NFC South: Buffalo Bills
At the moment, the Bucs (3-9) would hold the No. 5 overall pick in next year's draft, while the Bills (4-8) would hold the No. 9 pick. But Sunday's result could shake that order up.
ESPN.com Bills reporter Mike Rodak and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas examine the matchup.
Yasinskas: Mike, this game features two rookie quarterbacks. Tampa Bay's Mike Glennon and Buffalo's EJ Manuel. Glennon is coming off his worst game of the season against Carolina. But, other than that, he has been fairly efficient. What's your assessment of how Manuel has played so far?
Rodak: Manuel has been up and down, both before his knee injury and after it. The 16th overall pick of the 2013 draft missed four games in the middle of the season after he took a shot to the side of his knee against the Browns in Week 5. The Bills' brass has liked to say that Manuel was on the right track before the injury, but the reality is that he had a completion rate below 50 percent in Weeks 3 and 4 and had three turnovers in that Week 4 win over the Baltimore Ravens. When Manuel came back in Week 10, he had perhaps his worst game of the season, in Pittsburgh. Those have been the low points.
On the other end of the spectrum, Manuel led the Bills on a game-winning drive over the Carolina Panthers in Week 2 and posted a passer rating of 121.9 against the Jets in Week 11. Those have been the high points. But on average, he has been a below-average NFL quarterback to this point, posting a 45.5 QBR for the season.
Pat, the Bucs looked like a disaster about two months ago. Now they have won three of their past four games. What has changed for them?
Yasinskas: The Bucs were in utter disarray at the start of the season. But, aside from Sunday's loss to Carolina, they've played much better over the past month or so. Part of it has to do with Glennon's steady improvement. He has shown signs he can be more than just a game manager. The other thing that has stood out has been how this team has stuck together. Despite some speculative reports to the contrary, coach Greg Schiano never lost the locker room. His players still believe in his system and have been playing hard for him. Finally, the defense, which has a lot of individual talent, has started to click and that coincided with the turnaround.
Speaking of defense, the Bills lead the league with 43 sacks, but they're allowing 25.6 points a game, which ranks 24th. What has gone wrong with this defense?
Rodak: Earlier in the season, much of the problem was with the secondary. The Bills battled through some injuries -- safety Jairus Byrd and cornerback Stephon Gilmore both missed time -- and they got torched by some teams early. But they've been healthy back there for a while now, and the results have been better.
The problem recently has been with the run defense. The Bills rank 24th in the NFL, allowing 121.5 rushing yards per game, and allow 4.18 yards per carry. Some of that has to do with time of possession. The Bills' offense ranks 31st in the NFL, which has put some stress on the defense. More alarmingly for Buffalo, the run defense has gotten worse as the season has gone on. The Bills allowed 5.83 yards per carry to the Jets and 5.03 yards to the Falcons, including two long touchdown runs. There's a lot of talent on this defense, but the consistency isn't there.
Pat, there was a lot of talk this offseason about the moves the Buccaneers made in their secondary. They drafted Johnthan Banks in the second round, traded for Darrelle Revis and signed Dashon Goldson. How have those moves paid off?
Yasinskas: The Bucs went overboard making moves in the secondary because they had the league's worst pass defense in 2012. There has been a noticeable improvement this year. But it hasn't been all roses. Banks has looked good at times, but also has had some rookie moments. Goldson missed two games due to injury and was suspended for another game for an illegal hit. Revis has been solid, although the Bucs brought him along slowly early in the year because he was coming off knee surgery. Overall, this is a decent secondary, but it has yet to approach its true potential.
Mike, what's your read on C.J. Spiller? He seems to be having an up-and-down season to this point. How much has his ankle injury been a factor?
Rodak: He has been a tough one to pin down. This much is for certain: He hasn't lived up to the expectations many on the outside had for him entering this season, and his ankle is a big factor in that. But even after coach Doug Marrone removed Spiller from the injury report about a month ago, things still weren't right. He had disappointing games in Weeks 10 and 11, rushing a combined 21 times for 29 yards. But then, out of the blue, he broke open a 77-yard run Sunday, the longest of his career. He followed that with a 36-yard touchdown run and finished with one of the best games of his career, tallying 149 yards.
Going forward, I'm not really sure what to expect with Spiller. This could be his identity within this offense: a home run hitter who is prone to more strikeouts than the norm.
Pat, speaking of running backs, Bobby Rainey seems to have cooled off since his huge game against Atlanta a few weeks ago. What has happened to the Bucs' running game?
Yasinskas: Rainey rushed for 163 yards against the Falcons, but has averaged just 49 yards in the two games since then. What's happening is that opposing defenses are loading the box to stop the running game. They're daring Glennon to beat them and he hasn't really done that. Until Glennon starts having more luck with the downfield passing game, defenses are going to continue to focus on bottling up the running game.
However, the Bills have proven to be a tough out. They're coming off of a 23-21 victory at Miami. All but one of their games has been decided by a touchdown or less. And they'll bring one of the NFL's most disruptive pass rushes into the Superdome, led by Mario Williams.
Injuries will be a key issue, especially on offense. Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (foot) and Bills running backs C.J. Spiller (ankle) and Fred Jackson (knee) all are battling ailments.
ESPN.com Saints reporter Mike Triplett and Bills reporter Mike Rodak break down the matchup:
Triplett: I saw that Williams and the Bills' pass rush certainly delivered last week with a game-changing sack and forced fumble in the fourth quarter to beat the Dolphins. How good is that pass rush? And do you think the Bills' defense overall is capable of slowing down Drew Brees and the Saints' high-powered offense?
Rodak: Mike, the pass rush has been the strength of what has been a banged-up defense. Williams has 10 sacks this season and the Bills are disrupting 20.1 percent of opponent dropbacks (measured by sacks, passes defensed, interceptions and batted balls), which is second to the 7-0 Chiefs (26.5 percent).
As for facing the Saints' offense, I think the Bills are better equipped for the challenge now than they would have been earlier this season. With Jairus Byrd and Stephon Gilmore back from injuries and being eased into action, the Buffalo defense will have its best playmakers on the field. Still, we're talking about a middle-of-the-pack defense that has yet to have everything click. The run defense has struggled and the Bills have shown a tendency to give up the big play at times. The Saints will have their chances.
I haven't had a chance yet to watch the Saints live this season, but I can tell you that those who were left in the Ralph Wilson Stadium press box two weeks ago had their eyes glued to that Saints-Patriots thriller. If the Saints pull that out, they're 6-0. Can we attribute their success early this season entirely to Sean Payton's return, or is there more to it?
Triplett: Payton's return is a huge part of it. Essentially, the Saints have been proving that their 7-9 season in 2012 was a fluke. I think many people nationally forgot just how good this offense was in 2011, when Graham and Darren Sproles emerged as weapons for them. They went 13-3 that year and set the NFL record for yards gained. Now, they're back in their comfort zone with Payton back as one of the NFL's best game planners and motivators.
This year, the biggest surprise is how well the defense has been playing after such an abysmal performance in 2012. New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, young pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette and the entire secondary have been huge for them. And I think it's legit.
Speaking of coaches, Mike, I have to ask about the impact Doug Marrone is making there. He has ties here after serving as Payton's first offensive coordinator and offensive line coach from 2006-08.
Rodak: Indeed, Marrone does have ties to New Orleans, not only as a coach, but also as a player. He was asked about it Monday and, probably trying to keep the focus on this week's game, didn't wax nostalgic about his time there, but simply said it was a good experience in his progression to becoming an NFL head coach.
As far as what he has done in Buffalo, I'd say it's so far, so good. But naturally as a first-year coach, the jury is still very much out on him. A lot will depend on how EJ Manuel performs when he returns this season and then beyond. But most importantly, Marrone has been able to avoid distractions or controversy, like what we saw with the Greg Schiano-Josh Freeman situation after Schiano made the jump from the college game. This seems to be a tight-knit locker room and a team that has closely contested each of its games this season.
Mike, there's a pair of recent first-round picks in Kenny Vaccaro and Jordan who have helped anchor the new-look Saints defense under Ryan. Tell me about what they've done, but also about what holes on defense the Bills might exploit.
Triplett: Jordan has been the Saints' defensive MVP so far. In fact, he was probably their defensive MVP last year, too. But this year he's starting to gain national attention for the impact he's making as a power pass-rusher and standout run defender. He's a big athlete at 6-foot-4 and about 290 pounds. So he's a good fit at 3-4 end but also at 4-3 end, where he's essentially lined up for most of this year since they play so much nickel and dime. Jordan has five sacks, a forced fumble and 24 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus.
Vaccaro, meanwhile, has been fun to watch since Ryan moves him around so much (deep safety, in the slot, blitzing, sometimes even at linebacker and corner). It's similar to the way the Pittsburgh Steelers use Troy Polamalu, though Vaccaro is obviously not at that level yet. He's still developing, but he's played almost every snap this year and has made several impact plays.
If the Bills' run game is going strong, that could give the Saints a few problems. Their run defense hasn't been their strength. But it's something they've been willing to sacrifice while making it a priority to prevent big plays. The Bills need to keep this game close so they're not forced to play catch-up -- which is no easy task. Do you think they've found some stability with Thad Lewis at quarterback? Or might we see Matt Flynn instead this week?
Rodak: They've definitely found some stability with Lewis at quarterback. While I don't think there's much of a chance that Lewis remains the starter when Manuel returns, it's not a stretch to say that Lewis has actually played better than the rookie. He has shown better accuracy on some of his passes and also seems more willing to drive the ball downfield when he needs to. His statistics haven't blown anyone away -- he ranked in the bottom third of the NFL in QBR in each of his two starts -- but the Bills seem more than happy with what they're getting out of him.
Flynn was inactive Sunday against the Dolphins, six days after arriving in Buffalo. I think the Bills would ideally like to have him as their backup instead of undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel. But as far as surpassing Lewis, I think that would take a collapse by Lewis over the next few games and an impressive showing by Flynn in practice.
Mike, how do you see this game playing out? Do you expect Graham to be available for the Saints?
Triplett: I think Graham will be highly questionable all week. I wouldn't be surprised at all if he's out or limited, which would obviously put a dent in the Saints' offense. But I still think Brees has enough weapons -- starting with Sproles, Marques Colston and Pierre Thomas in the passing game -- to move the ball and put up close to 30 points or more.
If New Orleans scores early and forces Buffalo to play catch-up, the Bills could really be in trouble. And if the Saints are the ones who have to play catch-up, they've proven they can do that. Buffalo's best chance is to control the clock with its run game, win the turnover battle and force the Saints to settle for field goals.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas
Five nuggets of knowledge about this weekend’s games:
|Todd Kirkland/Icon SMI|
|Matt Ryan and the Falcons can prove they're an elite team by knocking off the Patriots in New England.|
Road warriors: My initial plan was to write that the Bucs actually have a chance Sunday. My thinking was that the Giants have had to play two tough games and could be a little drained coming to the Florida heat. But that all changed when I looked and saw the Giants are 16-3 in their last 19 road games and most of those 16 wins have come against teams that are markedly better than the Bucs.
Looking ahead: Not to get ahead of things, but the Saints could be facing a huge Week Four game against the Jets. If the Saints can get by Buffalo on Sunday, they’ll be 3-0 and have two road wins against good teams. There’s a pretty good chance the Saints will be either 4-0 or 3-1 in the first quarter of the season. That kind of start didn’t seem like a possibility back in the preseason when we all thought defensive ends Will Smith and Charles Grant would be suspended for the first four games.
Secondary opinion: A lot of people talk about Atlanta’s secondary and say Tom Brady’s going to carve it up Sunday. That could happen, but I think this secondary is getting a bad rap. Yes, it’s very true there is not a single stud in this secondary. But that also was the case last year and the Falcons made it to the playoffs. They did that because they hid their defensive weaknesses with the pass rush. That pass rush is better than it was a year ago, now that John Abraham is getting some help from Kroy Biermann. That’s why I’ll argue that Atlanta’s secondary, while still a concern, is better than it was a year ago.
Prep time: The Panthers have an extra day to get ready because they don’t play Dallas until Monday night. That’s a good thing because it gives John Fox an extra day to coach. He switched defensive coordinators in the offseason and the defense hasn’t looked very good in the first two weeks. Fox’s teams always have been built around defense and I’m guessing the coach has been spending a little extra time in defensive meetings this week.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas
My vote for guy I’d least like to be in the NFL this week goes to Buffalo defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. He’s got to worry about Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints coming to town Sunday and that’s not a pleasant thought for any coordinator.
But give Fewell credit for taking a little time away from building a bomb shelter to speak to the Buffalo media on Wednesday. The comparisons of Brees to New England’s Tom Brady and Indianapolis’ Peyton Manning have been flying for several weeks already and I’m one of those who thinks Brees is the league’s best quarterback right now.
The Buffalo media asked Fewell specifically to compare Brees to Brady, who is part of Buffalo’s division.
“When I watched the tape I thought about that and I said 'wow’,'’’ Fewell said. “It was a day that you just kind of were in awe to a large degree because that offense is so efficient and they are clicking on all cylinders. They do have that powered offense like the Patriots did two years ago.’’
So how do you counter that? Well, Fewell isn’t going to give away his game plan, but it sounds like the blitz might not be a big part of Sunday’s package.
“Not very many people blitz against this guy,’’ Fewell said. “When you look at it, this quarterback is really a cerebral guy. He knows where it’s coming from and he gets it out quick. I think in two ball games there might’ve been a total of 17 pressures against him because he just beats you and hurts you with it. I’m still studying how you solve this efficient quarterback because he’s a coach on the field with a great arm.’’
TAMPA, Fla. -- There could be even another element to the quarterback situation for the Buccaneers.
The team could be looking to trade one of its quarterbacks for a draft pick. Coach Raheem Morris wouldn't confirm an NFL.com report that the Bucs are shopping three of their quarterbacks for a trade, but he didn't deny it either.
"Oh, man, they're Nostradamus," Morris said when asked about the report. "Everybody in this league, all 32 teams around this time start calling front offices. I can't control who calls us. Everybody's interested in everybody's roster and everybody's looking to nit-pick off everybody's roster. Everybody has talent and you're trying to accumulate the best talent on your football team. That's just all that talk is what that is."
But it makes total sense for the Bucs to at least try to find out what the market value might be for Byron Leftwich, Luke McCown or Josh Johnson. They're not about to let go of rookie Josh Freeman, who they call their franchise quarterback.
But that's likely in the future. For now, it appears the Bucs will open the season with either Leftwich or McCown as their starter. They're about even at this point and a potential trade could play into Morris' decision, although the Bucs likely would be able to get only a late-round pick (at best) for any of their quarterbacks.
Leftwich, a former starter in Jacksonville, probably has more trade value because of his experience. McCown has only seven starts. Johnson, a second-year pro, has yet to play in an NFL game and probably wouldn't bring much in a trade.
The NFC South takes on the AFC East for its interconference games in 2009. With Tom Brady back in the fold and Terrell Owens now in Buffalo, these contests should be extremely entertaining -- not to mention excellent matchups from a strategy and personnel perspective.
Here is a taste of what is to come in these matchups.
1. The Saints' passing game vs. the Jets' revamped defense under Rex Ryan: A great way to combat a confusing 3-4 blitz scheme is to spread the field horizontally and force the upfield outside linebackers further away from the ball. This also generally allows the quarterback and pass protectors a little longer to diagnose which blitzers are coming and which defenders are dropping into coverage. Expect the Saints to employ a ton of three- and four-wide receiver sets while also challenging the depth of New York's secondary in sub package defenses. Saints coach Sean Payton surely will also try to get Reggie Bush isolated on one of the Jets' heavier linebackers in coverage. The chess match here should be superb.
2. The Saints' revamped secondary vs. Brady and the Patriots' passing game: New Orleans did an excellent job of bringing in a slew of talented defensive backs -- both young and old -- in an attempt to resolve what has been a problem area for far too long. But they will be tested in a huge way against Randy Moss, Wes Welker and of course Brady.
|G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images|
|Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil will have his hands full with the AFC East's 3-4 defenses.|
4. Tampa's running game vs. a trio of stout 3-4 defenses: Obviously, this is similar to the post above, but Tampa Bay will be breaking in either a rookie quarterback or a suspect starter at the position. The Bucs are going to rely on their running game this year, and though Carolina's offensive line rightfully gets accolades for its ability to pave the way for the team's running backs, Tampa's line is on the rise. However, pivot man Jeff Faine is undersized and struggled with nose tackles while in the AFC North. Like Kalil, another undersized center, Faine is going to have his hands full.
5. Falcons QB Matt Ryan vs. Bill Belichick and Rex Ryan: Matt Ryan is a great quarterback in the making and is wise beyond his years in terms of reading defenses, his pocket presence, overall poise and abilities as an anticipatory thrower. But, dealing with these two defensive masterminds is a different story, and the second-year phenom has to be at his very best in these two difficult road matchups. These games will be an excellent barometer of where Ryan stands from a mental perspective.
6. NFC South defensive ends vs. the Bills' offensive tackles: The Bills' offensive tackles are weak in pass protection, and that will be painfully obvious against Carolina's Julius Peppers and Atlanta's John Abraham. Bucs DE Gaines Adams could be primed for a breakout season and could set the tone in Week 2. Fortunately for the Bills' edge protectors, the Saints might be without Will Smith and Charles Grant (suspension) for their Week 3 matchup.
Even though the NFC South is strong, matching up against the physical AFC East is not an easy chore. In particular, running the ball against three defenses that employ a 3-4 should be troublesome, particularly for Carolina and Tampa Bay. Also, going against these complex defenses could be very challenging for Matt Ryan and even more so for the Bucs' Josh Freeman. New Orleans could have some success challenging the secondary depth of Miami and New York and clearly the South's pass-rushers will be excited to take on Buffalo's very suspect offensive line. With two of the better divisions facing off against each other, it will prove to be very interesting.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
We move from dirty players to dirty teams to the unfortunate case of the Raiders, whose reputation for making their own rules apparently hasn't tarnished opponents.
Oakland has committed 109 personal-foul penalties since 2001, slightly more than average, but officials have flagged their opponents only 80 times, tied with Jacksonville's opponents for the league low.
The Raiders' differential, minus-29, is the biggest in the league.
We cannot know if the Raiders' opponents are getting a pass or if they are simply on their best behavior when they play Oakland.
Bills fans should have no such worries. Officials flagged Buffalo's opponents for 134 personal-foul penalties over the same span.
Officials flagged Carolina's opponents for 132 such penalties.
Buffalo's plus-35 margin was second-highest in the league behind Seattle's plus-36, a total reflecting the Seahawks' league-low 57 personal-foul penalties since 2001.
We'll break it down by head coaches a bit later (see you there, Bill Callahan).