Bills vs. Jets: 5 Keys to the Game for Buffalo
This will be Tim Tebow's first game as a New York Jet. There, that's out of the way.
If you're looking for Tebow hype, this isn't the place. If you're looking for a Buffalo Bills Hall of Famer talking like most Bills' fans about how he hopes Tebow becomes a huge distraction, well, have at that.
OK, moving on...
Expectations haven't been higher for a Buffalo Bills season than they are heading into the team's Week 1 matchup with the New York Jets. There's so much excitement about the prospects of the Bills breaking their NFL-long 12 season playoff drought that it's easy to forget that the Bills have a 2-10 record within their division during coach Chan Gailey's two-year tenure.
That, of course, includes an 0-4 record against the Jets and a 1-3 record against Dolphins, whose former head coach, Tony Sparano, has presto bango into the Jets offensive coordinator.
The Bills' recent history in their own division reads a little like a horror movie script. Those eight games against Ryan's Jets and Sparano's Dolphins include lopsided losses like 35-8, 38-7, 38-14 and a number of epic rushing performances allowed. It would seem that between Sparano and Ryan, they have the Bills pretty much figured out.
So why should Bills fans be more optimistic? The biggest reason is that the Bills roster has real talent. There's a host of players with fewer than five years experience who have really come into their own with the team, and the addition of Mario Williams and Mark Anderson to the defensive line make it, on paper, one of the best defensive lines in the game. There's reason to believe the Bills won't allow 250-plus yards rushing to the Jets' formidable tailback duo of Shonn Greene and Joe McKnight.
And, given the Bills' dominating performance against Tebow's Denver Broncos last Christmas Eve, there's reason to hope the the Tebowcat can be tamed.
Play Action, and Stop the Play Action
Before NFL quarterbacks started doubling down on their Wheaties, football's golden rule was “run, and stop the run.” Even the Harvard educated former Bills' coach Marv Levy resorted to using the cliché to describe his simplified gameplan. And it remains in effect in week 1 for sure, especially with the wildcard wildcat running back gadget quarterbacks on both teams.
To be more nuanced, though, I'd like to draw attention to a successful running game's chief weapon, the play-action pass. Brian Galliford of Buffalo Rumblings put together this neat piece on the Bills' use of the play-action pass against the Jets last year that I believe is worth figuring into one's expectations for the game.
Expect both teams to test the play action early, and expect both teams to get printed color pictures in their hands on the sidelines to look for holes in the defense's response to the play-action. The way both teams can run the ball, you shouldn't be surprised if the play-action pass figures large into the game's outcome.
Ultimately, however, the play-action pass is only as effective as the running game. So “run, and stop the run” remains the obligatory cliché to the game. I'll spare you the "whoever wants it more" line.
Mario Williams vs. Some Dude off the Ravens' Practice Squad
The Bills' new defensive end has been seen in practice wearing a bandanna around his neck to wipe the constant drool from his mouth since learning that Jets right tackle Wayne Hunter looked so bad in camp that the Jets traded him for another team's Gholston-grade draft bust in Jason Smith. And that guy isn't even starting.
Let this be a lesson: Never draft a player whose name falls somewhere between ghoul and ghost.
Who is? His name is Austin Howard, and this is his story. And he was an undrafted rookie for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2010, a practice squad guy for all of 2011 for the Baltimore Ravens and now, he's the Jets' answer for one of the game's elite pass-rushers in his prime. Good for Howard, of course, clawing his way to the big time; he'll have his work cut out for him.
The matchup definitely appears to favor the Bills heavily and could have a huge impact on how the game unfolds. Williams has to be licking his chops here. It's his first game for a team that just made him the highest-paid defensive player in the game.
Protecting Against Mayhem Like Him
Speaking of defensive ends and draft busts, I just have to mention Aaron Maybin here. He's like the Bills' baby momma at this point. The Bills would love to be through with him entirely and forget he ever existed, but there's no way around it. They're stuck seeing him every other weekend...err...twice a year.
I don't mean to be trite, but the Bills need to keep Maybin where they decided he belonged when they cut him in 2011, irrelevant and ineffective. He's shown the ability to make plays as a one-dimensional pass-rusher, and the Bills have shown the ability to find creative ways to lose games they have locked up.
Rex Ryan's greatest strength as a defensive coordinator is his ability to disguise blitz packages and confuse the quarterback's decision-making process enough to disrupt the play.
The Bills are hoping Fitzpatrick can use his growing experience against Ryan's defenses to minimize the mayhem that Maybin and company intend to wreak.
The Return of 'Fitzmagic'
In order for the Bills to move the ball effectively, they're going to need to have their franchise quarterback playing like a franchise quarterback. The Bills need Fitzpatrick to find a rhythm with his receivers early and spread the ball across the field.
Fitzpatrick's performance in preseason was much like his performance over his career: spotty. If the Bills are going to ride Fitzpatrick into the playoff promise land, they'll need him to be better than that.
Of course, this whole point is complicated by the growing concern over WR Stevie Johnson's groin. Groin injuries can often be of the nagging variety, and the healing process is notoriously tricky. Bills fans are hoping that Johnson's groin doesn't become the most studied groin in Buffalo sports since Dominik Hasek's.
Look for WR David Nelson and TE Scott Chandler, particularly, to be targeted over the middle of the field early and often.
Controlling Special Teams Play
One element of the Bills preseason play they'll hope to carry into the regular season is their excellent punting and kicking game. Brian Moorman punted through the preseason looking like he had been down to the crossroads in the offseason, dropping punts at will and with precision deep into enemy territory.
Likewise, John Potter kicked 11 of his 13 kickoffs out of the end zone in the preseason, which would be the perfect elixir for the Jets' return weapon, Joe McKnight. McKnight's nursing a hamstring injury of his own, so who knows if the 2011 NFL kick return leader will be on the field for the Jets, but ah, what the hell, Potter will probably boot it out of the end zone any way just for laughs.
On the return game, Leodis McKelvin looked particularly explosive at times during the preseason. Based on McKelvin's mediocre pass coverage abilities, it's easy to forget why the Bills made him the No. 1 cornerback selected in the 2008 draft, but then there are other moments when it becomes clear he's got an elite burst.