For the second straight week, the Buffalo Bills have a crucial opponent on the horizon that can directly influence their destiny for the 2015 season. When the Bills take on the Houston Texans at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday, it’s as close to a “must-win” as you’ll find.
Five things to watch for during the game:
1) Watt alert
- Most weeks for the Houston Texans, opponents don’t normally know where Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt will line up. This week, the Buffalo Bills have a pretty good idea, but there still may not be any way to stop him. The Bills will be starting two backup offensive linemen in right guard Kraig Urbik, and right tackle Jordan Mills — and on the same side, right next to each other, no less. With the way left tackle Cordy Glenn and left guard Richie Incognito have been playing, it’s a high likelihood that Watt will be attacking from the left defensive side more often than not. How do the Bills limit Watt, the league leader in sacks, from having a huge impact like he did against the Bills in 2014? For starters, double-team — or even triple-team — Watt on every single play. The Bills will also run plays away from him in an attempt to limit Watt, who has blown up similar game plans on a weekly basis. Regardless of how they choose to defend him, he is a Freddy Krueger-esque matchup nightmare with Urbik and Mills in the lineup this week
2) Don’t sleep on the other pass rushers
- The best thing about Watt is that he takes the heat off all his other defensive linemen and pass rushers. Double and triple-teaming the super-talented defensive end opens up one-on-one opportunities for his teammates, and two players have had very nice seasons as a result. Outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus has the second-most sacks on the team with 6.5, and has provided a solid complementary option to the Texans for getting after the passer. Even though former top pick Jadeveon Clowney only has 1.5 sacks, he’s been an asset to the defense when healthy. With Clowney, you just get the feeling he’s ready to bust out one of these weeks with a big performance in getting to the passer. Just imagine if the Texans overload Watt and Clowney on the same side to rush the passer — the potential is there for a big day. Watt is the man the clears all this running room for his teammates, and very capable teammates at that.
3) Hopkins vs. Bills CBs should be a treat
- The Texans have a large disparity when it comes to who Brian Hoyer has targeted this season, and it goes in the favor of one of the breakout stars of 2015: wide receiver DeAndre ’Nuk’ Hopkins. The 6-foot-1, 223-pound wideout leads the league in total targets with 143. He leads his team with 81 receptions, and is also in the top five in both receiving yards (1,081), and touchdowns (9). Furthermore, odds are that Hoyer has eyes only for Hopkins on any play designed to a wide receiver. The team’s secondary wide receivers, Nate Washington and Cecil Shorts III, have 14 less targets combined on the season than Hopkins has. He also has more receptions than both those players combined as well. He’s moved all over the field which means both Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby will get their chance to defend Hopkins. The best matchup for the former Clemson wideout will be against the rookie Darby, who struggled really for the first time last week against Kansas City. Gilmore is the much more physical player, and has the size to potentially limit Hopkins output on the game. The Texans won’t be shy in throwing at either player, but, Hopkins against Darby will be a key to this game.
4) The incorporation of Sammy Watkins
- Last week in the first half against Kansas City, the Bills boldly declared that they were willing to force-feed Sammy Watkins to get him involved. Then, in the second half when the Chiefs began to play Cover-2 and rolled a safety to shade towards Watkins side of the field, the Bills wide receiver went away and didn’t have a catch in the final 30 minutes. With the pass rush that they’ll face, the Bills won’t have as many opportunities to take deep shots to Watkins, which means he’ll need to be incorporated into the short game. Expect some wide receiver screens, slants, out routes, button hooks — however they can get the ball in his hands, they need to. If they start off game planning like that, they could catch the Texans later in the game by not keeping Watkins honest with rolling coverage, and then take the shot down deep. Regardless of the cornerback he’s up against and how good they are — and the Texans have a pair of them in Jonathan Joseph along with the ever-improving Kevin Johnson — if Watkins is in that situation, they must take a shot down the field.
5) Tight end & running back targets — for both sides
- It will be a tough task for both teams to get the rushing game going in a rather large way. For Houston, they do not have a running back worthy of getting the top billing and instead use three different players — Alfred Blue, Jonathan Grimes, and Chris Polk — to try and keep the defense off-balance. For Buffalo, LeSean McCoy is a player that can break through even the best of front-sevens, but even he’ll struggle with a pair of replacement players on the right side of the line. So those players will need to get involved in the passing attack to open up things, as will the tight ends. The Texans threw to their tight ends (C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin) a combined seven times last week versus New Orleans, and with rookie linebacker Tony Steward in the lineup for the Bills, it would be fair to expect the Texans to use a similar game plan once again. For Buffalo, it should finally be time to dust off their high-priced tight end Charles Clay, and make him a huge part of the game plan. He only has 15 catches for 129 yards in his last five games, and his yards per catch average has dropped below 10 on the season. Clay has been just another guy for the last several weeks, and someone with his athleticism against some beatable defenders can open life up for Tyrod Taylor, McCoy, and Watkins.
OUT: G John Miller (ankle), LB Nigel Bradham (ankle), HB Karlos Williams (shoulder)
DOUBTFUL: T Seantrel Henderson (illness)
PROBABLE: S Bacarri Rambo (knee), QB Tyrod Taylor (right shoulder), WR Marcus Easley (concussion), T Cordy Glenn (back), DE Mario Williams (foot)
PROBABLE: CB Kareem Jackson (ankle), G Xavier Su’a-Filo (shoulder), CB Jonathan Joseph (knee), DE J.J. Watt (groin), WR DeAndre Hopkins (hamstring), LB Whitney Merciless (back), C Ben Jones (hand), LB John Simon (groin), T Derek Newton (elbow), LB Max Bullough (shoulder), CB Charles James (foot), HB Alfred Blue (back), LB Akeem Dent (hamstring)
Prediction: Texans over Bills
- This is an absolutely critical contest for both teams, but the defensive front for the Houston Texans is too hard to ignore against a banged up offensive line and a limited quarterback. J.J. Watt is one of the best players in the National Football League and dominates matchups, regardless of how teams game plan for him. The Bills will have a shot if they can get their top three offensive playmakers involved, but, with the exception of McCoy, teams have found blueprints on how to slow down both Watkins and Clay. When that happens, the Bills offense fails to adjust, and they can’t put together a drive at a clutch moment when they need one. Watkins is the player that can upend this prediction, if the Bills and Tyrod Taylor are creative and manipulative enough to get him the ball in different ways. If he gets shut down, the Bills aren’t as big of a threat — and with the type of pass rush that the Texans will present, it’s going to be tough to have Watkins take over. It’s not impossible, but the Texans are playing as dominant a defensive game as you’ll find at the moment.
Season-long record picking the Bills: 7-4
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