Buffalo Bills: Cam Newton

Bills' report card vs. Panthers

September, 16, 2013
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Offering unit-by-unit grades following the Buffalo Bills' 24-23 win Sunday over the Carolina Panthers:

Coaching: B (Last week: C) There's one call that stands out here. After Dan Carpenter missed a 42-yard field goal in the first quarter, the coaching staff showed faith in their fill-in kicker, and it paid off. Carpenter was able to drill a 55-yarder in the second quarter, putting the Bills on the scoreboard. Otherwise, there weren't any challenges or clock management issues to dissect here. Seven penalties, including some in critical situations, is not a great reflection on the coaching, but cleaning up the two 12-men flags from last week was a positive.

Run Offense: B-plus (Last week: C) A week after the Bills could not muster any plays of more than 20 yards, C.J. Spiller provided a spark with two big "chunk plays" Sunday. His 46-yard run in the fourth quarter set up a Carpenter field goal that kept the Bills within striking position after going down 20-14. There were times, though, when Spiller got bottled up and looked like the Spiller of Week 1: seven of his 16 carries went for 3 yards of less, including three for negative yardage. But taken as a whole, it was a good bounce-back game for him.

Pass Offense: B-minus (Last week: C-minus) EJ Manuel showed an ability to open up the passing game Sunday, finding Steve Johnson for 45- and 19-yard gains, as well as Robert Woods for 28- and 19-yard gains. He talked about getting "chunk plays" going into the week, and he was able to make some of those happen. On the downside, there were times when he struggled. Headlining that list is his fourth quarter interception, but misfires to T.J. Graham (down the right sideline) and tight end Scott Chandler (in the end zone) are also notable. Pass protection, which factors into this grade, also slipped from last week, with Manuel strip-sacked in the third quarter.

Run Defense: B-plus (Last week: D-plus) Big-time improvement from this unit after struggling to stop the Patriots' ground game in the opener. DeAngelo Williams never got into a rhythm, finishing with 85 yards on 22 carries, a 3.9-yard average. Solid performance by the Bills. Two big plays here: Stopping Williams for no gain at the Bills 9-yard line early in the fourth quarter, and again for no gain on 2nd-and-5 on the Panthers' final drive, helping to force a field goal.

Pass Defense: B (Last week: B-minus) There were times when Cam Newton let loose some bad throws, helping a wounded Bills secondary. But a lot of his struggles in the game can be attributed to a consistent pass rush, headlined by a 4.5-sack performance by Mario Williams. There were some breakdowns by the safeties, notably on a 40-yard pitch-and-catch touchdown from Newton to Ted Ginn. Also have to flag this unit for unnecessary roughness penalty by Aaron Williams that was, well, unnecessary. Not the way to get off the field on third down.

Special Teams: B-minus (Last week: B-plus) Shaky first half for this unit. Ginn opened the game with a 29-yard return and added a 36-yard return in the second quarter. Carpenter's missed 42-yarder in the first quarter also knocks this grade down. In the second half, though, the unit did what it needed to do to put the Bills in position to win.

Halftime thoughts: Bills vs. Panthers

September, 15, 2013
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Sharing some halftime thoughts from Ralph Wilson Stadium, where the Buffalo Bills trail the Carolina Panthers 7-3:
  1. Winnable game: This is the sort of game that the Bills need to win this season. They're not playing well, but neither are the Panthers. At home against a quarterback, Cam Newton, who struggled until the final drive of the half, you need to come away with a win.
  2. Manuel not his sharpest: It's been an up-and-down game for EJ Manuel, who has made some nice plays, including a 19-yard completion to Robert Woods on a scramble late in the first half. A few plays later, though, Manuel underthrew T.J. Graham on what would have been a big gain. Some growing pains for the rookie quarterback.
  3. Different look on offense: After playing nearly their entire opener in three-receiver sets, the Bills have made heavy use of 248-pound fullback Frank Summers, who did not play an offensive snap last week. Summers has played well, rumbling for a 34-yard catch-and-run on the Bills' first offensive play of the game. He also came close to blocking a punt in the second quarter. More time for Summers has meant less time for Graham and Woods at receiver.
  4. Mario Williams a factor: After going without a sack in the opener, Williams has three today for the Bills. The first was a bit of a gift -- Newton tripped over his own player with Williams in pursuit -- but the pressure has been there from the Bills' highest-paid player. That's a positive for a defense that has held its own so far today, with some lapses on third down.
  5. Coverage units an issue: The Bills have allowed a pair of good kickoff returns from Ted Ginn (29 and 36 yards), as well as a punt return where Ginn eluded several defenders before being taken down by long-snapper Garrison Sanborn. Getting the feeling that Ginn is ready to break one open in the second half.

W2W4: Bills vs. Panthers

September, 13, 2013

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The Buffalo Bills came less than a minute away last Sunday from earning what would have been just their second win over the New England Patriots in the past 10 seasons.

No matter the optimism that resulted from the close loss, a sense of urgency has begun to creep in at One Bills Drive. The Bills join only the Colts and Bears -- who both won their openers -- as teams that open the season with back-to-back home games. Dropping to 0-2 at home would mean the Bills must play catch-up on the road, beginning in Week 3 against the Jets.

Outside of the schedule implication for the Bills, Sunday's game offers an intriguing quarterback matchup between Bills rookie EJ Manuel and the Panthers' Cam Newton, who is looking to lead Carolina to their first win after being edged out by the Seahawks in the home opener.

Here's what to watch for:

1. Will Panthers use Patriots' blueprint with Spiller? Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett wasn't kidding last month when he said running back C.J. Spiller would be the focal point of the Bills' offense. The Bills force-fed Spiller the ball both as a runner and receiver early in Sunday's game, with Spiller getting eight touches in the first 13 plays of the game. Yet the results were sub-par; the Patriots made stopping Spiller a priority and he averaged less than 3 yards per touch in the game. Undoubtedly the Panthers will look at how the Patriots were able to contain Spiller, and if he's not able to overcome the defense's attention, Buffalo will have to find another way to move the ball on offense.

[+] EnlargeEJ Manuel
Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY SportsThe Bills played it safe with EJ Manuel in Week 1; will they open up the offense against the Panthers?
2. Will Bills open it up on offense? Manuel hinted earlier this week that the Bills will try to take more deep shots against Carolina, but the concept is hardly new: The Bills have talked about doing that since early in the preseason. Manuel, who is now fully healthy, must venture outside of his comfort zone. He relied heavily on Spiller and Fred Jackson as check-down options last Sunday, targeting his top three wide receivers, who were on the field nearly the entire game, just five times total. The weakness of the Panthers defense is their secondary, and if Manuel is going to be the Bills' long-term option at quarterback, this is the sort of game where he needs to do more than just protect the ball and prevent turnovers. It's time for him to start making plays.

3. Run defense: Anomaly or same old problem? The Bills had the NFL's second-worst run defense last season, and fixing that is the top priority for new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. Yet the Bills gave up the third-most rushing yards of any team in Week 1, and when the statistics are narrowed to just the Patriots' top two rushers -- Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley -- the Bills allowed more than six yards per carry. Carolina poses an even greater challenge with their ground game, which torched the Seahawks' defense last week for more than five yards per carry. If Pettine's unit can't figure out a way to slow down DeAngelo Williams, the Bills will be in for another long day.

4. Pesky penalties: In what is beginning to sound like a broken record, the Bills must find a way to avoid critical penalties. The Bills were penalized 13 times in Week (10 were accepted), second to only the Buccaneers, who were flagged 15 times. It's worth noting that the Bills have a young team and preach aggressiveness to their defense, but regardless, their inability to correct one of their biggest problems of the preseason is not a great reflection on head coach Doug Marrone. Being flagged twice in one game for having 12 men on the field gives the impression to the rest of the league that the coaching staff, while new, isn't on their A-game.

Double Coverage: Panthers at Bills

September, 12, 2013
Manuel-NewtonGetty ImagesRookie QB EJ Manuel guides rebuilding Buffalo; Cam Newton's under pressure to win now in Carolina.

Following tough home losses Sunday, the Buffalo Bills and Carolina Panthers look to get back on track in Week 2.

This game offers an intriguing quarterback battle between Bills rookie EJ Manuel, selected 16th overall this year, and the Panthers' Cam Newton, the top overall pick in 2011.

We'll hit on that matchup and more in our weekly "Double Coverage" conversation, so let's get it started:

Mike Rodak: David, it seemed like the Bills and the Panthers opened their seasons in similar ways. Both teams faced superior opponents: The Patriots and Seahawks are near the top of the AFC and NFC, respectively, while the Bills and Panthers are bottom-dwellers in their conferences. Yet, both teams kept it close. The Bills lost by two points on a late field goal, while the Panthers kept it within five points. There is a cautious sense of optimism around the Bills locker room right now. Is that also true down in Charlotte?

David Newton: Definitely optimism, which wasn't necessarily the case a year ago. The team feels it has more of an identity, an awareness of where it can go from here. Much of that identity is based around the defense, which established itself as one of the more solid units in the league by holding the potent Seattle offense to 12 points. Wide receiver Steve Smith, whether he was trying to inspire the rest of the team or because he actually believes it, set the tone by predicting that the Panthers will face Seattle again deep in January. I still don't see Carolina as a playoff team based on what its offense showed, but there is potential.

So both teams played top opponents close and lost. Now what? Is this a must-win for both if they have any hopes of being playoff contenders?

Rodak: I think it’s more of a must-win for Carolina. You look at the NFC South, and it’s stacked. If the Panthers want a shot at a wild-card spot, they might need to finish ahead of either Atlanta or New Orleans, and that’s a tall task. The Bills are in a weaker division, where an 0-2 start could have less of an impact. But still, not a good sign for Buffalo if it drops its first two, both at home.

The Bills spent a first-round pick this season on a quarterback in Manuel. The Panthers selected a quarterback, Newton, first overall in 2011. He’s now entering his third season. How does the team (and fans) feel about Newton’s development?

Newton: Agreed, it's much more of a must-win game for Carolina. An 0-2 start after getting out of the gate 1-6 a year ago will have the vultures swarming for coach Ron Rivera. It will have the critics pounding on Newton. As new general manager Dave Gettleman said before the season, it's time for Newton to win. Buffalo can write this off as a rebuilding season with a rookie quarterback; Carolina can't do that with Newton. I said before the season the Panthers had to start no worse than 2-1 to have a chance to be successful. The Seattle loss, as close as they came to pulling it out, wasn't unexpected. Sunday's is one of those winnable road games they can't afford to lose. There aren't many out there.

So what do you see this game coming down to?

Rodak: I think the Bills will need a better game out of C.J. Spiller. If he can get it going -- the Patriots shut him down Sunday, holding him to less than 3 yards per carry and per catch -- it opens up the Bills offense and gives Manuel a chance to take more shots downfield. The Panthers held the Seahawks to just 70 yards rushing and have one of the better defensive lines in the NFL, so it won’t be easy. If Spiller has another quiet day, not only will it upset his fantasy owners, but it will also be tough for the Bills to win.

What about for the Panthers?

Newton: It's going to come down to the Carolina offensive line and whether it can establish the run as well as New England did in Week 1 against the Bills. Right guard Garry Williams is gone for the year with an ACL/MCL tear. His replacement, Chris Scott, played well against Seattle. But Scott started on the left side, where Amini Silatolu was out with a hamstring injury. Silatolu is expected back this week, so if he holds up, the Panthers should be OK. But Carolina has to run effectively to make the offense under new coordinator Mike Shula click.