AFC South: Buffalo Bills
Both teams are 4-9 but they’re on opposite wavelengths. The Jaguars have won four of their past five games and are currently riding a three-game winning streak for the first time since 2010. The Bills have lost four of their past five and are coming off an abysmal performance in Tampa Bay.
Jaguars coach Gus Bradley is talking about making sure his players treat prosperity the same way they treated the adversity they faced in the first half of the season. Bills coach Doug Marrone is talking about scaling back the offense to help rookie quarterback EJ Manuel.
The teams meet Sunday at EverBank Field. ESPN.com Bills reporter Mike Rodak and Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco break down the matchup:
DiRocco: Manuel is pretty familiar to fans in Jacksonville from his time at Florida State. He has had an up-and-down season, but what have you seen from him that leads you to believe the Bills made the correct choice in deciding to build the franchise around him?
Rodak: I think the jury is still out on whether the Bills made the correct choice in Manuel. In Sunday's loss to the Buccaneers, Manuel posted a 3.8 QBR, which ranks 415 out of 426 single-game performances in the NFL this season. It's dangerous to give too much weight to what's most recent, but in this case, Sunday had to be alarming for the Bills. Manuel has the leadership and character traits that any NFL team wants in its quarterback, but his on-field performance has left a lot to be desired. These last three games will be critically important to determining which direction Manuel is heading.
The Jaguars have gone on a surprising run lately, winning four of their past five games. Have they been doing anything different than early in the season? Or are things just simply starting to come together for Gus Bradley and his players?
DiRocco: Schematically, no, other than just paring down the defensive game plan a bit and focusing more on the coverages and blitzes they do well. But three things stand out: better run defense, a better turnover ratio and better success in the red zone. In the first eight games -- all losses by double digits -- the Jaguars were allowing 161.8 yards per game rushing, were minus-7 in turnover ratio, and scored TDs on only 25 percent of red-zone possessions. The numbers in the past five games: 70.8 yards per game allowed, plus-5, and 66.7 percent. The offensive line has been much more consistent, quarterback Chad Henne is making few mistakes, and the defensive line has held up at the point of attack much better.
Kiko Alonso is one of the candidates for defensive rookie of the year and is second in the NFL in tackles. Obviously a second-round pick is expected to produce, but has the kind of impact he has made on the defense been a surprise?
Rodak: I think so. When I spoke to defensive coordinator Mike Pettine last month about Alonso, he indicated that the Bills inserted him into the starting lineup in the spring, but it was a wait-and-see deal. If it didn’t work out, they were going to turn somewhere else, but Alonso has certainly fit well within this defense. He has drawn a lot of praise from coaches and veterans on this team for his work ethic and ability to pick up the scheme quickly. However, I do think that Alonso’s play has tailed off slightly over the past several weeks after he had a hot start this season. He had four interceptions, one sack, and one forced fumble in the first month of the season. Since then, he has had one sack, no interceptions and no forced fumbles. Is that overly concerning for the Bills, though? Most likely not. I think Alonso will be a fixture in this defense for the foreseeable future.
What’s the latest on Maurice Jones-Drew? I remember hearing some trade talk around him a few months ago, but once the deadline passed, he hasn’t been on the radar as much. Does he have a future in Jacksonville?
DiRocco: He does if he’s willing to be realistic about a contract. No team is going to pay big money for a 29-year-old running back that has battled injuries the past two seasons, which is what he’ll find out if he decides to test the free-agent market when his contract expires after this season. The Jaguars are interested in re-signing him and likely will offer him an incentive-filled two-year contract worth $6-10 million. Jones-Drew, who would like to finish his career in Jacksonville, is making $4.95 million this season so that would be a pay cut. If he’s OK with that, then I’d be surprised if he’s not around.
What do you think of the job Doug Marrone has done in his first season? And what do you think of his long-term future in Buffalo?
Rodak: I think it has been a trying season for Marrone. It's not that there were high hopes for the team in his first season -- nobody realistically expected them to make the playoffs -- but I don't think everything fell into place as well as he would have liked. His hire of Mike Pettine as defensive coordinator has generally paid off well, but ultimately what's going to define Marrone's tenure in Buffalo will be the quarterback position. Coaches don't often get more than one chance to get it right at quarterback, so if Manuel doesn't work out in Buffalo, it may not work out for Marrone, either. That's just today's NFL. It's a brutal league.
What about for the Jaguars? Their roster was about as bare bones as it gets this past offseason -- in much worse shape than the Bills' entering this season -- and they've managed to put on a nice little run here. What's the next step that general manager David Caldwell needs to take?
DiRocco: His No. 1 priority is to find a franchise quarterback. At the beginning of the season I would have told you the Jaguars would draft Teddy Bridgewater with the No. 1 overall selection, but since it now appears the Jaguars will be picking in the Nos. 5-7 range it seems unlikely Bridgewater will be around. Caldwell is going to have to figure out whether there’s somebody else he likes just as much or if he’s going to be willing to gamble that he can get a good QB a little later in the draft, whether it’s A.J. McCarron, Aaron Murray or somebody else.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indianapolis Colts could have at least waited until the second half -- when the interest level would have completely faded -- before having those here-we-go-again moments with their special teams in their 44-20 preseason loss to the Buffalo Bills.
Yes, it's only preseason. But the Colts can't get a pass when they allowed Marquise Goodwin, a former track star at the University of Texas, to go virtually untouched during a 107-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the second quarter. That made Goodwin's 53-yard kickoff return in the first quarter seem like nothing. It is something when you're trying to improve in defending that area.
The Colts were 22nd in the league in kick returns last season, with opponents averaging 24.7 yards per return against them.
"You’re not going to give yourself a chance to win any football games by giving up big plays on special teams,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “We’ve got to address that and make the necessary adjustments and corrections.”
Here are some other observations from Sunday:
- As expected, quarterback Andrew Luck had a brief afternoon. He played the first two series, going 4-for-6 for 51 yards. Luck's passing ability isn't the concern. It's the offensive line's ability to protect him. Bills defensive end Mario Williams easily blew by Colts left tackle Anthony Castonzo and flattened Luck for a 10-yard loss. It turns out Luck, who was sacked 41 times last season, took blame on that play. He said it was a cadence mishap, and Castonzo asked him if he was trying to get himself hurt. The Colts mixed it up by running plays with three- and four-receiver sets and with a fullback during Luck's two series.
- Tight end Coby Fleener has talked about wanting to make up for his rocky rookie season. He ended up having a rocky preseason debut after a strong start to training camp. Fleener had a nice catch and run in the first quarter only to end up having it go to waste because he fumbled the ball after taking a hard hit from Ron Brooks at Buffalo's 19-yard line. Fleener had a chance to redeem himself seven plays later, when Matt Hasselbeck threw a perfect pass to him in the end zone while matched up one-on-one against a linebacker. Fleener couldn't hold on to the ball. The Colts need Fleener to produce after Pagano announced after the game that fellow tight end Dwayne Allen will be out a couple of weeks with a foot injury. "Disappointing," Fleener said. "To turn the ball over is something that is inexcusable in any case He broke it up. I caught it and then he basically knocked it out. I'm a little frustrated."
- Not everything was negative for the Colts. You can thank receiver T.Y. Hilton for providing one of their few highlights. Hilton is showing that he doesn't plan on being left out the picture in the receiver mix behind Reggie Wayne and Darrius Heyward-Bey. The second-year receiver made a sprawling catch along the sideline for a 45-yard touchdown from Hasselbeck on the final play of the first quarter. Hilton, who lost part of the skin on his wrist on the diving catch, finished with three catches for 61 yards to go with a 15-yard punt return. Luck will have multiple options to go to among Wayne, Heyward-Bey, Hilton, and Fleener and Allen at tight end this season.
- The Colts defense caused unease when Bills running back C.J. Spiller rattled off 17 and 15 yards on their first two offensive plays. The Bills ended up with 136 yards on 40 carries, with Spiller and rookie quarterback EJ Manuel accounting for 64 of those yards.
- Third-string quarterback Chandler Harnish played part of the second quarter and the entire second half. He spent the majority of the time trying to avoid getting sacked while going 14-for-33 for 109 yards and an interception.
- The Colts went into the game without 16 players, including first round pick Bjoern Werner (knee), starters Allen, safety LaRon Landry and linebacker Jerrell Freeman. That list was even longer by the time the game ended. Linebackers Justin Hickman (foot) and Quinton Spears (hamstring), cornerback Cassius Vaughn (wrist) and Montori Hughes (stinger) all left the game with injuries. Spears and Hickman were scheduled for MRIs on Sunday night.
JACKSONVILLE -- Wide receiver Jerry Porter has been designated as the Jaguars third quarterback for today's game against the Bills.
The move appears odd, but actually makes sense as smart roster manipulation.
In such a scenario, Porter could enter the game as the quarterback.
After a play, he'd likely flip spots with Matt Jones, the receiver who was a quarterback at Arkansas. With Dennis Northcutt's back issues, Jack Del Rio is simply putting himself in position to have access to the most players possible should he suffer injuries at quarterback and receiver.
And after watching three offensive linemen go down last week -- two of them are now out for the season -- such crazy scenarios don't seem so crazy any more.
For the Bills, Jason Peters will start at left tackle after a full week of practice following a holdout that did not produce a new deal. Langston Walker shifts to right tackle and Kirk Chambers moves to the bench.