The Buffalo Bills found the way to a comeback victory last weekend, and now have a mid-season showdown with an AFC opponent that will likely be in the long-term picture for one of the two Wild Card spots in 2017. The Bills are up against the Oakland Raiders with plenty of playoff implications on the line.
The Bills will also be going into the game without at least one starter in the secondary — and quite possibly a pair of them. How much will it have an impact on the game?
Five things to watch for when the Bills host the Raiders at New Era Field on Sunday:
1) The Gaines injury looms large
- It was trending this way all week long given the type of injury (hamstring) that it was, but the Bills made it official on Friday: cornerback EJ Gaines would not be available to them on Sunday against the Oakland Raiders. Sometimes teams get lucky with the timing of injuries against opponents that aren’t really capable of exploiting the potential weakness. This, however, is not one of those times. The drop-off from Gaines to backup Shareece Wright has been an immense one. It was a major contributing factor to the loss in Cincinnati, Tampa Bay started having a lot of success through the air when he entered the game and it nearly cost them with another loss. Now up against an Oakland Raiders team that finally broke through from a dormant, four-game losing streak with a 400-yard passing game and a 200-yard receiving game from the once-stifled Amari Cooper, the Bills have their hands full in a big way. Making matters worse, there is a legitimate chance that they’ll be without starting safety Jordan Poyer — who has been one of the top players on the Bills roster this season. He’s got a knee injury and didn’t take part in team drills in any capacity throughout the week. While not always a guarantee, not doing that much is usually not a very promising sign. If he can’t play, the Bills will have Trae Elston lined up there — who at least offers some potential as a backup option. Poyer or no Poyer, the Gaines injury is a potential matchup-flipping type that might just be too much for the Bills to overcome — even if they elect to have rookie Tre’Davious White shadow Cooper.
2) Can Tyrod go toe-to-toe with the Raiders offense?
- The Gaines injury is the one that is defining the matchup heading into the game, mostly because it can have an effect on how the game is played down the stretch. If the Raiders have as much success through the air as anticipated, that means Tyrod Taylor and the passing offense might need to play catch up just to keep his team afloat in the game. The trouble is, last week was really the only time that we’ve seen the passing offense get going in a large sense. The upstart Deonte Thompson certainly helped matters with the first 100-yard game by a Bills receiver in 2017. The return of Jordan Matthews also helped the passing offense get a little bit going against Tampa Bay, too. Also in the Bills corner here is the fact that the Raiders are also dealing with multiple injuries in their secondary — to both starting corner David Amerson, and safety Karl Joseph. The big question will be for Taylor and the offense, and whether they can exploit those mismatches — and if they have the receivers — in the same way that the Raiders do. If this ends up being a shootout where the Bills have to rely on the passing attack, this one has the potential to get away from them. However, there is another factor working in the Bills favor…
3) McCoy with another “get right” game on deck
- On Sunday against Tampa Bay, Bills star running back LeSean McCoy finally found some breathing room and turned in his best performance since Week One. And it could have been even better than what we saw, too. McCoy missed two or three cutback lanes throughout the game that could have resulted in even more yardage, and he likely went back and saw the same things we all did as well. He’s gotten so used to having to do everything on his own this season that he was trying to do it against Tampa Bay at times when it wasn’t necessary to. The Buccaneers front-seven was not good, and the Raiders might have a weaker front-seven, which should yield another big day for the Bills running back. If he can control the tempo and keep the Raiders offense off the field, that limits the number of possessions they have, and the potential for how many points they can score in a game. If they can control the game on the ground, you would think their odds of winning this one go up.
4) Accounting for Khalil Mack
- Does anyone recall the last time the Buffalo Bills played the Oakland Raiders? The Bills, at one point, actually had a 24-9 lead — that is, until the Raiders roared back with 29 straight points to win 38-24. During that loss, Khalil Mack needed just two plays to change the game completely — both of which happened in the fourth quarter. The first, a pressure that forced Tyrod Taylor to throw an interception when the game was still in striking distance for the Bills. Then, with under four minutes to play, Mack got in for a strip sack and a fumble recovery to put the game on ice and guaranteeing themselves a victory. Now, does anyone else remember which offensive lineman he was working against? You got it… the same player that still starts at right tackle for the Bills in 2017: Jordan Mills. While the right tackle had a solid outing against Tampa Bay, this is much tougher challenge — and one that is going to require as much help as they can give him throughout the game. If they have to rely on the passing attack to keep up with the Raiders offense, Mack has all the potential to wreck the game again like he did in 2016.
5) Linebackers vs. play action passes
- Over the past two games, there is one thing that has become an increasingly popular problem for the Bills defense: the linebackers overcommitting on play action passes, which leaves offensive players wide open for big plays. Last week, it was especially evident on both touchdowns to tight end O.J. Howard. Lorenzo Alexander got caught too far up towards the offensive line — which the play action by design is supposed to do to an aggressive, downhill run stuffing defense like the one the Bills have. Alexander, not being the most fluid of athletes in coverage, tried to get back to his man but by that point, Howard was gone and celebrating a score. Perhaps the Bills try two-linebacker sets with Preston Brown and Matt Milano — two linebackers that are a little more athletic — rather than Alexander to try and offset some of those problems. Either way, the play action pass is something that will not be going away against the Bills defense until they prove they can be a little bit more resistant to biting on the fakes and selling out to stop the run.
OUT: TE Charles Clay, CB E.J. Gaines, LB Ramon Humber
QUESTIONABLE: S Jordan Poyer, LG Richie Incognito
OUT: CB David Amerson, CB Gareon Conley
DOUBTFUL: S Karl Joseph
Prediction: Raiders over Bills
- While both teams are having their share of injuries in the starting secondary, the Raiders stand to benefit more. Oakland’s methodology to wins this season is certainly not about the defense holding up enough to let the offense squeak by… the offense dictates whether or not the Raiders will win that week. And with the way they performed last week against Kansas City through the air, being on 10 days rest, and going up against that much of a drop-off in production from starter (Gaines) to backup (Wright), I think it’s a little bit too much to overcome. Plus, the Raiders have one of the best offensive lines in the league, which could thwart the pressure the Bills have been able to generate up front. I do believe the Bills will have success offensively in both phases, but I have my doubts that they’ll be able to keep up with how potent the Raiders offensive attack is likely to be. Every game has been close for the Bills thus far this season, but I think this could be one that their opponent runs away with as the game wears on.