The Buffalo Bills kickstarted the season with a disappointing two losses in five days, but in the two weeks after that, they followed it up with two consecutive wins. Now through one quarter of the season, the Bills are 2-2 and have now gone out west for Week Five.
On the docket, they’ve got a date with the surprising Los Angeles Rams — who boast a 3-1 record to start the 2016 regular season. How do the Bills stack up against the Rams?
Five things to watch for in Sunday’s game:
1) Battle of two stout defenses
- Both the Bills and the Rams operate in similar ways: each team relies on the defense to help set the tone against the opponent. It’s quite clear that for both teams, the defense is the strongest point of the roster. For the Rams, it’s in the front seven and with one of the best players in the league: defensive tackle Aaron Donald. He is a pain for any offensive lineman by how effectively he gets into the backfield, and even for a smaller body, how he holds the point of attack well enough to stop the rushing game of the opponent when it’s to his side. They’ll likely line him up over Bills right guard John Miller for much of the game, just because he is less of a proven commodity than left guard Richie Incognito. Together, the Rams defense have been able to help them to a 3-1 start. For Buffalo, it’s much of the same story, but really, they have been solid from defensive line right back to their secondary. Both these teams offer good, on the borderline of being great defenses in the NFL this season.
2) The struggling Rams offense
- On the flip side of their fantastic defense, the Rams are putrid on offense. Their best player, by far, is running back Todd Gurley but he has mostly underperformed. That, however, really isn’t his fault. He’s an extremely talented player, but running behind an offensive line that, well, might have one or two solid players and struggle everywhere else. From left to right, the Rams offensive line has their weaknesses. Left tackle Greg Robinson has greatly underperformed considering his lofty draft status as the former second overall pick, and so has center Tim Barnes, right guard Cody Wichmann, and right tackle Rob Havenstein have all had their problems both protecting the quarterback, and generating enough of a push forward for Gurley. On top of it, Case Keenum is a chance-taking quarterback with mediocre accuracy, and is prone to error. The Bills defensive line has a chance to outright overpower the Rams up front, which could significantly limit how effective they are on offense. To this point, on a per game average, the Rams are 32nd in yards, and 30th in rushing yards, passing yards, and points. Gurley is the only one they need to keep in check, so it will be quite important for Preston Brown and Zach Brown to fill the run lanes quickly.
3) How much Dareus, now, if at all?
- Following his four game suspension, the Bills welcomed back Marcell Dareus to the practice field this week, and Rex Ryan seemed adamant that they would have the defensive lineman in some capacity this weekend. That, of course, was until Dareus injured his hamstring during Friday’s practice and needed to miss some reps as a result. Now, Dareus is in jeopardy of even playing in the first game that he’s eligible. As a bigger player where explosiveness is the most important part to his game, if it’s to the point that they are concerned with his overall effectiveness, then it’s a really tricky injury to come back that quickly from. If there is any hesitation, the Bills might just be better off shutting him down this weekend and hope that he’s ready to play next weekend at home against San Francisco. Even if he can play, I’m not expecting him to be on the field anywhere near what he usually does — which is usually playing around 75-to-85 percent of the defensive snaps. If he does play, I think he’ll probably get somewhere between 30-and-50 percent, while still maintaining big roles for Corbin Bryant and Leger Douzable.
[Update: ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Dareus will not play on Sunday due to the hamstring injury]
4) Top Bills receiving options may struggle
- The Rams defensive line is a talented group, but it’s not only them. Los Angeles boasts two players in the second level and beyond that make it a tough time for opponents to get their passing game going. Linebacker Alec Ogletree and cornerback Trumaine Johnson are super athletic coverage players that help bottle up their opponents’ top wide receiver and tight end. In this case, the Bills targeted Robert Woods and Charles Clay a total of 17 times against New England, and that duo will be the ones Ogletree and Johnson aim to stop. If Woods and Clay are covered up, the Bills will need to look to Marquise Goodwin to try and win his matchup against E.J. Gaines, or, Troy Hill — whichever of the two start. It could wind up being a long day for the Bills passing attack for those reasons, and because of Aaron Donald, too.
5) A depleted Rams defensive line?
- The Rams have one of the top defensive lines in the entire National Football League, but that starting unit might be down three players. Donald is healthy, so he’ll still be a load to deal with, but the Rams are dealing with legitimately concerning injuries to the other three: defensive ends Robert Quinn and William Hayes, along with defensive tackle Michael Brockers. Quinn didn’t practice the entire week after injuring his shoulder in the team’s previous game. Hayes didn’t play against Arizona last weekend due to an ankle injury, and hasn’t practiced at all, either. Brockers, the team’s run-stuffing specialist, was limited on Wednesday, and then couldn’t practice both Thursday and Friday because of a hip injury. All three players are questionable, and it would appear they all have a legitimate shot to miss the game. Quinn is the biggest name of the three, because of his speed and pass rushing ability combined with the injured ankle that left tackle Cordy Glenn played on last week. If Quinn cannot play, it takes out their best pass rusher from the edge. If Brockers can’t play, then that puts Cam Thomas into that role — and Thomas has struggled quite a bit to hold his ground. Defensive ends Dominique Easley (used there occasionally), Eugene Sims, Ethan Westbrooks, and Matt Longacre stand to get an increase opportunity, likely in a platooning way if the Rams are as short-handed as the injury report is letting on. Quite obviously, this would be a huge advantage for the Bills in potentially winning the game.
OUT: T Cyrus Kouandjio (ankle), CB Corey White (shoulder), G/C Patrick Lewis (knee)
QUESTIONABLE: T Cordy Glenn (ankle), TE Charles Clay (knee), CB Stephon Gilmore (ankle), DL Marcell Dareus (hamstring), RB LeSean McCoy (hand), FB Jerome Felton (back), S Jonathan Meeks (foot)
QUESTIONABLE: DE Robert Quinn (shoulder), DE William Hayes (ankle), DT Michael Brockers (hip), WR Kenny Britt (thigh), S Cody Davis (groin), RB Benny Cunningham (thigh)
Prediction: Bills over Rams
- Sure, the Rams are 3-1 on the season, but one term comes to mind with them this week: regression to the mean. The Rams have been awful on offense, and it really hasn’t caught up to them outside of the Week One loss to San Francisco. I believe the Bills defense can continue their solid play against the Los Angeles offense, and even force the error-prone Case Keenum into a turnover or two that can flip the game. I can’t stress enough how important the potential deactivation of defensive linemen Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers, and William Hayes are to the Bills’ ability to get the offense down the field to score enough points to win the game. Compared to the rest of the NFL, I think this will be a low-scoring contest, but one that I believe will ultimately go to the Bills for their third win in a row. They are the more well-rounded team, and I think the final result will reflect that.
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