodwin and second-year wideout TJ Graham, two of the fastest receivers in the NFL but not the most well-rounded, to start Sunday. They have the speed to beat the Jets’ cornerbacks deep, but Manuel will need time to get them the ball, which has not been easy behind an inconsistent Bills offensive line this season.
That means the rookie quarterback may need another receiver, Chris Hogan or Marcus Easley, to step up and take care of making plays on underneath routes for the Bills. If not, the Bills are likely to use many running back screens and passes to tight ends Scott Chandler or Chris Gragg.
How many carries will Spiller get?
Running back C.J. Spiller seemed to return to form when he racked up 116 rushing yards on 12 carries against the Chiefs, the best defense in the NFL. Doug Marrone talked about using him more often, and it seemed like the Spiller was finally ready to live up to the expectations from the beginning of the season.
Against the Steelers, however, Spiller only received 11 total touches, most of which were handoffs up the middle that didn’t take advantage of his speed. It’s been that type of yo-yo season for Spiller, but the Bills are going to need to find a way to continuously use him effectively if they want to win games.
Matchups to Watch
Bills Offensive Line vs. Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson
When the two teams first met this season in Week 3, the Jets racked up eight sacks against the Bills’ overmatched offensive line, and held one of the league’s top rushing attacks to 61 yards on 24 carries, excluding the 59-yard run Fred Jackson broke after being hit twice in the backfield. Needless to say, it wasn’t exactly a great game for the Bills front five.
Cordy Glenn has been consistently strong all season, but the rest of his linemates can’t say the same. The left guard position has been a mess between early-season starter Colin Brown and current starter Doug Legursky. Right tackle Erik Pears has never truly taken advantage of the starting job that injury gave to him, while center Eric Wood has been mediocre after signing an offseason contract extension.
A struggling offensive line is not a recipe for success against Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson, who are quickly becoming one of the NFL’s most fearsome interior line duos. If the Bills want to get their running game going, and want to keep EJ Manuel off his back, they need to first control Richardson and Wilkerson.
EJ Manuel vs. Geno Smith
While this matchup won’t actually be face-to-face, the two rookie quarterbacks in this game will likely always be compared to one another. Both are athletic, strong-armed prospects who were drafted in the same year to division rivals, and were the 2013 NFL draft’s first two quarterbacks selected, so their link is inevitable.
So far in 2013, Smith has had the gaudier numbers, totaling 1,997 passing yards and eight passing touchdowns, but has also made, by far, more mistakes. While EJ Manuel has turned the ball over six times, Smith has thrown 13 interceptions and lost three fumbles.
Both young men are only 23 years old and have incredibly high ceilings, but there will always be a race to see who can climb highest and stay the longest.
Stephon Gilmore vs. Stephen Hill
In the Week 3 matchup, Jets second-year wide receiver Stephen Hill burned the Buffalo Bills for big plays, catching three passes for 108 yards and a touchdown. It was easily his best game of the season, as evidenced by him only having 340 total receiving yards and one receiving touchdown for the season. That said, the Jets also lack a depth of receiving options like the Bills, so Geno Smith will likely be locked onto his most talented targets often, including Hill.
If Gilmore, who was still recovering from a fractured wrist and did not play in Week 3, can use his physicality to take Hill out of the game, it will cut down on Smith’s already-limited options and possibly force the rookie quarterback into making the mistakes he’s been prone to all season.
Call me a blind homer, but I still have some faith in the 2013 Buffalo Bills. The absence of the top two receivers is a gigantic loss for the Bills offense, and the Jets have been frequently tough for the Bills to score against, but Buffalo has been a different squad at home than on the road this season.
Geno Smith lit the Bills defense up in Week 3 for 331 passing yards and three total touchdowns, but two starting defensive backs were out (Gilmore and free safety Jairus Byrd), and starting cornerback Leodis McKelvin left that game early with an injury. With those players back, the Bills defense should be able to have more success against the Jets offense.
I think the Buffalo home crowd will have the Bills ready to play for a win, and in what could be a defensive struggle, this could ultimately come down to which team can run the ball and control the clock more effectively. My money is, perhaps foolishly, on the Bills.
Bills 20, Jets 16