Jun 122013
 

Doug Marrone8. Buffalo Bills
Head Coach: Doug Marrone
2012 Record: 6-10
2012 Offense: 344 points scored, 21st in points, 19th in yards (25th passing, 6th rushing)
2012 Defense: 435 points allowed, 26th in points, 22nd in yards (10th passing, 31st rushing)

 

Key Additions
Head Coach Doug Marrone, QB Kevin Kolb, DL Alan Branch, LB Jerry Hughes, LB Manny Lawson, QB EJ Manuel, WR Robert Woods, LB Kiko Alonso, WR Marquise Goodwin

Key Losses
QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB Tavaris Jackson, G Andy Levitre, DB Terrence McGee, DB George Wilson, LB Kelvin Sheppard, DE Shawne Merriman, DE Kyle Moore, LB Nick Barnett, WR Donald Jones, DE Chris Kelsay, WR David Nelson

Why 2013 will be better
To be blunt, it won’t be. Buffalo is entering (yet another) rebuilding year, with the Bills slugging it out with the Jets for the basement of the AFC East. Kolb showed some potential last season in Arizona before getting hurt, but his track record to date is that of an up and down quarterback with nearly as many interceptions (25) as touchdowns (28). EJ Manuel is a project with big potential upside, but he won’t be ready to save a season if Kolb falters or gets hurt again. The strength of the offense is in the running game, where the Bills feature Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller, two of the more talented backs in the league. The defensive line is a solid unit with Mario Williams, Mark Anderson, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, Alan Branch, and Alex Carrington. The Bills have the potential to shut down opposing running games and apply consistent pressure, but both Anderson and Dareus must step up their games on a consistent basis. Jairus Byrd is a solid safety playing on a franchise tag,and Aaron Williams has converted from corner to safety. The Bills also added two safeties in the draft, giving them plenty of depth in this group.

Why 2013 will be worse
Beyond mediocrity at quarterback, the receiving unit is thin, to put it mildly. After Stevie Johnson (a thousand yard receiver for the past three seasons), the burden immediately falls onto rookies Woods and Goodwin, with only TJ Graham and Brad Smith having any real experience. TE Scott Chandler promises to be a big target for Kolb, but will also likely draw a lot of defensive attention this season if he can successfully return from an ACL injury. The Bills failed to replace guard Andy Levitre in the off-season, and really failed to address the entire offensive line in the draft. Beyond center and right guard the line is in flux, which doesn’t bode well for protecting Kolb for sixteen games, particularly with a quarterback who is known to hold onto the ball too long. On defense, the linebacking corps is an underwhelming group anchored by Hughes and Lawson, and rookie Alonso figures heavily into their plans. The Bills ranked 31st in run defense last season, and they will face challenges anytime a back breaks through the defensive line this season. In the secondary, after second year player Stephon Gilmore, the Bills are decidedly undermanned at corner, with Leodis McKelvin the best among ho-hum options.

Outlook
I was fooled in 2012 into thinking the Bills had solved their defensive woes and would be a playoff contender. Instead, the defense fell apart and the offense was erratic, leading to another lost season in Western New York. I won’t be fooled this season into thinking that the new linebackers will be a huge improvement, or into believing that Kolb is a significant upgrade over Fitzpatrick. More likely the Bills are in the start of a two to three season overhaul, assuming their management has the patience to stick to the plan. And assuming, of course, that there is a plan. This is a Buffalo team that will score 40 points one week and seven the next, with a defense that will consistently give up 21 or more. Three to six wins appears to be this team’s range in 2013.

Nov 052012
 

Week 9 saw the Atlanta Falcons tip the Dallas Cowboys and bring their record to 8-0. Although the Falcons are unlikely to run the table, they have a very favorable chance at a first round bye and hold a one game advantage for home field throughout the NFC playoffs. Charles Tillman alone is keeping the Chicago Bears in striking distance, though he had plenty of help from his teammates in their blowout of the Tennessee Titans.

Here is your Week 9 recap:

  • Norv Turner keeps his job for another week as the Chargers roll over the Chiefs 31-13 behind a solid defensive effort and a good night from Philip Rivers
  • Broncos edge Bengals 31-23 as Peyton Manning rallies with three touchdown passes; Eric Decker has 8 catches for 99 yards and two touchdowns
  • Ravens beat Browns 25-15 behind Ray Rice’s 98 yards in a game that the Browns lost as much as the Ravens won; the game spoils a 105 yard rushing effort by Trent Richardson
  • Packers on right track and Cardinals on wrong one as Green Bay pounds Arizona 31-17; Rodgers under 50% completion rate, but still puts up four touchdown passes
  • Texans dismantle Bills 21-9 in the return on Mario Williams; Arian Foster runs for 111 yards and a score
  • Andrew Luck sets rookie passing record with 433 yards in Colts’ 23-20 win over the Dolphins; Donnie Avery and TY Hilton both tally more than 100 receiving yards in the win
  • Lions impressive in second straight game as they rout the Jaguars 31-14; Mikel Leshoure runs for three touchdowns in the second quarter as the Lions find a running game
  • The Bears crush the Titans 51-20 as Charles Tillman forces four fumbles, Brian Urlacher grabs a pick six and Jay Cutler connects with Brandon Marshall for three touchdowns
  • Panthers sack RG3 four times as Carolina beats a sloppy Washington team 21-13; Cam Newton and DeAngelo Williams stay classy in win (not)
  •  Doug Martin rushes for franchise record 251 yards as Buccaneers hold off the Raiders 42-32; Carson Palmer (414 yards, 4 TD, 3 INT) schizophrenic in loss
  • Seahawks power past Vikings 30-20 as Marshawn Lynch rushes for 124 yards and Russell Wilson throws three touchdown passes; Adrian Peterson rushes for 182 yards and two touchdowns in defeat
  • Steelers rally to edge Giants 24-20; Isaac Redman runs for 147 yards and a touchdown and Eli Manning has a woeful passing day
  • Falcons beat Cowboys 19-13 to stay perfect; Michael Turner rushes for 102 yards and a score and Matt Bryant connects on four field goals in the win
  • still to come: Eagles @ Saints
Oct 052012
 

Not all 2-2 records are equal.

The Denver Broncos are 2-2 after winning in their opener over the Pittsburgh Steelers before dropping the next two games against the Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans, both of whom are undefeated. Then in Week Four the Broncos thrashed the Raiders 37-6. In the two games they lost the Broncos were down big but rallied back to make the scores respectable, but they didn’t deserve to win either of those games. The Broncos offensive attack is looking good under the direction of a healthy Peyton Manning, but the defense seems to have picked up where it left off last season, giving up 77 points in three games before hammering the Raiders. The Broncos defense is ranked 8th in yards allowed, but 21st in points allowed. The Broncos made some changes in the secondary after their defense wilted at the end of last season, but those changes don’t seem to have significantly improved their defense.

The New England Patriots are 2-2 after winning their opener against the Titans in dominating fashion and crushing the Bills with a huge second half surge, after losing close contests against the Cardinals and the Ravens. A phantom holding call against Rob Gronkowski and a missed field goal doomed the Patriots in Week Two against Arizona, while awful officiating and a squeaky field goal by the Ravens added to defensive lapses and led to their Week Three loss in Baltimore. But despite being off to a shaky start this season, the Patriots are only two plays away from having gotten off to 4-0 start to the season. The offense is beginning to click despite the temporary absence of Aaron Hernandez, and the defense has shown glimpses of being much improved over 2011. The defensive line can bring heavy pressure at times and the front seven is difficult to run against, but the secondary has been spotty to say the least. The problems in coverage are correctable, but it will take some time and the Patriots are unlikely to be able to stop Peyton Manning from having a productive day. The question is, can they slow him down enough to allow their offense to dictate the conditions of the game?

Although the game is being billed as a renewal of the clash of the titans in Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, any football fan knows the game is far more contextual than that, and there are matchups all over the field that will determine the course of the game.  Let’s take a look at some of the key areas that will likely decide this contest.

Three keys for the Patriots:

1. Protect Brady

It’s already an old theme, but it holds true. Sebastian Vollmer made Mario Williams pull a vanishing act last Sunday, and the Patriots offense line will again be called on to stop a solid group of pass-rushers. The Broncos have tallied ten sacks to date, led by Von Miller with three sacks and Elvis Dumervil with two and a half. The Patriots scheme their pass protection well and Nate Solder has steadily improved. Donald Thomas filled in admirably last week for Logan Mankins but did allow several big defensive plays and is a poor substitute for the stud left guard. The Broncos occasionally play with a defensive muddle with no down lineman to seek to confuse the offensive linemen and disguise the “mike” linebacker, but this is unlikely to disrupt the Patriots attack.

2. Continue the balanced offensive attack

Part of the success of the Patriots offensive attack last week centered around keeping the safeties off balance, and using the run up the middle to set up passing plays over the middle later. That trend is likely to continue this week because, while the Broncos’ have outstanding defensive ends, they are weak in the middle of the line. Look for Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden to pound the middle in order to set up Gronk and Welker for big plays. If the Patriots’ backs can even come close to replicating last week’s rushing numbers, the Broncos will be in for a long day.

3. Shut down McGahee and the Broncos running game

While the Patriots have always been able to devise coverages that give Peyton Manning fits, Manning eventually figures them out and does his damage. And you can expect him to do so again this Sunday. What becomes critical for the Patriots is to turn the Broncos offense into a one-dimensional unit by shutting down Willis McGahee and Lance Ball. The Broncos are rushing at a rate of 109 yards per game (14th in the league), but the Patriots run defense is already one of the league’s best, giving up 85 yards per game (7th in NFL). Stuffing the run could well be the difference between a close contest and a comfortable Patriots win.

Three keys for the Broncos:

1. Safety play is key

It is essential that Rahim Moore and Mike Adams make good reads and not fall into the same trap that the Bills’ safeties did last weekend. The Patriots are masters at play action passes, and the safeties and the linebackers must be able to quickly diagnose the plays and know their assignments. The Patriots’ offensive scheme is designed to take advantage of match-ups and confusion, and the Broncos could find themselves giving up big chunks of running room, as well as easy completions to Gronk, Welker, and Fells. Beyond safety play, cornerback Champ Bailey is capable of matching up against any type of receiver and could force Brady to look elsewhere throughout the day.

2. Exploit the Patriots’ secondary

After a strong showing against the Titans, the Patriots have proven vulnerable to the passing attack. The Patriots are currently ranked 25th in the NFL, giving up 281.5 yards a game. As long as Manning has protection, he will have a choice of talented receivers in Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Jacob Tamme, and Brandon Stokley. Safety Steve Gregory is likely out, meaning rookie Tavon Wilson is likely to get the start.

3. Hold on to the ball.

The Broncos are currently -4 in the turnover department, a key statistic in winning any football game. Conversely, after four games the Patriots are already a +8 in this category, having a knack for forcing turnovers and for holding on to the ball. The Patriots already have six fumble recoveries and six interceptions in opposition to their own one interception thrown and three lost fumbles. The Broncos have only forced three turnovers in four games, while throwing three interceptions and losing four fumbles. If the Broncos give the Patriots extra possessions and a short field, Peyton can throw for 400 yards and still lose by 21 points.

Prediction

Like many, I am anticipating a fairly high scoring game on Sunday. Having watched all of the Patriots games and a fair amount of the Broncos’ action, I am convinced that the Patriots’ defense has a better chance against Peyton Manning and company than the Broncos’ defense has against Tom Brady and the boys. I expect the teams to trade touchdowns early before the Patriots begin taking control of the ball, conducting long scoring drives and keeping Manning off the field. Manning will be forced to keep up with Brady by the second half, and I expect the Patriots’ pass rush will eventually force key turnovers that will result in a Patriots’ win. Patriots 34 Broncos 24.

Sep 282012
 

The 2012 season certainly has not gotten off to the start that the New England Patriots expected. After winning their opening contest handily against the Tennessee Titans, the Patriots were narrowly upset by the Arizona Cardinals before losing an equally narrow contest to the Baltimore Ravens. Patriots’ fans can yell all they want about the cruddy officiating in Baltimore (and it was cruddy), but the Patriots have lost two straight because they have failed to take advantage of opportunities and the defense has back-peddled from a strong performance in Week One. So it is that a 1-2 Patriots team finds its way into Buffalo seeking to avoid dropping a third straight game.

The Bills are a dangerous foe. Buffalo is 2-1 after being pounded on opening day by the Jets, but then rebounding to beat the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns. Granted, these are the teams that the Bills “should” beat, but there are no giveaways in the NFL, and the way to the playoffs is to beat the teams that you “should” beat. The Bills boast a dominant front four on defense, anchored by off-season free agent signing Mario Williams, as well as a prolific rushing attack. But both CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson are both hurt, and are game-time decisions.

Three keys for the Patriots:

1. Protect Tom Brady

I know, duh. The rap on Brady is that he gets shaken when he gets hit. Yep, him and 31 other starting NFL quarterbacks. Pass protection is always a key. In this game it is critical, as the Bills’ front four will test the Patriots make-shift offensive line early and often on Sunday. Kyle Williams already has 3 sacks this season, followed by Marcell Darius and Mario Williams with 1.5 each. The linebackers are capable of bringing pressure to bear as well, and the Patriots will need to be disciplined in their blocking assignments. If the Patriots can protect Brady however, the Bills have already shown that they are susceptible to being picked apart, having given up 48 points to the Jets.  Look for play action passes and extra blockers to be utilized to take the heat off of Brady.

2. Make clean tackles

The Bills like to use a 1 WR, 2 TE, 2 RB grouping that spreads the field and takes advantage of misdirection. The Patriots will have many opportunities to make one on one tackles, and must do so. But in order to do so, Patriots defenders will need to stay in their assigned areas. Arm tackles will not be a way to get the shifty Bills’ running backs to the ground.

3. Pressure Ryan Fitzpatrick

The flip-side of #1 is getting to Ryan Fitzpatrick. He has been prone to getting rattled in the past and on the whole is known to be an inconsistent quarterback. The Patriots will need to cut down his ability to make good reads by applying consistent pressure. One key match-up will be between fellow rookies Chandler Jones and Cordy Glenn. Glenn has yet to give up a sack but might find Jones to be more of a handful than he has seen so far. Speaking of handfuls, look for the “real” NFL officials to be all over offensive holding this week.

Three keys for the Bills:

1. Pick on Devin McCourty

McCourty had a terrific rookie season before playing so poorly last season that he had to be moved to safety. Now back at corner, McCourty started off strong but had a miserable game last week, letting two interceptions go through his hands and being flagged for a blatant pass interference call that set up Baltimore for the game-winning field goal. McCourty seems to play better with people in front of him (at safety) and often finds himself playing catch-up with receivers; this is a technique problem that he has yet to correct. Look for Stevie Johnson to try to exploit this weakness all day.

2. Pound the ball

The Bills have an incredibly effective running attack, and their two primary backs have already rushed for a combined 439 yards in three weeks. Their two tight end sets provide plenty of blocking power, and will test the Patriots front seven. If the Patriots have to bring a safety up to assist in the run, look for Fitzpatrick to exploit that with passes to Johnson and Donald Jones.

3. Pressure Brady

Already discussed above, but the Bills’ defensive weakness is in their linebacker coverage and their defensive backs. Even without Aaron Hernandez, the Patriots have too many weapons for the Bills to cover them all. If Tom Brady is given time, he will spread the ball between Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Rob Gronkowski and Deion Branch, while changing it up with opportunistic runs for Stevan Ridley, who has proven a more than capable lead back.

Beyond these keys, Patriots’ offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels needs to trust the game plan that he develops, and trust Tom Brady and the other players on offense to carry it out. In each of the past two weeks McDaniels got “cute” with play-calling and squandered offensive opportunities. Leave Danny Woodhead on the sideline this week and trust in Stevan Ridley to pound the ball where the situation calls for it.

PREDICTION: Earlier in the week I thought the Patriots’ anger and determination would be an epic force that would carry the day, but reason has since prevailed. Chan Gailey is a smart coach who is intentionally trying to design a team to beat the Patriots, and they have the parts to do it. During last season’s Patriots visit to Buffalo, the Patriots jumped to a quick 21-0 lead, but four Brady interceptions later the Patriots found themselves on the losing side of the score. The Patriots have to (and will) take this match-up seriously. The Bills are dangerous at home and I expect this to be a tough contest. The Patriots can ill afford to go 1-3 to start the season and I expect them to come out focused. But focus hasn’t been their problem. Instead, the Patriots have suffered from a lack of execution at key times when a play needed to be made. Still, I look for the Patriots to rebound this week and pull out a close contest. I expect the offensive line to limit the number of hits on Brady, and for Brady to put up enough points to carry the day. I also expect Vince Wilfork and the defense to atone for last week’s awful showing against the Ravens, and make key plays that will seal the Patriots’ win. PATRIOTS 28 Bills 24

Side Note: Still undecided about live blogging this week. No doubt I will have my iPad next to me during the game, but Sunday is my birthday and I rather suspect the house will be a little hectic that day with five kids running around. If I don’t live blog, I’ll have a game summary up sometime early that evening.

Side Note #2: Tedy Buschi is predicting the Pats will lose this weekend.

 

Jun 032012
 

The AFC East is a feast or famine division. The New England Patriots have won all but two division titles dating back to 2001 and are in a position in 2012 to continue dominating the division. The New York Jets may talk a good game, but they are a team that finished 8-8 last season, played like they were 6-10, and did not significantly (or insignificantly) improve in the off-season. And the Miami Dolphins are… well… the Dolphins. Their ownership and management are clinically brain dead, and while the team has some of the components to compete, they simply don’t have enough of them. Dolphins’ fans want to believe that their team is merely a player away from being a championship club, but the truth is that they are much further away.

And that brings us to the Buffalo Bills. What about the Bills? For all of the off-season news coming from Orchard Park, New York, is this team truly ready to compete? It is a little known fact that in the past ten seasons (dating back to 2002-2003), the Buffalo Bills are the only NFL team not to advance to the playoffs, last making it to the postseason in 1999. Thirty-one other teams have made it during that span, but not the Bills. The Bills still seem to be in recovery from the Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and his missing helmet, “wide left”, four straight Super Bowl losses era of 1990-1993, but this off-season they have seemed determined to make sure that their rehabilitation is complete.

The offense is peppered with outstanding talent, but much of their success boils down to injuries and the play of Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Will we see the Fitzpatrick from the first half of last season, who started out shredding defenses on his way to a 4-1 record, before injuries began decimating the team, or will we see the Fitzpatrick from the second half of the season? As the 2011 season went on, Fitzpatrick looked less confident and struggled as the Bills dropped seven straight games to send them crashing into a tie for last place in the division. The final game of the year seemed like an appropriate synopsis of the entire season; the Patriots spotted the Bills 21 first quarter points before scoring 14 points, 14 points, and 21 points in the final three quarters to emerge with a 49-21 blowout win over the Bills. So what will help make 2012 different than 2011?

A healthy Fred Jackson at running back would be a good start and a huge plus for the Bills, but Jackson is 31 years old and may have trouble coming back from last season’s injury. Vince Young and CJ Spiller are the back-ups at quarterback and running back. Spiller has the potential to be a solid back, but right now he is better as a platoon back (along with Tashard Choice) than a primary. To his credit, Young has yet to refer to the Bills as a “dream team,” so maybe that bodes well for their season. Young is capable, but if he is starting then there are bigger problems in Buffalo. Stevie Johnson promises to be a #1 receiving threat, as long as he can stop mimicking Plaxico Burress shooting himself during his touchdown celebrations. Seriously, Johnson is good, and is complemented by solid if unspectacular secondary receivers in David Nelson, Scott Chandler, and Donald Jones. Buffalo’s offensive line was excellent last season, ranking 5th in yards per carry and leading the league in sacks allowed, and all of its core players are returning for the 2012 campaign. On the whole, the Bills offense looks capable of putting up big points, and they appear to have better depth than in 2011.

The defense has been the talk of the off-season, and for good reason. The Bills’ move to a 4-3 defense will now be a successful one with Mario Williams terrorizing opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks. He will start opposite Chris Kelsay, but the Bills will use a rotation of players and added former Patriot Mark Anderson, who racked up 10 sacks in 2011. Some believe that Anderson was a one year contract wonder, but I tend to think that Anderson fit in well with the New England scheme and will find a similar comfort level in Buffalo. Marcell Darius and Kyle Williams will anchor the tackle spots and give Buffalo one of the best (if not the best) defensive lines in football. This group should be able to get consistent pressure with four players, freeing up the linebackers for coverage and run support. Nick Barnett heads up a linebacking corps that includes Kirk Morrison and Kelvin Sheppard, and they possess a decent but not outstanding secondary of Terrence McGee, Stephon Gilmore, Jairus Byrd and George Wilson. Still, this group will not need to be spectacular with the pressure that the front four is capable of generating. If the defensive line is neutralized however, opponents will find the ability to carve up the Bills’ coverage unit. Consistent pressure will be the key to this unit’s success. Rian Lindell and Brian Moorman provide an experienced and generally reliable kicking game. Chan Gailey seems to be an effective coach in the process of righting the ship, and Dave Wannstedt is the perfect person to run the team’s 4-3 defense.

The Bills benefit from both an easy schedule draw for the AFC East, and for finishing last in the division last season. In addition to the AFC South and NFC West, the Bills will play Cleveland and Kansas City outside of their division. This, along with their improvements on defense, mean the team is almost certain to do better than last season’s 6-10 campaign. Barring multiple serious injuries, this team is an easy selection to finally return to the playoffs. The fans in Buffalo have good reason to feel positive about the 2012 prospects for the Bills, as well as for the foreseeable future.