The Buffalo Bills, winners of their last four games, have another big opportunity to come away with a victory on Sunday — which would secure a winning record at the halfway point of the 2016 season. It’s been an amazing turnaround that many had left for dead after the horrendous 0-2 start.
Next up, the Bills have the first of two matchups with the Miami Dolphins — a team that came out of nowhere to upset the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week Five. The Dolphins are now 2-4 on the season after the win, but can the Bills thwart them and win a fifth game in a row?
Five things to watch for on Sunday:
1) LeSean: Will he or won’t he?
- It’s truly the biggest question of the weekend: Will LeSean McCoy be able to play for the Bills against the Dolphins? In case you missed all the twists and turns through the week, McCoy was healthy heading into the week, had to leave practice on Wednesday with a hamstring injury and then missed practice on Thursday. That same Thursday, ESPN’s Josina Anderson reported that McCoy would not play against Miami, while The Associated Press reported that he would be a game-time decision. And those aren’t mutually exclusive reports — both could end up being right by the end of things. However, then McCoy returned to practice Friday in a limited capacity to test out the injury for the first time. The Bills officially declared him questionable and a game-time decision. Alright, now you’re caught up. However, there are multiple reasons to think that resting McCoy might be the ultimate determination. First, in that practice session, McCoy did not look like his usual explosive self. He was running around quite gingerly on the left hamstring — the same leg that he had the multiple week injury in 2015 (though McCoy maintained that it is not the same injury). Second, with or without McCoy, the Bills are going up against the second-worst run defense in the NFL this weekend. The Bills have a capable backup in Mike Gillislee, and while it would be much easier with McCoy in the lineup, they can beat the Dolphins without their star running back. The same likely cannot be said for their Week Eight game against New England. So, if there’s any pain whatsoever in McCoy’s hamstring, the Bills should do the smart thing and get him the rest he needs and hope that there’s enough time between now and next Sunday for him to be ready against New England. The fact that he practiced is a good sign as it is, so there’s no use in turning what looks to be a short-term injury as of now, into a potential long-term injury by forcing him in the lineup. If he feels completely fine by the time Sunday rolls around, this is a moot point. However, hamstrings are tricky and the Bills shouldn’t push their luck with one of their star players. If I had to guess today — and this isn’t a sourced report or anything so don’t get that twisted — I think McCoy either sits this one out completely, or dresses for the game and gets minimal snaps.
[Update: Multiple reports say that McCoy will be active, and have a reduced role against the Dolphins]
2) The return of Shaq
- On the positive side of things, the Bills finally get to trot out their first-round pick Shaq Lawson… it just took them a few months longer than initially expected. The edge rushing Lawson will make his NFL debut on Sunday in Miami after returning to the Bills following successful surgery to repair a tear in his shoulder. The team was hesitant to immediately declare him in the lineup at the start of the week, but after just two days of practice, Rex Ryan emphatically said that the rookie was game ready and in shape enough to play this weekend. The Bills have been pretty darn proficient at both their outside linebacker spots with Jerry Hughes and NFL sack leader Lorenzo Alexander. Lawson, a bigger-bodied pass rusher, will likely play a bit of a hybrid role for the Bills. He’s worked with both the outside linebackers and the defensive linemen this week at practice, and will likely take over the role that both Lerentee McCray and Brandon Spikes played over the past few games. He could even line up as a five-technique defensive end in pass rushing situations when smaller personnel come on to the field. The Bills are eager to get Lawson on the field, and while they’ll likely limit his reps some (think 30-to-35 percent of snaps), get ready to see him utilized in some unique ways.
3) Run it all day
- I alluded to it under the LeSean McCoy title, but I’m of the full belief that the Bills can successfully run the ball against the Miami Dolphins with or without McCoy. The biggest reason for that is not about Mike Gillislee and the ability he has (although, with the way he’s played this season, it helps). This is all about the Bills offensive line, and how they should be considered one of the best starting fives in the entire NFL this season. They aren’t just winning the battle up front, they’ve been dominating things for the past three weeks now. Granted, the last two matchups have been ones that were in their favor to begin with, but they create so much room to roam for the team’s running backs. With how dominant they’ve been, and the fact that the Dolphins have the second-worst run defense in the league, leads me to believe that the Bills can get the job done with a combination of Gillislee and either Reggie Bush or Jonathan Williams this week. The Dolphins have allowed 147 yards per game, and now that stud safety Reshad Jones is officially done for the rest of the season, it’s just more evidence that the Bills have every opportunity to run the ball on Miami. When he’s in the game, the Bills should target defensive tackle Jordan Phillips and run directly at him. They’ll have some challenges with Ndamukong Suh, but the team ran the ball really well on Los Angeles — a team that boasts stud defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Don’t forget about the motivation factor for Gillislee if he does indeed start, as well. Miami drafted him in the fifth round of the 2013 NFL Draft, and then proceeded to give up on him. Even if he doesn’t admit it out loud, I would highly doubt he’s forgotten about that, especially with a potential starting opportunity against the Dolphins on the horizon. The runs may not be as flashy as they have been this season if McCoy can’t play, but I expect the Bills to get the job done.
4) Beware of Landry
- Nickel cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman has been playing incredibly well over the last two weeks, but faces a huge test in going up against slot receiver Jarvis Landry. He’s a player that the Dolphins and quarterback Ryan Tannehill have come to trust a great deal, and he has shown ability over his career to rake in humongous catch totals in a single game. Also a slippery player after he gets the ball in his hand, that’s where Robey-Coleman’s job will be at its hardest. Landry is going to get his targets and he’s going to get his catches — he’s earned that respect for how well he’s played on pretty poor offenses in his career. However, if Robey-Coleman and company can help keep his gains to a minimum and don’t allow him to break a few tackles to hit the open field, that would be considered a win in my book.
5) What do the Bills do without Woods?
- The Bills haven’t declared their by default number one wide receiver Robert Woods out of the lineup just yet — but it certainly doesn’t look promising. Woods, who was spotted in the locker room with a boot on his foot on Thursday, failed to practice at any point during the week due to the injury. The Bills have left it open-ended for Woods, saying that he’s one of those players that can play in a game even without practicing once that week. However, he’s listed as doubtful for the upcoming weekend which means other plans need to have been made. Without Woods, they’re losing a dependable target, solid route runner, and a good run blocker. In his place, I think it makes a lot of sense if Justin Hunter assumes one of the two starting roles as an outside-the-numbers receiver. That’s where he’s best utilized as it is, he saw his snap count go up a great deal in Week Six, and the coaching staff has been talking him up even more this week. Hunter and Marquise Goodwin are the odds on favorites to get the most snaps, with Walt Powell mixing in as the slot receiver, and then you might even see Reggie Bush taking some reps at wide receiver against Miami as well. As much as they’ve liked Hunter, he’s only had 3 targets in two weeks so it’s likely going to be tough to make up for Woods’ production. When they actually do pass the ball, expect the Bills to depend on tight end Charles Clay a great deal versus Miami.
OUT: T Seantrel Henderson (back)
DOUBTFUL: DL Marcell Dareus (hamstring), WR Robert Woods (foot)
QUESTIONABLE: RB LeSean McCoy (hamstring), FB Jerome Felton (back), T Cordy Glenn (ankle), TE Charles Clay (ankle), DL Kyle Williams (neck), CB Kevon Seymour (shoulder), OL Patrick Lewis (knee)
OUT: TE Jordan Cameron (concussion), CB Xavien Howard (knee), TE Dion Sims (concussion)
QUESTIONABLE: RB Arian Foster (hamstring), LB Jelani Jenkins (groin), CB Tony Lippett (hamstring), LB Spencer Paysinger (hamstring/calf)
Prediction: Bills over Dolphins
- Since the winning streak started, this week is probably the most adversity they’ve faced from an injury perspective. Sure, they lost Sammy Watkins ahead of that Cardinals game, but he wasn’t even the same player when he did play early in the season. Now, the Bills may be without McCoy, Woods, Dareus once again, and maybe even fullback Jerome Felton (left practice Wednesday, didn’t participate Thursday, was limited Friday) in their upcoming contest. Even with that being the case, the Bills still have every opportunity to win the game in Miami. If McCoy can’t play, I believe the offensive line can win the battle up front against this Dolphins defensive line and allow Gillislee enough room to operate. If the Bills continue the formula of rushing the ball, getting heat on the opposing quarterback, and Tyrod Taylor not turning the ball over, there are no incredible matchup disparities from the Dolphins over the Bills that could potentially swing the game in Miami’s favor. If the formula is followed, I think the Bills can win this game and extend the winning streak to five games. I don’t believe it will be a blowout like the last few results for Buffalo, but I think they have the team to get the job done this weekend -- with or without McCoy.
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