NFC East: Buffalo Bills

INDIANAPOLIS -- Former Patriots linebackers coach Pepper Johnson didn't last long on the open market after departing the organization following 14 years with the team on Bill Belichick's staff.

He was hired by the Bills to serve as Doug Marrone's defensive line coach, a position he previously held for the Patriots.

On Thursday, Marrone dished on the decision to hire Johnson earlier this offseason.

"I always admired Pepper and again, when we used to play -- again it goes back to the same thing, the tape never lies," he said. "When we used to play New England and Pepper was the defensive line coach, I thought those guys did a great job up front."

One of the unique aspects to Johnson's coaching career has been his ability to draw on his playing experience, as he was a standout linebacker that often assumed a position of leadership with his team.

"Obviously we know a lot about him as a player," Marrone added. "I think he brings a lot to our organization, someone that's obviously been a part of five Super Bowls, has a great intensity about himself, was a great pro and I think he'll bring a lot to our football team not only in the classroom but some of the stuff on the field and off the field as this league continues to grow."
Two weeks ago in training camp, rookie Chris Thompson struggled to catch punts. He misjudged the flight, reached up awkwardly to his side when trying to corral one and didn’t look smooth catching others. He knew it too.

“I was frustrated because I couldn’t read the ball that day,” Thompson said.

But he received help from the other returners. Richard Crawford, Nick Williams and Skye Dawson all gave him tips on how to catch punts. It’s not necessarily an art form, but there is a difference between fielding kickoffs and punts. Thompson occasionally fielded punts during practices at Florida State, but never returned one in a game, just kickoffs.

[+] EnlargeChris Thompson
AP Photo/Nick WassChris Thompson knows his versatility can improve his chances of landing a roster spot.
Some of the differences are obvious: Punts are more unpredictable, both in terms of where they’re going and how long they’ll be. There’s also a chance the returner might get drilled upon catching the ball. So instant decision making is important. As a kick returner, the big decision is whether or not to run it out of the end zone -- and coaches often tell them beforehand what they want. The upback can help in that decision, too. For punt returners, it’s an in-the-moment decision.

But the ball arrives differently as well. Kickoffs are end over end and easy to read. Punts come off the foot differently and can rotate in more ways.

“You have to be able to read where it’s going or if it’s going to fall short,” Thompson said.

It can take time. But Thompson did a good job of this versus Buffalo. He ran up at least 10 yards to field one punt; drifted back to catch another and moved back and to the side on a third. All were fielded smoothly. It’s a start.

“I was actually surprised myself,” Thompson said on how well he caught the ball. “Crawford had been doing a great job just helping me out every single day.”

Thompson, though, has fumbled twice in the preseason on runs from scrimmage. Ball security and decision making trump speed when it comes to returning punts. Thompson said coach Mike Shanahan told him after his fumble against Buffalo that, “I don’t care how good you are, if you put the ball on the ground you’re not going to play.”

But if Thompson does end up returning punts, then you can credit the other returners, Crawford in particular, for an assist. Thompson knows this could be a way to ensure a roster spot, too. His open-field running style, the ability to be patient yet cut sharply and set up blocks, works well on punt returns. He could get more chances Thursday at Tampa Bay to prove he's a viable option.

“Coaches brought me here not just to be a running back,” he said. “I know that’s one more thing I can hopefully add to this team.”

Observation deck: Redskins-Bills

August, 24, 2013
Highlights from the Washington Redskins30-7 win over Buffalo on Saturday, their third straight in the preseason. Somewhere, Don Shula’s boys are getting nervous. Or not. Anyway, here you go:

  1. The running game was terrific, but I need to start with the defense. Yes, the Bills have some issues at quarterback. Kevin Kolb was knocked from the game, but he’s at best an average quarterback. Still, the Bills want to play at a fast tempo and it’s not just about passing the ball; they want to run the ball a lot, too. But the Redskins’ defense forced two three-and-outs in addition to a 10-play drive (aided by a third-down penalty on David Amerson). It would have been good to see the Redskins’ defense face this attack longer, to get a better feel because it can wear teams down. However, the Redskins handled this attack well and one reason was linebacker London Fletcher. To a man, players talk about how communication and conditioning are key to battling that offense. The Bills typically snapped the ball with 20-23 seconds left on the play clock. Yet the Redskins’ D did not look confused or lost. They subbed and were able to use their base and nickel packages. “London is the calming force of the defense,” Redskins defensive end Kedric Golston said. “You feed off his confidence and getting the calls. That tempo is trying to catch you with everyone not communicating. That’s how big plays happen.” By the way, Buffalo managed a first down on only three of 12 series and none in the second half, though when Jeff Tuel is your quarterback for most of the game, that's bound to happen.
  2. It can’t be underestimated how important it is to have someone like Fletcher on the field. It doesn’t mean mistakes won’ t happen; it does mean that they can minimize those mistakes because of his knowledge. “He’s a coach out there and even with the short amount of time we had to get up, we were able to get the calls out and get lined up,” linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said. I haven’t asked Fletcher about this, but there’s little doubt that he’s watched film of Oregon and of Philadelphia in preparation for the opener, and probably has for a while. There’s still no voice in the defensive room that players trust more than Fletcher.
  3. I know one growing trend in the NFL is the use of packaged plays in which the quarterback has the option to either hand off or throw – and only he knows what he’s going to do. Buffalo does that; Philadelphia will do some of that. And Saturday, the Redskins scored a touchdown in that situation. They don’t do this a lot, but it’s certainly not foreign to them. They scored a touchdown two years ago versus Minnesota in this fashion to receiver Jabar Gaffney, and their first drive against New Orleans in the 2012 opener featured several such plays. Anyway, against Buffalo, Rex Grossman spotted the safety in a spot that left him vulnerable – up near the line on the right side. Typically, the safety would have been where receiver Pierre Garcon was headed on his slant. Grossman knew what to do. Watch the offensive linemen on this play– everyone was blocking for a zone run to the right; left tackle Trent Williams went for the linebacker. Grossman stepped that way but threw the slant to Garcon for an easy score. The corner had no shot at making the play – and even gestured to the safety at the end. Don’t blame him at all. “I knew we would get a blitz or he would drop out of leverage,” Grossman said of the safety. A good call and an easy touchdown.
  4. It’s a shame about Richard Crawford on many levels. It leaves the Redskins in a bind for punt returner. I wrote about this elsewhere on the site, but the options are veterans such as Santana Moss and DeAngelo Hall. However, coach Mike Shanahan does not like to use key players in this role, and both would qualify. Besides, Moss has not returned a punt since 2009, and Hall has four returns in five seasons. There’s also Aldrick Robinson, who was bad in this role two preseasons ago and didn’t show a lot of improvement last summer. Can they really trust him? Skye Dawson has looked better since two disastrous returns in the opener (a fumble and a bad decision to reverse field). Anyway, Crawford is one of the Redskins smarter players; he’s always struck me as a future coach because of the way he thinks and understands the game. And he had improved a decent amount this summer – after spending the spring working with Redskins Hall of Fame corner Darrell Green. Mostly, this is about Crawford’s returns and I liked how comfortable he was fielding the ball. It looked natural and he (usually) made the first defender miss.
  5. Another option is Chris Thompson. There’s much that I like about Thompson and what he offers, and yet there are two major issues that just won’t go away: durability and ball security. I was pleasantly surprised how he looked fielding the ball. In practice a week or two ago Thompson did not look smooth at all; he twisted his hands awkwardly catching it on the run to his left and he fought the ball other times. However, he looked much different Saturday. “When I got back there I was pretty calm,” he said. It showed. He ran up and caught one on his 31-yard return. He had to backpedal and grab another one and moved to the side. Still, he’s only fielded three punts in a game since high school. It’s hard to imagine they can trust him with ball security at this point. But they absolutely love his speed and his sharp cuts in the open field. Some of this talk makes him sound like Brandon Banks, though Thompson is loads ahead when it comes to character.
  6. Now, for Thompson’s runs from scrimmage. The fumbles are an issue, and it’s clear he’s still adjusting to running in this offense. Of his 15 carries, none went for more than 9 yards. There were some positive signs: He did not dance around, and when he saw the opening he cut up and took what was there. Liked on a 5-yard run in the fourth how patient he was running to his left, then cutting up and running into the gut of a linebacker, moving him back a yard. He only averaged 2.9 yards per run and I’m curious to see when rewatching the game what sort of holes he really had. I saw good signs. However, those fumbles are killers. He showed resiliency in what he did after the fumbles and that’s good. (He actually carried the ball in his left hand on a run to the right, his first after the fumble. Why? Because he's left-hand dominant and felt more secure with the ball in that hand.) But he’s fumbled twice in two preseason games. If you’re going to do that, you’d better make a few really big plays. Thus far, that hasn’t been the case. Can he make the roster? Yes, because the coaches love his speed and he can develop. But he has not yet earned it with his performance (just remember, though, two years ago that Banks had not really earned it either until a big preseason finale).
  7. I liked how rookie tight end Jordan Reed played after a tough debut versus Pittsburgh. In that game, he dropped a pass and struggled as a blocker. Saturday, Reed caught the ball well and blocked even better. Reed competes hard, one reason he’s further ahead as a blocker than the coaches had hoped or realized he would be at this stage. On Keiland Williams’ 23-yard run it was Reed who cleared an opening by driving a linebacker out of the way. It wasn’t his only good block, but it was one good example. He used his hands better and was a little quicker with his feet getting in position. I also like that he makes smooth catches on balls that would be a little tougher for most players of his size at his position. I don’t know when he’ll make an impact, but I like his potential.
  8. Another guy who deserves credit: safety Bacarri Rambo. Didn’t get a chance to talk to him after the game, but you saw one reason why the coaches really like him: The ability to quickly learn. With the tackles it was all about angles rather than desire and after working on it even harder this week, there was a big improvement. Should you be completely comfortable yet with him? No. Even Sean Taylor needed to adjust to this during games; I remember asking Gregg Williams about Taylor’s open-field tackling as a rookie. The difference for Rambo tonight is that he didn’t hesitate. He was decisive and it showed. He tackled running back C.J. Spiller in the open field. Rambo also tackled Kolb in the open field. OK, Kolb isn’t Mike Vick. But what Rambo needed was some confidence in this area, and he received it Saturday. The coaches even gave Rambo extra time when the other starters were out, a smart move. They need him to be solid in this area. One game doesn’t make or break anyone – good or bad – but it was a positive step.
  9. The Pat White show continues. Does it mean he’ll win a roster spot here? Not unless the Redskins do the unlikely and keep four quarterbacks. And while he’s done a nice job running the zone read plays, keep in mind what separated Robert Griffin III on these plays was his ability to provide a triple threat: run, hand off or throw. White hasn’t shown he can be consistent throwing the ball from this look. White has improved greatly since we first saw him in spring workouts and if nothing else he’s shown that if and when he’s cut, it would be wise for someone else to at least take a look. His passing is still inconsistent and while he’s good throwing slants – hitting guys in stride – he has trouble on out routes. Before I go crazy on him I’d like to see consistency throwing into different areas and against different looks. But for a guy out of football for three years White has been far from an embarrassment and has provided jolts of energy on the field. He was very patient on his touchdown run, allowing fullback Darrel Young to do his job and then following behind. It’s just too bad for the Redskins that White is ineligible for the practice squad. White is behind Grossman; that touch throw to Roy Helu on the wheel route was very, very nice by Grossman. Maybe White gets there someday but he’s not close to those types of plays yet. Still, he’s improved.
  10. Finally, running back Roy Helu showed once again what he can do in the open field. As a running back there are still times I’m not in love with him. He gets the yards that are available too often whereas Alfred Morris creates more yards for himself. Morris did just that on his first three runs; each one went for longer than it should have because of his vision or his cuts or all of the above. His patience is exemplary. Helu is learning how to run with a little more patience. He didn’t always set up blockers. But one of Helu’s best runs, a 12-yarder, also coincided with a major negative – a fumble. However, the run was good as Helu pressed the hole well and got the linebackers to overflow to their right. A big cutback lane opened and Helu took advantage. Lucky for him, he recovered his own fumble. On the next play, you saw the dangerous Helu: his footwork was sharp as he was forced to cut a yard or two deep in the backfield because of pressure. Then he made a quick jump cut outside; all tight end Niles Paul had to do was obstruct his man and he did. Helu bounced wide for 17 yards. There’s a big difference between Helu and Morris, but both can be dangerous when used properly. If Helu gets 10 touches a game he will provide some big plays. If you put him on the field in passing situations with tight end Fred Davis and receiver Pierre Garcon and use play action… one of them will get wide open. Get a one-on-one matchup with a linebacker, as Helu did, and it can result in a wheel route and long completion. I’m not about to say this will be the most explosive offense ever, but a healthy Helu certainly provides more options and added firepower.

Redskins vs. Bills: What to watch

August, 23, 2013
Here's what I'll be watching when the Redskins host the Bills at 4:30 p.m. ET Saturday in the third preseason game for both teams:

  1. The pace of Buffalo’s offense. I wrote about this Friday morning, but Buffalo likes to use a fast-paced attack, something the Redskins’ season-opening opponent, Philadelphia, does as well. How will the Redskins handle this? What will the Redskins do if caught in a personnel grouping that isn’t the best for what Buffalo’s offense has on the field? Because the starters will play only 15-20 snaps, it will provide only a small test -- the pace can take its toll over the course of a game -- but it will be a help nonetheless.
  2. Safety Bacarri Rambo’s progression. I’d play him more than the other starters, or at least in the final preseason game, just to give him more chances to tackle in the open field. He clearly needs the work. He might end up starting, but he still has yet to truly win the position. At this point he’s in there by default. He has a lot of skills to offer, but if this area doesn’t improve it’ll cause big problems.
  3. Corner Josh Wilson. He’ll make his preseason debut after sitting out the first two games while his surgically repaired shoulder continued to heal. Wilson remains the starter, ahead of rookie David Amerson. But Wilson is not coming off his best season and was asked to take a pay cut in the offseason -- so it’s not as if he’s firmly entrenched at this position. He’s much more knowledgeable about the defense than Amerson and, with a rookie safety, that matters. The Redskins can’t afford a lot of defensive backs learning on the go, though Amerson has looked good at times. But Wilson still needs to play well.
  4. [+] EnlargeBacarri Rambo
    AP Photo/Wade PayneRookie safety Bacarri Rambo (29) needs more work on his open-field tackling to avoid headaches later.
    Backup running backs. There’s no doubt who the top two players are at this position (Alfred Morris and Roy Helu -- but you really didn't need me to tell you that, did you?). Is Evan Royster in any danger? The problem is, the rookies have yet to show that they deserve a roster spot. Chris Thompson has flash, but he’s barely done anything in practice, let alone a game, in part because of injuries. Coaches are big on players being available; can they rely on Thompson in this area? His speed is intriguing (and speed is why Mike Shanahan, among others, initially fell in love with Brandon Banks in 2010). So it matters. But based on performance Thompson still needs to prove he belongs. I like Jawan Jamison’s running style, but the same applies to him. Royster is an average runner, so he’s no lock. Keiland Williams is a good special-teams player, but not much help from scrimmage.
  5. Veteran backups. Specifically linebacker Nick Barnett and receiver Donte' Stallworth. Barnett, the ex-Bill, isn’t worried about any sort of revenge; rather, he needs to show that he can still play at a certain level. This will be his first chance to do so. The Redskins have a pressing need for inside linebacker depth, and having a former starter who is familiar with this defense would help. As for Stallworth, he’ll make it only if the Redskins keep six wideouts. He’s played special teams sparingly in his career, but will have to show he can help there to stick around. And stay healthy. Lingering injuries never help aging vets.
  6. Right tackle. If Bills defensive end Mario Williams plays -- he went two series in the opener and did not see time last week -- then Redskins right tackle Tyler Polumbus will have a good game to measure any progress. Polumbus did not have a strong game last week. Nobody else has taken first-team reps at right tackle. But along with watching Polumbus, I want to keep an eye on veteran Tony Pashos. He’s Washington's most aggressive right tackle when it comes to using his hands, but what does he have left? The Redskins likely would need to keep nine linemen for him to make the roster. And Tom Compton is still working on the left side, but he’s coming off a strong game.
  7. Nose tackle Chris Neild. With Barry Cofield sidelined by a fractured bone in his right hand, Neild will get a chance to work against the Bills’ starting line. He’s not in danger of being cut, but this is a good opportunity to face quality blockers.
  8. Rookie tight end Jordan Reed. He struggled as a blocker last week, mostly, it appeared, because of inconsistent technique. He was not overpowered, which is a good sign for him. But he does need to help in this area. Reed also dropped a ball last week; I’d like to see him get a chance to display his athleticism.
It’s not the same offense; it is a similar pace. When the Redskins play host to Buffalo on Saturday, they won’t receive a carbon copy look of their first opponent. But they will learn how to defend a fast-break offense.

Both the Bills and Washington’s first opponent, Philadelphia, want to run as many plays as possible.

Buffalo ran 85 plays in its preseason opener and 78 in the second game. By comparison, Washington’s first two opponents, Tennessee and Pittsburgh, ran 55 and 68 plays, respectively.

“It’ll be a good test to see our conditioning and see where we’re at with everything,” Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said.

The Bills will run the no-huddle out of every personnel grouping, Haslett said. They also run a lot of packaged plays in which only the quarterback knows whether he’ll hand off or throw. On those plays, the offensive line will run-block, and the running back will hit the hole expecting to get the ball. But if the quarterback receives a certain look by the defense, he will instead throw the ball.

The trick, though, is to learn how to substitute and get lined up within 13 or 14 seconds after the last play ends.

“Referees are barely getting the ball down for them to reset,” Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo said. “I’m glad we have them on the preseason schedule.”

The Redskins’ coaches have been looking at film of Oregon to see what Eagles coach Chip Kelly ran. They’ve also broken down film of the Eagles’ preseason games. The players, though, have not spent time on Philadelphia, at least not as a group.

But the Redskins have worked defending a faster paced offense this week.

“We’re working up-tempo in practice, but to get live game reps against it is crucial,” Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said. “It will be good for us from a conditioning and a mental standpoint to know what to expect come Week 1.”

But Kerrigan already knows the challenges. He faced Oregon twice while at Purdue. The Boilermakers lost 32-26 in two overtimes in 2008, and 38-36 a year later.

He remembers the issues.

“In some cases you want to get the nickel defense out there, and in some cases you want the base defense out there,” he said. “It’s tough to make substitutions when you’re going full throttle, full speed ... It doesn’t allow the defense to get the personnel you want.”

And Kerrigan remembers the lessons learned.

“The biggest thing to do is communicate, because if you can get lined up right and have everyone on the same page from a scheme standpoint, that’s most of the battle right there,” he said. “You have to get lined up quick. That’s when they make their big plays, with guys standing up, looking around saying 'what’s the call?' Then boom, they run the play.”

Rapid Reaction: Cowboys 44, Bills 7

November, 13, 2011
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Some thoughts from the Dallas Cowboys' very impressive victory over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday:

What it means: The Cowboys now have a chance to get on a roll. Their next three matchups -- at Washington, home against Miami and at Arizona -- all look winnable. Getting this victory over a strong AFC contender -- and getting it as convincingly as they did -- sets up the Cowboys to rattle off a winning streak. If they can take advantage of this soft portion of their schedule, they have a chance to take an 8-4 record into their first meeting with the first-place Giants on Dec. 11.

Miles who? With wide receiver Miles Austin out with a hamstring injury, the Cowboys' passing game didn't miss a step. Quarterback Tony Romo was a dazzling 18-of-19 for 237 yards and three touchdowns in the first half as Dallas built a 28-7 lead. Two of the touchdown passes went to Laurent Robinson, who was already making a contribution before the Austin injury and looks to be a more-than-adequate replacement while Austin sits out. The other was to Dez Bryant, who muscled the ball away from a Buffalo defender in the end zone. Romo was sharp, accurate and did whatever he wanted to do in the pass game, and then in the second half …

They ran it! Dallas blew a 27-3 lead earlier this season to the Detroit Lions when Romo had two interceptions returned for touchdowns in the second half. But the emergence of rookie running back DeMarco Murray has given the offense a different dimension, and in this second half the Cowboys were able to grind out the clock by running the ball and methodically picking up first downs. Murray had 71 rush yards in the first half, 64 in the second and has 601 over his past four games since Felix Jones was injured. He makes the Dallas offense multidimensional.

Game ball for Rob Ryan: The Cowboys' defense coordinator designed an excellent game plan that kept Buffalo running back Fred Jackson in check in the run game and the screen game, which few teams this year have been able to do. By the second half, the Bills had to take chances throwing the ball, and Terence Newman was right there to take advantage with a pair of interceptions that turned the fourth quarter into a victory lap.

What's next: The Cowboys travel to Washington on Sunday for a game against the division-rival Redskins. Dallas won the first meeting in Week 3 by the score of 18-16 when it failed to score a touchdown, but Dan Bailey kicked six field goals. Washington has fallen on hard times since that game and lost five straight since its 3-1 start.

Halftime thoughts: Cowboys rolling

November, 13, 2011
ARLINGTON, Texas -- If you're a Dallas Cowboys fan, only one thing happened in the first half today to make you mad, and it involved a cheerleader. Buffalo Bills receiver David Nelson caught a second-quarter touchdown and then jogged the length of the field to give the ball to his girlfriend, who is a Cowboys cheerleader. The two shared a hug, and some meanies on Twitter started talking about how she should be fired.

Other than that... man, it's been all Cowboys. They've done absolutely everything they've wanted to do on offense. Tony Romo completed his first 13 passes and is 18-for-19 for 237 yards and three touchdowns. DeMarco Murray has 71 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries. They've converted all seven of their third-down chances. All four of Dan Bailey's kickoffs have gone for touchbacks. It's been a dream game for the offense and a pretty great one for the defense, which has tackled well and even been able to contain star Buffalo running back Fred Jackson in the run game and the screen game.

The was one little cause for concern just before halftime, as Murray left the field after his 25-yard run up the left side. The team has made no announcement about his condition, and we'll keep you posted, of course. But assuming nothing bad has happened to the rookie running back, the Cowboys headed into that halftime locker room off as impressive a first-half performance as they've had all year.

Now, some folks here in the press box were saying it reminds them of the Detroit game, which the Cowboys led 27-3 early in the third quarter and ended up losing. So if Romo starts having interceptions returned for touchdowns in the third quarter, maybe there's reason to be worried. But unless the Bills know something I don't, Calvin Johnson's not walking through that door.

How you feeling? Cowboys-Bills

November, 13, 2011

As you get ready for this afternoon's home game against the Buffalo Bills, here's one reason for Dallas Cowboys fans to feel good and one reason for concern:

Feeling good: Tony Romo should have time to work. The Bills have not been very good at pressuring quarterbacks this year. They have just 15 sacks, 10 of which came in one game against the Redskins. Romo is very dangerous when he has time to throw, and even with Miles Austin out with a hamstring injury he still has Dez Bryant and plenty of other passing-game weapons at his disposal. Expect him to throw Jason Witten's way a lot, as the Bills also have shown a tendency to be victimized by tight ends. And don't underestimate Laurent Robinson as a competent Austin replacement. He's looked very comfortable in the Dallas offense, and Romo looks comfortable with him.

Cause for concern: There's a whole bunch of film from the past couple of weeks on how to gain big yards against the Cowboys in the run game. Buffalo running back Fred Jackson is one of the best backs in the league -- third in rush yards and second in total yards from scrimmage this season. And if Cowboys inside linebacker Sean Lee is out again or unable to be as effective as he was earlier in the season due to his dislocated wrist, Dallas is going to have to find some new way of containing Jackson.

Fred Jackson is on Rob Ryan's mind

November, 11, 2011
With the Buffalo Bills coming to town Sunday, Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has been paying a lot of attention to Bills running back Fred Jackson, who's third in the NFL in rushing yards and second in total yards from scrimmage this season.

It was brought up to Ryan that Jackson would be playing in Arlington, Texas, where he was a backup running back at Arlington Lamar High School before going off to Division III Coe College and an indoor football league before finally making it to the NFL. Ryan said, "They ought to fire that (high school) coach, by the way," without realizing that the legendary high school coach in question was already retired, and later compared Jackson's running style to that of the late Walter Payton. In short, he likes the guy. Per Tim MacMahon on
"He's really tough. God, this guy is tough, now," Ryan said. "He takes on all comers. We purposely never showed some of the chip blocks he does on defensive ends because he leaves them on the carpet. He just blasts them, literally leaves them out there and getting carted off. So we have to watch out for that besides his great talent of running the football. He runs the ball like Walter Payton used to where he just looks people up and runs them over. But he's also got the fleet feet where he can make people miss. He's a special guy and he's a special kid, too. I really like this guy, respect him and hopefully we can knock the crap out of him."

Jackson is an important aspect of this game for a Cowboys team that gave up 135 rushing yards to Seattle's Marshawn Lynch last week in a game they were leading the whole way. Inside linebacker Sean Lee remains questionable, and even if he plays there's some question about how effective he can be with that big old cast on his arm. The Cowboys' defense hasn't been the same -- especially against the run -- since Lee was injured in the Week 8 game against the Eagles, and Buffalo could have major success in the middle of the field if Lee isn't there patrolling it as he was for the Cowboys' first six games of the year.

Wrap Up: Bills 23, Redskins 0

October, 30, 2011

Some thoughts on the Washington Redskins' dismal 23-0 loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday in Toronto:

What it means: Well, the Redskins are in free fall. Since starting the season 3-1, they've now lost three games in a row by a combined score of 76-33. And since the offense looks incapable of doing anything at all at this point, it's tough to imagine things getting better any time soon. Their only hope is that this game -- the first time a Mike Shanahan-coached team has been shut out -- is some sort of bottoming-out point.

Injuries taking their toll: The play of the Redskins' offensive line was critical to their hot start, and the injuries that have deprived them of starting left guard Kory Lichtensteiger and starting left tackle Trent Williams -- not to mention top wide receiver Santana Moss, starting running back Tim Hightower and tight end Chris Cooley -- have rendered their offense more or less incompetent. The Bills had a grand total of four sacks in their first six games, but on Sunday they sacked John Beck nine times. Nine times. That's a number only Ed Rooney, Dean of Students, could love.

Beck is not the answer: Whether it was Beck or Rex Grossman, the key to the Redskins' offense this season was always going to be the group around the quarterback, not the quarterback himself. Beck does some decent things out there, and sometimes he looks like he's freelancing or even goofing off a little. But when you're getting sacked nine times, you're just not going to get very much done.

If they can't run, they're done: Ryan Torain got the start at running back, but once again the Redskins got behind early and weren't able to run their offense the way they wanted to. Remember, this is a team that was leading the NFL in average time of possession through its first four games. On Sunday, the Bills had the ball for nearly 35 minutes. If the Redskins can't establish the run game and chew up the clock, they will not score enough points to win. Against anyone.

For the defense: It gave up 390 total yards, so it's not as though this was a game of which Washington's defense should be proud. But I really don't think the defense is playing all that badly, considering all that's being asked of it. London Fletcher played hurt and had a monster game. Ryan Kerrigan was a force early. And for most of the day, I thought the Redskins actually did a decent job of bottling up Fred Jackson -- at least limiting his ability to beat them with a big play. Eventually, when your defense is on the field for 35 minutes, you're going to give up yards and points, and Jackson did rip off a 43-yard run and a 46-yard catch. But I don't think it's fair to judge this Redskins defense considering how awful the offense is right now.

What's next: The Redskins are back home Sunday to host the San Francisco 49ers, who appear to be on the verge of improving to 6-1 today as they lead the Browns in the fourth quarter. It's not getting any easier for Beck & Co., as the 49ers entered Sunday's action as the second-best scoring defense in the league and the second-best defense in the league against the run.

How you feeling? Redskins-Bills

October, 30, 2011
As you get ready for the Washington Redskins' game against the Buffalo Bills this afternoon in Toronto, here's one reason for Redskins fans to be feeling good and one reason for concern:

Feeling good: The Bills are not a good defense against the run, allowing 136 yards per game on the ground to opponents. The Redskins' offense operates best when it's committed to the run. Even with starting running back Tim Hightower out for the season, they have two backs in Ryan Torain and Roy Helu who should be able to pile up yards and help them control the clock against the Bills.

Cause for concern: Buffalo doesn't yield many sacks, as quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is good at getting rid of the ball quickly and Chan Gailey has excelled at designing protections for him. So a Washington defense that's been shaky against the run and relies on getting to the quarterback could struggle if it doesn't find a way to contain star Buffalo running back Fred Jackson. The Redskins are leaning on their defense more than ever now with all of those offensive starters down with injuries. They'll need to limit Buffalo's scoring to have a chance.

How you feeling? Giants-Bills

October, 16, 2011

As you get ready for the New York Giants' game today against the Buffalo Bills in New Jersey, here's one reason for Giants fans to feel good and one reason for concern:

Feeling good: If the Giants are going to get their running game going at some point, the Bills offer a good opportunity to do so. Ranked 29th in the NFL against the run, the Buffalo defense today is also without Shawne Merriman, which leaves them light at linebacker and should allow the Giants to bounce Ahmad Bradshaw outside as well as run him between the tackles. After Bradshaw complained last week about the job the line is doing blocking for him, expect the Giants to focus on getting him going against a soft Buffalo run defense.

Cause for concern: The key for the Giants' defense is its ability to sack the quarterback, but no team in the league has yielded fewer sacks than have the Bills (4). Ryan Fitzpatrick gets rid of the ball very quickly, and the line has done a good job of protecting him, and without Justin Tuck at defensive end, the Giants will have their work cut out for them if they want to harass Fitzpatrick the way they've bothered so many other opposing quarterbacks this year. Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul are both excellent, but neither plays the run as well as Tuck does, and with Tuck out they may need to be paying extra attention to Buffalo's outstanding running back, Fred Jackson.
Andy ReidAP Photo/Derek GeeSunday's penalties, turnovers and all-around sloppy play can be blamed on Andy Reid.
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- With 1:23 left in Sunday's game, fourth-and-inches to go from midfield and a seven-point lead, the Buffalo Bills had a choice. They could punt the ball away and force the Philadelphia Eagles to go the length of the field to tie the score, or they could go for it, knowing the game would be over if they picked up those couple of inches. They called a time out to talk it over and chose a third option -- let the Eagles make a critical mistake.

Good call.

The Bills lined up as though planning to run a play, but quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick just sat behind center barking out his cadence. He barked and barked, and finally ...

"They got me," Eagles defensive lineman Juqua Parker said.

Parker jumped offside, and the penalty gave the Bills the first down that clinched a 31-24 victory that dropped the Eagles to 1-4. It was the Eagles' fifth penalty of the game and third of the fourth quarter. And while it was the mistake that ultimately decided the game, it had plenty of help from its friends.

In addition to the penalties, Philadelphia committed five turnovers -- four Michael Vick interceptions and one lost fumble -- dropped a couple of key passes, missed enough tackles that Bills running back Fred Jackson got 59 of his 111 rushing yards after first contact, and generally played the kind of loose, undisciplined game we've become used to seeing from the 2011 Eagles.

"There's nobody to blame but me," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "That's how I look at it."

Funny. That's how I look at it too. Reid has been an outstanding NFL coach since taking over the Eagles in 1999, but he's doing a lousy job coaching this season's team. The Eagles have electrifying talent all over the field, but the players play as though they haven't been coached on how to handle game situations. They don't take care of the ball in spots where it needs to be a priority. They don't make good decisions. They look like a team that either didn't practice or didn't pay attention in practice all week, and that's on the coaches, no matter what the players say.

"I think, at this point, it's out of the coaches' hands," said Vick, who rushed for 90 yards and threw for 315 but said he'll remember this game for those four interceptions. "Coaches can stress ball security all week, but the coaches are not out there in the moment. We've got to control it as players, in the moment."

[+] EnlargeMichael Vick
AP Photo/David DupreyMichael Vick was picked off a career-high four times in Philadelphia's loss to Buffalo.
There's a fair point in there, and Vick rightly took his share of the blame for this loss. But a head coach's job is to establish a team-wide culture in which the kind of sloppy play that's killing the Eagles is not tolerated. The players have to buy into the idea that the most important thing they can do is not beat themselves. They have to have it drilled into their heads, to the point where it becomes instinctive, "in the moment," to throw the ball away, to take a sack instead of throwing an interception. Jason Avant has to know, when he's in the defender's arms at the end of the 35-yard catch that gets the Eagles out of the shadow of their own goalposts, to go down, protecting the ball and not try to fight for extra yards with 20 minutes left in the game.

"Everyone took turns making mistakes," defensive end Jason Babin said.

And every player on the defense has to know, when the Bills are lining up looking as though they'll run a play on fourth-and-inches from midfield with 1:23 left on the clock, that the single most important thing they can do is not get caught offside. If the Bills run and pick up those inches on their own, at least they did something to beat you. But what you can't do in that spot is hand it to them, and that's something the coaches need to (A) make sure the team knows before the plane's wheels touch down on Saturday night and (B) expressly tell every single defensive player during the timeout just before that play.

"Every Saturday, we line up and practice it," Bills coach Chan Gailey said of that final play. "You don't think it's going to work, but the one time it does, it wins the game for you."

Asked if Fitzpatrick was planning to snap the ball, Gailey said, "I'll never tell." Everyone laughed.

There was no laughing in the visitor's locker room, where Parker said the receiver in motion made him think a play would be run and Reid and the rest of the players refused to lay blame at Parker's happy feet.

"I think guys are just trying so hard to make a play," Vick said. "We know what we're capable of, and guys all want to be the one who makes the play, want to be the game-changer. And I understand that. We're desperate for a win. So I can't fault guys for trying too hard."

No, but we can fault Reid and the Eagles' coaching staff for their failure to foster an environment in which their players prioritize smart decisions and sound fundamental football over the urgent desire to change the game. The game, by the time the fourth quarter rolled around, was going very much the Eagles' way. They were moving the ball at will on the Buffalo defense, Vick and DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy showcasing that game-changing speed that was supposed to propel the Eagles' offense to such great heights. Heck, their defense was even forcing the other team to punt for a change. All they had to do was avoid the game-changing mistakes, and they couldn't.

This Eagles team never does. No matter how good they look in stretches, they always find a way to screw it up. A holding penalty here, a face-mask penalty there, an offside penalty at the worst possible time. Well-coached teams just don't play that way.

If Reid really, truly, sincerely wants to take the responsibility for what's going on here, he's welcome to it. When you have this many players making this many inexcusable mistakes in this many critical situations, you have no choice but to seek the common thread. This season was to have been Reid's most glorious yet -- his best opportunity to win a Super Bowl. The front office gave him everything he needed and more to make it happen, and so far he has failed miserably.

Rapid Reaction: Bills 31, Eagles 24

October, 9, 2011
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- A few thoughts on the Philadelphia Eagles' latest crushing loss, this one to the Buffalo Bills.

What it means: It's tough to see a way back from here for the Eagles. They showed in the second half that they have the talent to score and play with anyone, but they've just made too many mistakes, too many bad plays and missed too many tackles so far this year, and they're 1-4 with a tough division road game looming next week. They're going to have to be nearly perfect from here on out to have a chance to rebound and make the playoffs, and they're a long, long way from anything resembling perfect.

Same old Eagles run defense: We knew Buffalo running back Fred Jackson was likely to have a field day against the Eagles' 30th-ranked rushing defense, and he did, ripping off 58 first-half rushing yards and adding 22 more on his first run of the second half as the Bills built a 28-7 lead. Part of the reason the Eagles got back into the game was because the Bills went away from the run game in the fourth quarter for some reason in spite of how well it had worked. The Eagles made more tackles and more plays in the second level of their defense Sunday than they have been making, but it remains clear the middle of the defense is soft and can be run on almost at will.

Tale of two Vicks: Eagles quarterback Michael Vick was a mess in the first half, throwing three interceptions and badly mismanaging the clock in the final minute before halftime. But he came out of the locker room a new man, running the offense more confidently, efficiently and safely. He managed to find DeSean Jackson, a top weapon who's been missing too much this year, and LeSean McCoy on some underneath routes, and he took off himself on a 53-yard run that set up a score. Vick's play in the second half was the reason the Eagles got back in the game, but his play in the first was a huge part of the reason they were so far down in the first place.

No margin for error: The fourth interception wasn't Vick's fault, as Jason Avant had the ball in his hands and the Bills ripped it out. But the mistake as the Eagles were driving toward a potential game-tying touchdown just goes to show what the Eagles are right now -- a team that keeps putting itself in a position where it can't afford even one mistake. The offsides call on fourth-and-inches was another illustration of a team that doesn't have control of itself right now, and teams like that don't come back from 1-4 starts.

What's next: The Eagles travel to Washington on Sunday for a vital intradivision game against the Redskins. After a couple of games in a row against teams that don't bring an inordinate amount of pressure, Vick is likely to take a large number of hits from Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan and a Washington defense that was tied for the league lead in sacks entering this week's games. The Redskins are also coming off a bye and will be well-rested, which works against the Eagles after this grueling game.

Halftime thoughts: Vick too sloppy

October, 9, 2011
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- We could start anywhere, but I'm going to start with the quarterback. Michael Vick has played an abysmal game to this point and the Eagles trail the Bills 21-7 at the half.

The three interceptions were obviously terrible, even if two of them were on tipped balls. But it was in the final seconds of the half where Vick may have played his worst. The offensive line looked inspired as the Eagles moved the ball down the field in the two-minute drill, throwing Bill bodies all over the place and giving Vick plenty of time to throw. But he still managed to take too long. On the second-to-last play of the half, he threw a ball that by rights should have been his fourth interception of the game. And on the last, which began with eight seconds left on the clock, he managed to sit in the pocket for all eight before throwing the ball through the back of the end zone.

The Eagles do a lot of things wrong. They're poor tacklers on defense (though that improved as the second half went along). They lack an offensive identity, refusing to commit to the run in spite of having a superstar running back in LeSean McCoy. And the line doesn't pass block especially well -- at least not with any real consistency.

The only hope the Eagles have is to excel where their talent is clearly superior to that of other teams. Vick is the best example of this. When he's on, there is nothing anyone can do to stop him, no quarterback anywhere who can beat you in more ways. But when he's sloppy, and the rest of the team around him is sloppy, the Eagles lose all hope.

They're not out of this one yet, of course, but if they're to win it they'll need Vick to come out of that locker room looking a lot more focused and responsible than he did in the first half. The Eagles' offense looks like an out-of-control go-cart careening down a hill. It could still finish first because it's going so fast, but it's got at least as good a chance to slide right off the course.