Friday, November 29, 2013
Double Coverage: Falcons at Bills
By Mike Rodak and Vaughn McClure
Harry Douglas and the Falcons will look to dash the slim playoff hopes of Jairus Byrd and the Bills.
You might say that they're "livin' on a prayer."
At 4-7, the Buffalo Bills will likely need to win all of their remaining games if they want a shot at the playoffs. Coming off their bye week -- and refuted reports that Jon Bon Jovi hopes to one day own the team -- the Bills begin their final five-game stretch Sunday when they make their annual trip to Toronto.
This is the sixth consecutive season the Bills will play a regular-season game at the Rogers Centre. They've won just once -- a 23-0 shutout of the Washington Redskins in 2011 -- something that CEO Russ Brandon said Wednesday must change.
"We're trying to make it a home-field advantage by playing better," Brandon told WGR 550 in Buffalo. "We have not played well up there."
Meanwhile, the 2-9 Atlanta Falcons became the first NFL team eliminated from the playoffs last weekend and are in the mix for the top selection in April's draft.
ESPN.com Bills reporter Mike Rodak and Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure discuss the matchup:
Atlanta Falcons at Buffalo Bills in Toronto
Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET
Mike Rodak: Vaughn, I'm not going to lie: I thought the Falcons would be a whole lot better than they have been this season. What's gone wrong? I know there have been significant injuries, but that can't be the whole story, right?
Vaughn McClure: I think injuries are a big part of the story, yes. You can't overstate how much losing an explosive receiver such as Julio Jones means to a high-powered offense. And the loss of defensive end Kroy Biermann after Week 2 had a major impact, too, considering the Falcons' inability to generate consistent pressure up front. Not to mention nagging injuries suffered by both star receiver Roddy White and running back Steven Jackson. Head coach Mike Smith refuses to use injuries as an excuse, but there's no doubt this team would have been much better with healthy players. The offensive line's inability to consistently protect quarterback Matt Ryan or open holes in the running game, as well as the defense's tendency to give up explosive plays, also contributed to the Falcons’ demise.
The Falcons could use a player such as Mario Williams. He seems to be back to his old, dominant self. Is that correct, Mike?
Rodak: For the most part. Williams came on particularly strong in the middle of the season, notching 6.5 sacks in Week 4 through Week 8. A lot of the credit for the Bills' 23-21 win in Miami in Week 7 can go to Williams, who strip-sacked Ryan Tannehill in the fourth quarter to set up a game-winning field goal. On the season, Williams has 11 sacks, which is tied for third in the NFL. However, Williams hasn't recorded a sack since Week 8. It's debatable whether that's a cause for concern, but from a purely statistical standpoint, the Bills will need Williams to keep up the pace down the stretch.
Overall, the Bills' pass rush has been consistently good all season. Their 37 sacks are tied for the most in the NFL, the result of pressure from Kyle Williams, Jerry Hughes and Marcell Dareus, and not just Mario Williams. Buffalo will have a legitimate shot at breaking the previous team record of 49 sacks in a season, set in 1995.
Vaughn, a pair of rookies seems to be making an impact on the Falcons' defense. Cornerback Desmond Trufant, a first-round pick, and linebacker Paul Worrilow, an undrafted rookie, are names that jump out at me on the stat sheet. How have they played?
Falcons at Bills: Stat of the Week
The number of interceptions thrown by Matt Ryan on the road this season. He has thrown 12 total.
McClure: Good observation on both Trufant and Worrilow, Mike. I think Trufant has displayed great ball skills for most of the season. Even last week against the Saints, he had a tough start against Marques Colston, injured his thigh in a collision with teammate William Moore, then rebounded to make some outstanding plays on the ball in the second half. Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith told me he had much respect for Trufant's game, which is saying a lot coming from Smith.
As for Worrilow, he was undrafted coming out of Delaware but quickly made a name for himself. The guy had back-to-back, 19-tackle performances against Carolina and Seattle, then followed up with 25 total against Tampa Bay and New Orleans. The future looks bright for the defense, with those two players coming of age.
Speaking of rookies, has quarterback EJ Manuel's knee recovered enough for him to beat the Falcons with his legs come Sunday?
Rodak: I think Manuel has put his knee injury in the rearview mirror. He said last week during the Bills' bye week that his knee "feels fine," which is welcome news as the Bills look to keep their rookie passer healthy. To that end, though, I don't think we'll see too much of Manuel as a runner anytime soon. The Bills want him to go down and protect himself as much as possible, and he has done more of that in his two games since returning. So instead of Manuel beating the Falcons with his legs, I think the bigger threat to Atlanta's defense is the big play. The Bills have done much of their scoring this season on big plays, so the Falcons' secondary should be on high alert against speedsters Marquise Goodwin and T.J. Graham.
Vaughn, now that the Falcons are out of the playoffs, what do they need to do to get back into the contention next season? What positions might this team look to improve through the draft and free agency?
McClure: There's no question the Falcons have to upgrade along both the offensive and defensive lines. It wouldn't be a surprise to me if they ended up selecting South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney if they get one of the top three picks. The need for quarterbacks among some of the other lower-tier NFL teams might allow Clowney to fall to the Falcons, provided they don't secure the No. 1 overall selection.
It might be hard to address the offensive line via free agency, but the Falcons had better try. I covered the Chicago Bears last season and saw how much of a difference it made for them to add former Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod this season. I think the Falcons also need to look to add depth at the safety position, and they might want to find other options at tight end with Tony Gonzalez set to retire.
Regardless, whether it's the draft or free agency, I expect the Falcons to be somewhat active. They were too close to the Super Bowl last season and want to be back in position in 2014.
The final word on Sunday's matchup at Rogers Centre:
Vaughn McClure: The Falcons will be competitive, but it will be hard for a struggling offensive line to hold up against a strong Bills pass rush. Not to mention the Falcons could get exposed on defense again in terms of surrendering big plays. A loss, however, would suit the fans hoping for the No. 1 overall draft pick just fine. Bills 24, Falcons 21
Mike Rodak: The well-rested Bills are coming off their best game of the season. If there's a defense the Bills can exploit with their speed and big-play ability, it's Atlanta's. Bills 26, Falcons 14