Buffalo vs. Chicago: Bills Week 1 Game Preview
On Sunday the regular season will officially be back for the Buffalo Bills when they travel to Soldier Field to take on the Chicago Bears. It is not going to be an easy task for the Bills, as they will have to find a way to slow down a high-powered offense led by Jay Cutler.
This Week 1 matchup will be a good test to see exactly what kind of team the Bills have and if they have improved from a season ago. Last season the Bills struggled on the road, finishing with a 2-6 record, and a win in Chicago would go a long way toward giving this team confidence early in the season.
If the Bills hope to win, they are going to have to rely on their improved defense led by middle linebacker Brandon Spikes. This unit looked much improved against the run in the preseason, allowing only 2.6 yards per rushing attempt. The defense will be facing its toughest test yet this year as it looks to contain Matt Forte, one of the top running backs in the game.
The concern for fans is what they might expect from the Buffalo offense. It has been lackluster this preseason, scoring only six touchdowns in five games. EJ Manuel and the first-team offense have not been able to get in any kind of groove and were stagnant for most of those five games.
By the time this game is finished on Sunday, those stats won't matter. A strong game in Chicago will be a great start to put the preseason in the rearview mirrors. The following slides will touch on some of the key points heading into Sunday's matchup between the Bills and the Bears and what fans might expect.
Buffalo Bills' Preseason Recap
The Buffalo Bills played five preseason games this year—one more than a majority of the league—due to the Hall of Fame Game. The hope would have been that they would be firing on all cylinders by the time those games were in the books. This has not been the case, and it seems there are more questions now than there were a month ago.
The biggest concern has been the play of EJ Manuel and the lack of development he has shown from his rookie season to now. In limited action over the five games, Manuel threw for 514 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.
The most important stat of all is that he was only able to lead the offense on two drives ending in touchdowns. To make matters worse, they both came in the third quarter against Tampa Bay after the Bucs had pulled most of their starting defense.
The important thing to remember is that preseason success, or lack thereof, isn't always an indicator on how the season will go. Generally, NFL teams will run very basic schemes on both sides of the ball in order not to give their opponents an ability to scout them early in the regular season. Manuel was quoted in this tweet by the Buffalo Bills as saying, "There's a bunch of formations and gadgets we've added for this game. It's a true game-plan week."
News and Notes
While I believe this to be a non-issue, it has dominated the news coverage around the Bills in the early part of this week. The news, coupled with the fact that the Bills went out and signed Kyle Orton, started to raise questions about the confidence in Manuel among the team.
While the quarterback is the face of the franchise and the voice on the field, that doesn't make him automatically the voice in the locker room. The Bills have great veteran leaders, particularly Fred Jackson, who should be one of the leaders of this team because of his experience.
The bigger story, in my opinion, is the fact that Mario Williams was selected for the first time as a captain. Williams became one of the highest-paid defensive players in the game when he signed with the team in 2012.
However, he never seemed to take the leadership role on this defense and was not selected as a captain in his first two seasons in Buffalo. Sal Capaccio of WGR Buffalo noted a difference in Williams this year, tweeting that Williams has been all business. This will hopefully mean another stellar season from the superstar defensive end.
The backup quarterback position has been one of unrest and uneasiness for the coaching staff. The team tried out four quarterbacks (Jeff Tuel, Thad Lewis, Dennis Dixon and Jordan Palmer) this preseason. None made the final 53-man roster.
After all the swings and misses this preseason, it was clear that the team wanted a seasoned veteran who could step in at a moment's notice. It also makes sense for the coaching staff to put such a strong emphasis on the position, considering Manuel's injury history from a season ago.
Well, the Bills finally found that strong backup when they signed Kyle Orton, who came out of retirement to join Buffalo.
It is going to cost the Bills this year to have that security blanket, as Orton is now one of the highest-paid backup quarterbacks in the NFL. The contract, broken down in this tweet by Tim Graham of The Buffalo News, states Orton will make $5.5 million this season and potentially $5.4 million next year.
The best-case scenario for this team, though, will be that it paid a quarterback more than $5 million this year to hold a clipboard. That would mean that Manuel has played well and stayed injury-free for 16 games. If this isn't the case, the team now has a player it should feel confident can lead this offense, should the need arise.
Injury statuses courtesy of BuffaloBills.com.
The team added two players to the injury report on Thursday with Brandon Spikes and Boobie Dixon being limited during practice. Both injuries are disappointing, but the bigger concern is with Spikes, who has become a key player on this defense. ESPN's Mike Rodak tried to ease that concern when he tweeted that Spikes told him he was fine.
The best news from this report was that Stephon Gilmore and Sammy Watkins were full participants in practice Thursday. This was Gilmore's first practice and Watkins' second this week where they were able to participate with no restrictions. The team will need both players on Sunday, and they should be heavily involved in the game plan.
X-Factor and Matchups to Watch
Bills offensive line vs. Bears defensive line
The area the Bills should be concerned with the most has to be the offensive line. If the team decides to start Chris Williams at left guard, it would be the first time all season this starting five will play a snap together. If Williams doesn't start, the Bills will be forced to start two rookies, Seantrel Henderson at right tackle and Cyril Richardson at left guard. Neither seems to be an ideal situation.
This could spell trouble for the offense, as the Bears have a newly revamped defensive line with the additions of Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston to play around defensive tackles Jay Ratliff and Stephen Paea. This should be a good first test for a Bills offensive line that is going to have to learn on the fly how to play together.
Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin vs. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery
Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin are going to need to be on top of their game Sunday when they go up against these two wide receivers. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery make up one of the top wide receiver duos in the NFL and seem to be able to get open almost at will.
The winner of this battle may not be decided by any of the four guys listed above but rather by Buffalo's defensive line. The longer the Bills cornerbacks will be asked to cover Marshall and Jeffery, the lower the chances of success. The Bills front four will have to make it a point to get to Jay Cutler quickly and not allow him to hold the ball and find these wide receivers.
Jim Schwartz vs. Jay Cutler
Even though Jim Schwartz switched conferences, his first game as defensive coordinator is against a familiar foe in quarterback Cutler. Since 2009, Schwartz has gone against a Cutler-led Bears team nine times, losing seven of those contests.
As Schwartz faced Cutler more, he seemed to develop a better game plan on slowing down the quarterback. Between 2009 and 2010, Cutler faced the Lions four times and threw for an average of 256 yards and 2.25 touchdowns per game.
Since 2010, Cutler has faced the Lions five times and saw his numbers drop to only 219 yards and one touchdown per game. If the Bills defense, with Schwartz's game plan, is able to hold Cutler to these kinds of numbers, this should be a competitive game.
Bills' X-Factor of the Week: C.J. Spiller
The Bills have one player who could single-handedly decide the outcome of this game, and that is C.J. Spiller. It could come as early as the opening kickoff now that the electric running back is listed on the depth chart as the starting kick returner.
Spiller is at his best when he has an open field to work with, and he should have plenty of room to work with now that he is returning kickoffs. This should help this offense by giving the Bills good field position and shortening the field. The less Manuel has to try and move this offense into scoring position, the better.
Spiller should still be heavily involved in the offensive attack and could be in line for a big game on the ground. The Bears run defense last year was arguably the worst in the league, finishing 32nd in rushing yards allowed per game (161.4) and 31st in rushing touchdowns (22).
This isn't the same Bears defense from last year with a few offseason additions, but it is still beatable, especially on the ground. This game has the potential to start Spiller's 2014 season off in a big way.
On paper, the Buffalo Bills look greatly improved from a season ago. They have added playmakers at the wide receiver position (Sammy Watkins and Mike Williams) to help quarterback EJ Manuel and complement a top rushing attack. On the defensive side of the ball, they added Brandon Spikes and Keith Rivers to shore up a weak run defense from a season ago.
The Chicago Bears are not like the Bears of the old days, winning games with a dominant defense. This new team is led by an explosive offense with Jay Cutler at quarterback and numerous playmakers (Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery) at his disposal. This new Bills defense is going to have an early test to find out just how much it has improved and if it can be considered one of the better defenses in the NFL.
The defense should be able to keep Cutler and Co. in check for most of the game, but the offense has too many question marks. The team has an inexperienced quarterback who is playing behind a questionable offensive line, which should limit Buffalo's ability to move the ball on Sunday.
Prediction: Bears 17, Bills 13