The wait is finally over. On Sunday, the Buffalo Bills will kickoff their 2016 regular season — but this time around, they’ll do so on the road. A date with the Baltimore Ravens is on the horizon for the Bills, in what is likely to be one of the swing games that could end up defining the season.
The Ravens are coming off a down year that featured quarterback Joe Flacco suffering a season-ending surgery. In 2016, they’re out to prove that 2015 was merely a fluke.
How do the Bills and Ravens matchup? Five things to watch for:
1) The Bills' defensive key: Jerry Hughes
- With due respect to players like Stephon Gilmore, Ronald Darby, and Kyle Williams, they’ll take a secondary role in the game against the Ravens. To me, the man that can be a determining factor, and could even take over the game if all goes well, is none other than Jerry Hughes. The pass rusher was locked to the right side of the defense for the past several years due to Mario Williams, but now, Hughes has been moved over to the left side to take on the right tackles of their opponents. His matchup this week in Baltimore is Ricky Wagner, and considering how poorly the right tackle played in 2015, Hughes will be the man that can facilitate the defense coming up with key stops in the game. The outside linebacker was the best player at training camp this year, and it would be somewhat of a surprise if he went silent. Even if he’s unable to get a sack, the Ravens might have to double team him, which in turn will give more one-on-one matchups to the rest of his teammates. I’m expecting a positive impact on the game from Hughes.
2) Sammy’s plus matchup
- Along the same lines as Hughes on defense, I believe Sammy Watkins has one of those matchups that can help shape a game. While he isn’t exclusively on one side, Watkins mainly lines up on the left of the offense. The Ravens, like the Bills, have their cornerbacks tied to one side of the field — which means that Watkins will be up against Jimmy Smith more often than not. Smith, although a talented player that was drafted in the first round coming out of college, struggled in the 2015 season against some of the better receivers in the league, which indicates that Watkins can have a lot of success this week. The Bills shouldn’t shy away from targeting the wide receiver early and often, much like they did during the second half of the 2015 season. He and Tyrod Tayor established a fantastic rapport during that span of games, which has led many to believe that this year could yield a breakout season for the duo. Especially with a matchup like the one he has in Week One, Watkins could get off to a big start in 2016 with this game against the Ravens.
3) Get to know Jernigan, Williams
- It’s not just the Bills that have plus matchups: The Ravens have a couple of areas in which they have a clear advantage, too. The first of which is along their defensive line, where they will look to take over the line of scrimmage. Two players, defensive end Timmy Jernigan and nose tackle Brandon Williams, have enough talent to disrupt the backfield from the interior. On the offensive line, the Bills are solid except for two spots: right guard and right tackle with John Miller and Jordan Mills. The Ravens defensive duo will attack the right side of the offensive line to try and shut down the passing and rushing game from that side. We’ll likely see a lot of help — whether it be in the form of a tight end, a fullback, or a running back to help keep the Ravens at bay. Make no mistake, they will attack that side based on film study from last season. We’ll quickly see if second-year guard John Miller has made any strides in the offseason.
4) Beware of Aiken?
- Here’s a bit of a blast from the past for Bills fans: wide receiver Kamar Aiken, who once upon a time was a member of the Bills practice squad, has carved out a quality offensive role for himself down in Baltimore. The Ravens also brought in Mike Wallace in the offseason, and welcomed back Steve Smith, Sr. for one more year, which means they have a bit more flexibility with Aiken in 2016. When Baltimore goes to three wide receiver sets, Aiken will shift into the slot more often than not — and be lined up against Nickell Robey-Coleman. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think Robey-Coleman has had a pretty solid career since entering the league as an undrafted free agent a few years back. However, last year, and even a little bit in this summer, Robey-Coleman has struggled a bit. Especially with someone like rookie Kevon Seymour playing as well as he did all summer long, Robey-Coleman needs to be the player we saw in his first two seasons in the league. Aiken presents a tough matchup, as a bit of a bigger wide receiver (6-foot-2, 215-pounds) that will be in the slot. I would not be surprised to see Joe Flacco trying to utilize him and tight end Dennis Pitta (if he plays) maybe even more than they do Mike Wallace. Beware of No. 11 in purple and black.
5) Ravens’ inexperienced left side
- Just as the Ravens do with their defensive line, the Bills have a clear opportunity ahead of them with the two players the Baltimore Ravens will have at left tackle and left guard. The Ravens will use the highly touted Ronnie Stanley, the team’s first round pick, at left tackle. At the same time, they’ll likely be starting fourth-round pick Alex Lewis at left guard, which has the clear attention of the Bills. Not only head coach Rex Ryan, but some of his players have pointed out the two rookies starting next to each other when speaking with the media. It’s clearly something at the top of their minds, and even Adolphus Washington said that they hoped it would be something they can take advantage of. Expect to see plenty of stunts thrown the way of Stanley and Lewis to try and confuse them enough to create havoc in the backfield.
OUT: S Colt Anderson foot), CB Kevon Seymour (hamstring)
QUESTIONABLE: QB Cardale Jones (right shoulder), G Ryan Groy (ribs), RB Jonathan Williams (ribs)
OUT: HB Kenneth Dixon (knee), LB Elvis Dumervil (foot), CB Jerraud Powers (ankle)
QUESTIONABLE: TE Dennis Pitta (finger), G John Urschel (shoulder), TE Maxx Williams (knee), CB Shareece Wright (foot)
Prediction: Bills over Ravens
- Most everyone I’ve read in the week leading up expect the Baltimore Ravens to be able to defend their home field and start the season 1-0 with a win over the Bills. However, I don’t think it’s that cut and dry. I believe these are two teams with enough talent to push for the playoffs in the 2016 season, and when looking at the matchups specifically, I actually believe that the Bills have the slight edge. Will it be a close game? By all means, it should be — unless turnovers take over the game and put it out of control in the early stages. However, I think these are two ball control offenses that don’t like to take many chances with the ball, and in turn, it becomes a battle of whose weaknesses can be exploited the most. If it’s the latter, I think the Bills have the right group of talent to pull off the road win and start the year off 1-0.