The Buffalo Bills will be going for their third straight victory and a fourth win out of their first five games on Sunday in Cincinnati. The Bills will be up against the Bengals, who after surviving a rocky start to the season, have gotten back to basics and seem to be playing much better over the last couple of games.
For the Bills, this will be the first time the injury bug has really hit them hard in 2017 — and with a thin roster, for the most part, a few of their backup players will be tested on Sunday. Their performances could very well help shape the outcome of the game.
What will impact this game the most? Five things I’ll be keeping an eye on when the Bills take on the Bengals:
1) Will E.J. Gaines play?
- This was a late developing problem for the Bills, who at the beginning of the week thought they were probably in the clear with starting cornerback E.J. Gaines. He had suffered a groin injury against Atlanta but was able to get through the first day of practice without worry. However, sometime between the start of practice on Thursday and the beginning of Friday, Gaines had a setback. It forced him to miss the final day of practice for the week, and since then, the Bills even had to make a move to bring Greg Mabin up from the practice squad in the event that Gaines couldn’t play. Mabin’s promotion is not a great sign for the starting cornerback, who has been a tremendous asset since the start of the season. If he cannot play, this puts the Bills at a tremendous disadvantage at two of their three cornerback spots. Rookie Tre’Davious White has been solid, to the point that the Bengals should even think about avoiding him altogether with star wide receiver A.J. Green — considering the other two potential matchups. Without Gaines, the Bills would have to start veteran Shareece Wright — a player that had his fair share of troubles in coverage during training camp and the preseason. Plus, he’s also dealing with an injury of his own that limited him in practice at times during the week, and landed him with a ‘questionable tag.’ Nickel cornerback Leonard Johnson has also struggled on some of the quick hitting routes underneath (more on that in a bit), which has led to opponents being able to easily move the chains. If Gaines cannot play, this has the chance to be a matchup altering advantage for the Bengals — given their offensive personnel — if they utilize it properly. In the meantime, Bills fans will have to hope Gaines has a turnaround and is available on Sunday.
2) Zay Jones must step up — and the Bills have to help him, too
- While much of the attention will be paid pregame to the E.J. Gaines injury, the Bills are still dealing with an injury to their far and away top wide receiver of 2017, Jordan Matthews. While the output from receivers in this offense hasn’t been extreme by any means, Matthews has been the most dependable player that has also shown a good ability to get yards after the catch and positions his body in a way ahead of the reception to catch the opponents on their heels. Without him, the focal point of the wide receivers for the Bills offense must be rookie Zay Jones — who has been in a mental battle with his hands ever since the Week Two loss to Carolina. It would be unfair to say that these drops define Jones. He’s a good receiver with solid hands and a great route running ability — and he showed all of those things through the summer and preseason. However, the Bills have to keep going to him to get that confidence back in order, because they’re going to need him. I think a great area for them to use him on Sunday would be in the slot for a few different reasons. First, that’s what he was most used to stemming back from his days at East Carolina, so that could put him back at home a bit more on three wide receiver sets. Second, Jordan Matthews has been mainly getting the most work out of the slot in those sets, and with his absence, that could open the door for Jones in that area. Lastly, the matchup is one to exploit. Nickel corner William Jackson was getting beaten quite a bit by Cleveland, which could make for a successful day for Jones if they use him in that area of the field. I think this could be the week that Jones gets his confidence back, and we start to see what he’s really capable of.
3) Pass it to McCoy
- The Cincinnati defense is still a solid one by all means, but they are not the same, dominant group that they used to have in past years. I think LeSean McCoy has the ability to creep closer to that 100-yard rushing mark on Sunday — much like he got a little bit closer last week in Atlanta. However, I think that will be set up by the team’s ability to get him involved in the passing game. I really, really like the matchup for him against the Bengals linebackers in coverage. Whether it’s Vontaze Burfict, Nick Vigil, or Kevin Minter, I think the Bills can do some damage with McCoy in getting players to miss in that open field. That, in turn, will help back the Bengals off from stacking the box against the McCoy, which will allow the offensive line to have some more success against a good but not great Bengals defensive line. Geno Atkins is still an incredible talent, and one that they’ll need to help John Miller with, but the rest of the defensive front doesn’t have the ‘wow’ appeal that it once did.
4) Bills DL must dominate
- The defensive line of the Buffalo Bills was without a starter last week and was up against a really good offensive line in Atlanta — and they still made their presence felt in the win over the Falcons. The Cincinnati Bengals offensive line is a far cry from the Falcons five-man unit, and have weaknesses all across the board that the Bills can attack. The three main weak points for the Bengals are at left tackle with Cedric Ogbuehi, the right tackle with Jake Fisher, and then at center with Russell Bodine. This provides opportunities for three of the top starters for the Bills in 2017: Jerry Hughes, Kyle Williams, and Shaq Lawson. If given the opportunity with some extended time in the pocket, they have the opportunity to live in the backfield today. The Bengals will certainly try to establish Joe Mixon and the running game, so it will be critical for the Bills linebackers to support either Cedric Thornton or Marcell Dareus, who to this point have been the two weak spots of the defensive line in 2017. If they turn the Bengals into a throwing team, Hughes has the opportunity to be a one-man wrecking crew against Ogbuehi.
5) Bengals screens ’n’ slants
- The Bengals, since firing their offensive coordinator after Week Two of the season, have self-scouted well. They realize the offensive line isn’t exactly their strong point of the offense — which is why we’ve seen Cincinnati try to get the ball out of quarterback Andy Dalton’s hands as quickly as possible. Either that or they try to sucker the defense in on screen plays — which they run frequently — to get their playmakers into open space. This is where players like Shareece Wright (if he starts for E.J. Gaines), Leonard Johnson, and rookie linebacker Matt Milano must be at their best against A.J. Green, Joe Mixon, Giovani Bernard, and even tight end Tyler Kroft. That group must give the Bills defensive line an opportunity to help win the day for the team — which is clearly the team’s greatest advantage over the Bengals. If they can do that, and get Dalton uncomfortable, the Bills very likely will head into the bye with a 4-1 record.
OUT: LB Ramon Humber, WR Jordan Matthews
QUESTIONABLE: LT Cordy Glenn, CB E.J. Gaines, S Micah Hyde, CB Shareece Wright
OUT: TE Tyler Eifert, TE Ryan Hewitt, WR John Ross, S Derron Smith
QUESTIONABLE: LB Jordan Evans
Prediction: Bengals over Bills
- I've been back and forth on this all week long. Reluctantly, I take the Bengals to win the game — even after selecting the Bills to win on the latest episode of the Bills Beat podcast. The difference between now, and when we recorded it on Thursday afternoon, was that the injury status to starting cornerback E.J. Gaines was not known. Based on the way it’s trending — and with the news that the team promoted Greg Mabin from the practice squad — it doesn’t exactly appear promising. And when you factor in how good he’s been in coverage and in sniffing out screens so far in 2017, the Bills are losing a whole heck of a lot by putting in Shareece Wright — who is also questionable to play while dealing with an injury. That downgrade, plus the matchup disparity versus A.J. Green, is just enough for me to go with the Bengals this time around. I think this will be an incredibly close matchup, but the Bengals have the opportunity to hide their greatest weakness (the offensive line) with a quick passing attack and screen game, whereas the Bills may not be as lucky with Green winning as quickly as he does on routes. It wouldn’t surprise me at all for the Bills and their defense to come away with this game, but that late information and current injury concerns of the Bills helped swing the pendulum into the favor of the Bengals.
Want even more Bills and Bengals analysis? Click play below to hear the latest episode of the Bills Beat with 7ABC’s Joe Buscaglia and Matthew Fairburn of NYUpstate.com. You can also subscribe on iTunes by clicking here.