Let’s face it… not many thought the Buffalo Bills would be able to upset the previously unbeaten Denver Broncos — and to do so in a way where both the offense and defense helped pave the way to victory. It was a surprising result that has forced a lot of re-evaluation as to what this Bills team, now 2-1 on the season and still atop the AFC East, is all about.
In Week Four, it’s a whole different ball game for Buffalo. They’ve battled against two really talented defensive teams in the last two weeks, but now the Bills are up against one of the most prolific offenses in the entire National Football League in the Atlanta Falcons.
It will be a full-team test — especially with it being on the road. Do the Bills stand a chance against the Falcons? Five things I’m keeping an eye on in the game:
1) Bills defense can prove they’re for real
- It’s been a steady climb for the Buffalo defensive effort. They got out of the gate really quickly against a poor New York Jets offense, continued it on the road against a Carolina offense that has seen better days, and then they were able to stymie a Denver Broncos offense that had been previously playing really well. Now, just to see how far they’ve come, they get to go against an offense that might be the best one that they face all season. Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, and Mohamed Sanu as a collection of skill players are no joke, and they all offer something different that can exploit some of the areas that the Bills lack talent defensively. The unit that will be tested more than any will be the duo of Bills cornerbacks — that to this point, have played extremely well. Tre’Davious White and E.J. Gaines have both been a pleasant surprise through the first three games, but now Jones will test them on every level of the field, and they’ll have to deal with the outright physicality and toughness that Sanu brings to the table. On top of that, they’ve got the extremely efficient and Matt Ryan throwing them the ball which makes them each a threat anytime he drops back to pass. The Bills linebackers will most certainly be tested, too, with the Freeman and Coleman combination. This is an area that the Falcons can really exploit a weakness of the Bills. Preston Brown, Ramon Humber, and Lorenzo Alexander have done an adequate job to this point, but Jamaal Charles and C.J. Anderson showed last week that they struggle with backs that are good with a change of direction. That’s exactly what the shifty Freeman is all about, outright making people look foolish as he slips through the line of scrimmage and into the second level. Brown and Humber will both be especially tested by Coleman, a lightning-quick running back that can take it the distance if he gets some room to roam — and one that they feature in the passing attack. If the Bills can slow down this offense — and on the road, mind you — then they can prove that they should be taken seriously week in and week out. This is a whopper of a matchup, and I can’t wait to see how they stack up against a legitimate offense.
2) Can the offense keep pace?
- If the defense is unable to slow down the Falcons high-powered offense, the offense will have quite the challenge ahead of them to go toe-to-toe with Atlanta in an effort just to keep up. The Falcons defense isn’t nearly as daunting as the ones they just went up against in Carolina and against Denver — which should build some optimism for the level of effectiveness that the Bills could have on Sunday. However, we only saw them take a small step forward last week against the Broncos with Tyrod Taylor and the passing attack. The encouraging part was in the way offensive coordinator Rick Dennison worked with Taylor’s skill-set. After showing how uncomfortable he was for weeks on end in doing so, the Bills took the three-step drops from under center out of the gameplan and ran out of shotgun nearly 60-percent of the time. If the Bills want to keep up with the Falcons on offense, they’ll need this recent development to continue to put Taylor in the best possible situations to succeed.
3) McCoy gets back on track in Atlanta
- For two weeks in a row now, star running back LeSean McCoy has been muted on the ground by a couple of really good defenses. After watching all of the plays back, you can hardly blame him for the lack of an output for a few reasons. First, the defenses were really talented and many top players have struggled against them before. Second, those really talented defenses keyed on him when he was on the field, taking him getting legitimate gains on the ground out of the equation. And lastly, the majority of the offensive line has played quite poorly over the last two weeks, which has led to no push along the front and no room to turn nothing into something. However, I think this is a healing matchup for the Bills and McCoy. With their most talented pass rusher (Vic Beasley) and their top defensive end (Courtney Upshaw) having to sit this game out, that will help the offensive line up front. I think the Bills can handle defensive tackle Dontari Poe — who struggles to move off his spot — on the inside. From there, the linebackers (Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell) are aggressive and show a minor tendency to guess incorrectly. This all leads to one conclusion: there will be space available both in the middle of the field and on the perimeter for McCoy to jumpstart his 2017 once again. While it might not be as effective as his Week One performance against the Jets, I don’t doubt for a second that McCoy can get over 100 yards from the line of scrimmage against the Falcons defense and their personnel. If the Bills cannot get McCoy going against this team, that is a major problem for them moving forward.
4) Another Clay day
- He’s been doing so quietly, but starting tight end Charles Clay has been the most dependable option on the offensive side of the ball since the start of the season. While he has dropped a couple of passes along the way, he couldn’t have been more efficient against the Broncos — catching all six of his targets for 39 yards and a touchdown. This matchup, mostly working against linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, is one that Clay can win. Last week, Campbell was lined up against Detroit tight end Eric Ebron, and even though Ebron was labeled a super athletic tight end coming out of college in his draft year, he’s been anything but. He struggles to separate and is slow out of his breaks — and he was still winning on his routes against Campbell. Clay’s route running and ability to separate is much stronger than Ebron’s, which leads me to believe he can have a pretty solid day for Tyrod Taylor and the Bills. It’s going to be a struggle on the outside — as it has been all season for the Bills — with their receivers, and specifically against cornerbacks Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant. When the ball goes through the air, it seems Clay and McCoy will be the ones that have the best chance to help them move the ball down the field based on the individual matchups.
5) Exploit Ty Sambrailo
- The Bills are extremely fortunate this week because if they were to slow down the high-powered Falcons offensive attack, there is a weak link that can make it easier on them. That player is right tackle Ty Sambrailo, who will be starting for the second straight week for the injured Ryan Schrader. The Detroit Lions absolutely tortured Sambrailo on the edge last week against both the run and the pass. He was consistently letting players in the backfield which allowed the Lions to blow up some plays and took the Falcons offense off the field. For reference to Bills fans, I would take the currently struggling right tackle Jordan Mills over Sambrailo any day of the week, and it really isn’t even close. It would have been a huge opportunity for the left defensive end, Shaq Lawson, to have a humongous game -- but he suffered a groin injury on Thursday, hasn’t practiced since and is questionable for the game. Luckily for the Bills, they have a more than capable backup in Eddie Yarbrough who has been playing lights out in rotational duty behind Lawson. And don’t rule out this factor either: if Yarbrough does start Sunday in place of Lawson, he spent the entire 2016 summer with the Denver Broncos, who just so happened to employ Sambrailo at the same time, which means there is at least a working knowledge from Yarbrough of how to beat the right tackle. Do not be surprised if Lawson, Yarbrough, or even Ryan Davis becomes one of the stars of the games for Buffalo — the mismatch is that severe.
OUT: LT Cordy Glenn
QUESTIONABLE: DE Shaq Lawson
OUT: S Ricardo Allen, LB Vic Beasley, T Ryan Schrader, DE Courtney Upshaw, RB Terron Ward
Prediction: Falcons over Bills
- When analyzing these two teams, there are a lot of reasons that lead me to believe that the Bills will keep this game competitive for the majority of the contest. I think the offense will be able to highlight their strengths (LeSean McCoy and Charles Clay) against this front-seven, and I wouldn’t rule out Tyrod Taylor finding a lot of space to run even after he drops back to pass. The defense can also have some success — and they’re going to need to to keep themselves afloat. However, I just don’t know how the Bills will be able to slow down that five-headed offensive monster — and a high-quality offensive line (minus Sambrailo) — enough to pull off the victory on the road at a brand new stadium. Under Sean McDermott and his defense, they need to prove they can hold down a really good quarterback and offense. If they can, the intrigue about this Bills team will be extreme. However, I just don’t trust both the offense to keep up well enough or the defense to slow them down enough to win on the road. I think the Bills can keep it close for a long time, and then the Falcons pull away at the end of the game.
Want even more of a breakdown of the game? Join 7ABC's Joe Buscaglia and Matthew Fairburn of NYUpstate.com on the latest edition of the Bills Beat podcast. You can click play below, or subscribe to it on iTunes here.