We all play this game in the media where you take the Cowboys' schedule when it comes out and go through it game by game, circling win or loss.
Then when you are done with that you make your prediction for the team's overall record, which is usually wrong. This year I had the Cowboys at 9-7 and not making the playoffs, but the Buffalo game was one that I had circled as a win.
I still believe the Cowboys will defeat the Bills at Cowboys Stadium on Sunday afternoon, but I have a feeling it will be a victory that they will have to fight to get.
Jackson leads versatile Bills offense
Offensively, the Buffalo Bills are led by Ryan Fitzpatrick, who isn’t your typical NFL quarterback. He is not the most skillful athlete or passer, but he does a tremendous job of taking the snap and getting rid of the ball quickly.
The Bills’ offense is similar to a college offense in the way they get in four- and five-wide receiver sets. They use running backs like C.J. Spiller as a wide receiver or wide receiver David Nelson as a move guy, like an H-back across the formation, and as a blocker.
The strength of this Bills offense is running back Fred Jackson. Jackson is most dangerous when he takes the handoff and attacks the line, then slashes to a hole on the backside.
Jackson is athletic enough to make you miss in the hole. He can spin, cut and dodge defenders with the best of them. I saw plays where defenders had Jackson stopped, but he was able to start, stop, then restart again.
Jackson plays a lot lighter than the 215 pounds he carries. He will bounce the ball to the outside in an instant and has the vision to see where he needs to go and how to get in and out.
Jackson catches the ball with ease. He is used on screens and swings out of the backfield and even split out wide.
There was a nice design of a screen against Washington, where Jackson started his route to the outside from the backfield then planted his outside foot and broke to the middle, which allowed his linemen to set up their blocks. It was an easy throw for Fitzpatrick and a huge gain.
The Bills also can show a college look when they use third quarterback Brad Smith in the “Wildcat” formation. Smith has made a nice career as one of the best kick returners in the NFL, but he can be an effective quarterback throwing and more importantly running the ball out of the shotgun. Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has to be careful on third downs with the Bills sneaking Smith into the game to run the scheme.
Receivers are reliable weapons for Fitzpatrick
At wide receiver, I mentioned what Nelson brings to the game with his ability to line up anywhere in the formation. Nelson in my view has the best hands on the team. He catches the ball away from his body and is natural doing it. Nelson is a deceptive route runner, so it looks like he is not running, but he is getting open. His height can make him a mismatch player, so the defensive back who covers him will have to be ready to be physical with him.
If Nelson has the best hands, Stevie Johnson is the best overall receiver when it comes to routes and getting open. Johnson is comfortable whether you play him in press or off coverage. He can get off the jam with nice technique. He’s Fitzpatrick’s best friend thanks to his ability to adjust to any type of pass that is thrown.
I only saw one drop by Johnson and that came against the Jets when he misplayed a slant. Usually Johnson eats those types of throws up because of the way he can position his body to keep himself between the defender and the ball.
Former Cowboys tight end Scott Chandler has also become a reliable weapon for Fitzpatrick in this offense. Chandler can get up the field, but he lines up more than just inline. The Bills like to flex him outside and try to give him space to operate.
The Cowboys have done a nice job this season when Ryan puts Frank Walker on the tight end. If the Bills try to move Chandler around, look for Walker to try to be right there with him, breathing the same air.
Offensive line misses injured starters
In the games I studied, the Bills' offensive line was struggling to replace injured starters. Andy Levitre was moved from guard to left tackle to replace Demetrius Bell, who has a shoulder problem and hasn’t practiced all week. Levitre is not the biggest guy, but he battled the best he could.
Against the Jets last week, Levitre was beaten badly to the inside. He was much better against the Redskins the previous week.
Chad Rinehart was the starter in Levitre’s place at guard. He struggled with a man on his nose with power and wasn’t all that good as a puller. If Bell is not able to go and Levitre has to play at left tackle, watch the matchup on that left side. Against the Jets, Rinehart failed to adjust to a blitz, twist stunt that caused pressure on Fitzpatrick.
Center Eric Wood is a nice player, as is guard Kraig Urbik. Tackle Erik Pears is a much better pass blocker than run blocker. Pears can be overpowered at times, but his footwork is good.
The ability of Fitzpatrick to get rid of the ball quickly helps this line from giving up pressures and sacks. In the running game, they are not a physical group, but the slightest bit of crease can be taken advantage of by Jackson. It might be hard for Ryan to attack this offense because they like to spread you out. The key to this game will be how physical the Cowboys are with this line.
Defense isn't model of consistency
Defensively, the Bills struggle to get off blocks with any consistency. Rookie Marcell Dareus isn’t playing like the explosive player from Alabama I studied on college tape last year. Kelvin Sheppard is a rookie starter from LSU who at times will be good reading the run and filling the hole and fighting the block. He gets into trouble when he doesn’t read plays quickly enough.
If the Bills are going to get pressure on an offense in the passing game, it will be when they run twists inside with the defensive tackles in the nickel or inside linebacker cross-blitz stunts.
The Bills have a physical safety in George Wilson who is always around the ball. Wilson is a good tackler and he can cover a tight end. He will also be used as a blitzer off the back side.
Backup safety Bryan Scott is used in a role similar to the one we saw the Cowboys use Barry Church in last week. He will play as a nickel inside linebacker and is much better in coverage than he is against the run, unlike Church, who made his best plays taking on blockers and getting to the ball.
The Cowboys need to take advantage of Scott when he is in the game by running the ball right at him. He doesn’t play with the physical style of Church, which hurts the Bills in this area.
In my scouting view, the best defensive player on the Bills is cornerback Terrence McGee. Last week against the Jets, McGee went all over the field covering the Jets' Santonio Holmes. McGee can cover well and does a nice job in the slot. He is solid playing the ball in the air and is a willing hitter.
On the other side, Drayton Florence is not as good as he needs to be and I now understand why the Bills drafted Aaron Williams out of Texas with an early second-round pick. Florence plays way too soft and he will give up routes to the inside. He doesn’t do a good job of defending the slant. In the Jets and Giants games, receivers had an easy time getting inside on him.
The Giants’ Hakeem Nicks was also able to take him vertically down the field. One other thing noticable about Florence is that he really doesn’t like to tackle and he is not that good at it when he gets the chance. Watch for the Cowboys to work the ball to his side of the field and make him play in this game.
In the three games I studied, the Bills had four interceptions. It was amazing the amount of tipped passes they were able to come down with. In the Jets game, Mark Sanchez had one get knocked up in the air off Plaxico Burress that ended up in the defense’s hands. Defensive end Alex Carrington tipped a Michael Vick screen that ended up being picked off. On the other two, Sanchez overthrew his man in the end zone, and Chris Kelsay was able to put pressure on Vick to cause a poor, off-balance throw.
Offense will put Cowboys to the test
If the Cowboys are going to win this game, it’s going to come down to how well Rob Ryan’s crew matches up with the Bills' offense. I believe the Cowboys' offense will be fine, but it’s the Bills' offense that I worry about.
The Cowboys have really struggled the last two weeks in run defense when the defensive ends were pushed inside or tied up on blocks. Marcus Spears and Kenyon Coleman will need to play much better than they have the last two weeks.
I don’t see the Bills being powerful enough to physically go toe to toe with the Cowboys, but I didn’t think that Seattle could, either. Jackson is an outstanding back and is the type of player that will come at you all day. Getting pressure on Fitzpatrick will be tough, but if they don’t tackle Jackson, pressure will not matter.
Offensively the Cowboys will make plays against the Bills defense. The key for the Bills is creating turnovers, as it has been in their five victories.
On Sunday afternoon, the Cowboys will need to be the more physical team on both sides of the ball. And I think they will.