3 Things Buffalo Bills Must Work on During Bye Week
Rick Stewart/Getty Images
With a 3-4 record heading into their Week 8 bye, the Buffalo Bills have certainly left fans with much to be desired so far this season.
A promising rushing attack has once again been slowed by injuries, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has yet to live up to the lucrative, long-term contract the Bills gave him almost exactly one year ago and the defense—which was supposed to be vastly improved and a major strength for this team—has allowed more yards per game than any other team in the NFL through seven weeks.
And yet, there's hope. With the 4-3 New England Patriots so far unable to seize control of the AFC East like everyone expected them to and the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets having plenty of problems of their own, the Bills' season is still very much alive.
Buffalo's play coming out of the bye week, especially since the Bills will immediately face the AFC front-runner Houston Texans on the road, will be crucial. Here are three things the Bills must work on during their hiatus in order to keep themselves in the mix in the AFC East as the season's second half progresses.
Determine a Backfield Identity
Handing the ball to Spiller has been the Bills' best option offensively.
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
Who is the Bills' top running back? Does one even exist, or should Buffalo be defined as a two-back team?
The situation has been made murky by a combination of success and injury to each of the team's top two running backs, C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. Both have been effective when healthy, giving the Bills the fourth-best rushing attack in the NFL so far this season.
Spiller, with his youth and ridiculous 7.3 yards per carry average, looks to be the team's back of the future. But Jackson has remained extremely useful, and the team must decide if he is Spiller's backup or equal when both of them are healthy.
Not only have the dynamic rushing pair (and the blockers on their offensive line) bailed out a Buffalo passing game that ranks among the worst in the NFL, but they're also both among the top five Bills in receiving yards.
Spiller and Jackson are of utmost importance to the Bills offense, so it is critical that the team figures out how to keep them productive, motivated and happy with their workloads as the season goes on.
Figure out How to Optimize the Passing Game
Fitzpatrick and the Bills' passing numbers are among the worst in the league.
Norm Hall/Getty Images
Fitzpatrick hasn't been awful for the Bills this season, but he sure hasn't been great—probably not what fans were envisioning when the team signed him to a seven-year, $61 million contract last season.
As a result, Buffalo ranks 30th in the league in passing in 2012.
As Chris Trapasso points out in his great bye week evaluation of the Bills team and franchise, the most obvious problem for Fitzpatrick is his lack of arm strength. The fact that Buffalo's receiving corps isn't much to be afraid of doesn't help either.
The Bills' running attack is fantastic, but the team needs to show that it can accomplish something through the air to keep the ground game open. What Buffalo should try to do is optimize what it has to work with in the passing game by implementing more short passes—screens to wide receivers, dump-offs to the running backs and more short looks to tight end Scott Chandler.
Other than the occasional deep shot to talented wideout Steve Johnson, the Bills must practice a more deliberate, conservative passing game to accommodate Fitzpatrick's questionable arm strength.
Get the Defensive Line Up to Speed
Injuries have held Mario Williams back in his first season in Buffalo.
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
Part of this revolves around something that is entirely out of the team's control, which is the fact that the defensive line has been plagued by injury this season. Mario Williams, most notably, who signed a monster contract prior to his first year in Buffalo, has struggled with a wrist issue so far in 2012.
But the fact of the matter is that the line's play has been very weak, which makes up for a significant part of the reason why the Bills have been allowing the most rushing yards of any team in the league.
Things got so bad against the Tennessee Titans in the Buffalo's 35-34 Week 7 loss that defensive end Chris Kelsay felt the need to call out his teammates for taking plays off. There's nothing worse for fans than to feel that players aren't giving the game their all, so Kelsay's outburst might be the spark the Bills needed to get the defense back on track.
Hopefully the bye week will give the team what it needs most—time to heal its wounds—and will lead to a rejuvenated squad in Week 9 against the Texans. Despite having some sort of procedure on his wrist this week, Williams is not expected to miss any game time.
The defensive line—and the entire defense as a unit—must play significantly better than it has all season for the Bills to remain competitive in 2012.