September 30, 2014

Preview: Bills @ Bengals

Oh yes, I remember the Bills. I was in my backyard raking leaves last fall (due to the first of a line of blackouts now stretching as far as the eye can see) as I listened to a 35-point lead evaporate while the Bills put together one of the biggest comebacks I have ever seen. Well, heard.

And I want payback.

Three weeks ago, who saw the Bills coming? Most early power rankings put them in the same area as the Bengals, so they didn’t. And tell me you didn’t circle Oct. 2 as a winnable game for the Bengals when making your season predictions. I did. Things are looking quite different now, with the Bills taking down the mighty Patriots for the first time in 8 years.

But the great thing about football is that nothing is guaranteed. The Bills are feeling pretty darn good about themselves right now, and why shouldn’t they? And the Bengals are an easy team to overlook right now. Could that small opening of (over)confidence after an emotional win by a team that is not used to success be just the opportunity that Marvin needs to pull off as big of an upset as the Bills did this past Sunday? Lord knows we have seen the Bengals put themselves in that position more than once.

When the Bills have the ball…

2011 QB Ryan Fitzpatrick v. 2008 QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. The guy we saw fill in 3 years ago for Carson Palmer for 12 games looked nothing like the guy this year slinging the ball for 841 yards in 3 games. The seeds of his current success were sown in those ugly mistakes in 2008. (Guys like FP are why I think the NFL might do well to develop a system similar to the minor leagues in MLB. After all, Tom Brady was a 6th round pick, and if not for an injury to Drew Bledsoe, he might have simply floated around the league and never saw the field. Who knows how many guys could have been something in the game but never got an opportunity?)

Hidden behind all of those passing yards, which will grab a lot of media attention, is that the Bills have not faced very good passing defenses so far this year. The Bengals’ secondary rates better than any of the Bills’ previous 3 opponents, and that is after playing pretty good passers in Colt McCoy and Kyle Orton. FP may well light them up for 350 yards this week, but all I’m saying is that the Bills simply have not had a good test yet. He has been picked 3 times in the last 2 games, so hopefully the Bengals will add to that number.

Offensive Line:

Circle this in your mind: this matchup will be huge in determining the outcome of this game. The stats for the Bills’ O-line look good, but most football guys rate them poorly (like around 30th). Why the difference? Because the plays happen so fast that the line doesn’t have time to get blown up. It is an interesting strategy. The line doesn’t have to be great if the ball is gone in under 2 sec.

The Bills’ O-line is prone to letting the RB get stuffed (22% of time). They also gave up 2 sacks to the Patriots. Let’s hope both of those numbers go up.

LT Demetrius Bell and RT Erik Pears v. RDE Michael Johnson and LDE Carlos Dunlap. Fitapatrick might know the Bengals, but he doesn’t know these two. They would love to introduce themselves. Ordinarily I would be quite excited about the prospect of a big day for the Bengals’ duo. But Chan Gailey’s offense gets the ball out so quick that, while they will get to Fitzpatrick, they may have trouble getting there fast enough. Tight coverage will help them a lot.

Running Game:

I alluded to the meager quality of the passing defenses that Buffalo has faced so far (and more below), but the run defenses have been no better. FO ranks them all at #21-#26. With the Bengals ranked at #12, the sledding will be tougher this week. Early success by the Bengals’ offense will keep the Bills from being balanced with the running game.

RB Fred Jackson v. MLB Rey Maualuga. Fred Jackson has been running like a man being chased by Sasquatch on those stupid Jack Links commercials. He ran for over 110 yards in each of his first two games. He is averaging 6.4 yards per carry, over 2 yards more than Cedric Benson. And with 8 catches for 115 yards, he is a threat out of the backfield as well.

Passing Game:

Buffalo currently has the #2 passing game (only NE is better). I heard a comparison of their passing game as being the NFL equivalent of the college spread offense. Spread the field. Quick throws. Don’t give the defense time to get in the way. So far it seems to be working.

Buffalo has played 3 games against one mediocre [OAK @ #17] and two bad [NE @ #24, KC @ #30] pass defenses. Those teams combined have given up 2,868 passing yards so far, or an average of 956 yards each. By contrast, the Bengals (the #5 passing defense for the second week in a row) has given up only 609 passing yards in 3 games. But they are prone to give up big plays. This week will show who is for real.

WRs Steve Johnson and David Nelson v. CBs Leon Hall and Nate Clements. What is it with receivers named Johnson? Calvin… Andre… Chad (good until he changed it)… and now Steve. SJ, the #5 WR by FO, has 20 catches for 256 yards and 3 TDs. And David Nelson, the #15 WR in the league, also has 20 catches for 233 yards and 1 TD.

This is the other huge matchup in the game. If Hall and Clements can stick tight, they will force check-downs and even coverage sacks. Containing Johnson and Nelson is pivotal to the Bengals staying in this game. Letting them run the field will put them so far behind that the offense will not be able to catch up.

TE Scott Chandler v. Anybody. Oh, to be able to cover a tight end. Chandler only has 9 catches for 89 yards… and 4 TDs! Someone has to play this guy like a DB on every 3rd down and red zone play. Period.

When the Bengals have the ball…

QB Andy Dalton v. bouncing back. We’ve seen the good, and now we have seen the bad. We knew we would see both. If there is a good opportunity to bounce back, this is it. The Bills’ secondary has not exactly been a force. After being ineffective against a fair-at-best 49ers secondary, Dalton and Gruden have plenty of film to study to find and correct problems to avoid a repeat.

As effective as Dalton was in running the hurry-up offense against Denver, not using it against the 49ers was a mistake by Gruden. It is a great tool to take a defense out of its rhythm and change the game. The Bengals should use it at least once a game, maybe more.

Offensive Line:

The Bills’ defensive front 4 is definitely the least talented group that the Bengals have faced so far. They have given up 66 points in their last 2 games. If the Bengals’ offense is going to get healthy, this is definitely the week to do it. The Bills’ D-line ranks #28 in run defense and dead last in sacks. Somewhere Clint Boling just sighed in relief.

(I would normally do a specific matchup here, but I’ve never heard of any of the guys for the Bills and I’m not going to waste my time researching guys who aren’t very good.)

Running Game:

I am impressed that Jay Gruden has kept his commitment to stick with the running game, something Sideshow Bob couldn’t do last year. But it needs more pop to keep the Bengals on track in games. Some of that should get fixed when Big Bobbie comes back next week and they can run right again. Look for the Bills to load up the left side, like DEN and SF did, to bog down whoever gets to tote the ball on Sunday. If Boling/McGlynn have a nice day, some big runs will come.

RB Someone v. LB Nick Barnett. If the front office is trying to turn RB into a joke, they are doing pretty well. Yes, they need to be ready if Ced gets parked, but Clinton Portis? Really? If they have that little faith in the combo of Peerman, Scott and Leonard, then why are they on the team? Peerman was supposed to be insurance in case Benson went down. I just don’t get it.

If the Bengals are EVER going to use Bernard Scott, this is the week to do it. The Bills are prone to giving up some good runs, and his speed would be a wonderful asset. And it’s not like the Bills have any recent tape on him. A catch or two out of the backfield, and I might pass out.

Passing Game:

The best angle for the Bengals is to give the Bills a taste of their own medicine: put more receivers out there than they can cover. It worked for NE until the interceptions started. Green, Caldwell, (probably) Simpson and Gresham are all potent options, plus give Whalen and Hawkins a little PT. The O-line should be able to hold, so extra receivers are a must. Pass to open up the run.

WRs A.J. Green and Andre Caldwell v. CBs Leodis McKelvin and Terrence McGee. Green has to be ready to be the focal point of the secondary. Caldwell has proven that he is a more effective #2 receiver than Simpson. If they can find the creases, the receivers will make the offense look suddenly healthy again.

Bottom line, this game is not the slam dunk for the Bills that a lot of outsiders will think. The Bengals’ defense should slow down the Bills compared to previous games, and their offense should have chances to score. A Bengals win wouldn’t shock me, but Jackson and Johnson are a highly potent combo. I think they may be more than this defense is ready for.

Final Score: Buffalo 27. Cincinnati 23.