Joe B: 5 things to watch for in Buffalo Bills vs. Baltimore Ravens (9/9/18)

(WKBW) - At long last, the day we've all been waiting for is here. The Buffalo Bills will officially kick off their 2018 regular season by taking on the very team that they stole a playoff bid from with the help of Andy Dalton and company.

The Bills take on the Baltimore Ravens in what is sure to be a litmus test game -- just as most contests in Week One represent. While you usually have a good handle on who these teams are within the confines of their depth chart after a summer of work, they're strengths and weaknesses start to emerge with the first game of the season.

So, what can we expect from the Bills in their first regular season game of the year, and how do they match up with the Ravens? Five things to watch for in the game:

1) A different Nathan Peterman?
- The last regular season memory many around the country have of Nathan Peterman has nothing to do with his actual previous start, but instead the game in which he made national headlines for all the wrong reasons. We all know full well what happened against the Los Angeles Chargers last season in Peterman's first start, but the Bills are banking on that version of their starting quarterback being the anomaly. The game that many don't associate with Peterman, mainly because he was injured halfway through it, was the snow game against the Indianapolis Colts later in the season. Through the conditions, Peterman was instrumental in getting the Bills their first touchdown of the game and had them in the driver's seat for the majority of the contest. Peterman then suffered a concussion, and Joe Webb took it from there. To this day, head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane don't believe that Peterman gets enough credit for that game, nor do they think that the Chargers game was an accurate representation of what Peterman is. If the summer was any indication, the Peterman we'll see on Sunday is one that has a good command of the offense by hitting receivers in stride over the middle, and will also take some chances down the field. But, Peterman is also a player that lacks the arm strength necessary to make some of the throws that come naturally to other quarterbacks in the league, which is why it remains a matter of when, not if, that Josh Allen gets into the lineup during the 2018 season. However, for the game against the Baltimore Ravens and the tough defense that they have, this will be a real test to see how far Peterman has come in his development, and if that game in Los Angeles can just become a distant memory. 

2) We'll find out about the OL... and quickly
- The offseason was unkind to the Bills along the offensive line, both from an unexpected and self-inflicted standpoint. Three separate offensive linemen that played a lot of snaps for the Bills in 2017 -- Cordy Glenn, Eric Wood, and Richie Incognito -- are now no longer a member of the team which has left the remaining players in a significant rebuild effort with that group. The bright spot is Dion Dawkins, who showed real signs of improvement both as the 2017 season went along and then into the summer at training camp and the preseason. His matchup with pass rusher Terrell Suggs will be a great test for how far he's come in his development. The rest of the line has plenty of questions. On the right side, the Bills have a starting five of players that all were on the team's roster last season which could help them in their overall cohesion. However, based on what we witnessed last season, the right side of the line specifically could be a massive area of concern. Right guard John Miller has struggled in two of his three seasons in the NFL -- however, the other one, his second year, he showed incredible signs of promise. Right tackle Jordan Mills has been fortunate through the years that the Bills have had more pressing needs to address. Injuries have gone in his favor to where his starting spot wasn't in jeopardy (see: Dawkins filling in for the injured Glenn after initially being drafted to play RT), and not to mention that the players they tried to sign ended up going elsewhere (see: Ricky Wagner choosing Detroit over Buffalo). Mills has been a below average starter for years in Buffalo but has been just good enough to where they didn't feel the strong need to replace him as a total weakness of the operation. No matter how you slice it, the starting five will have their hands full with a Baltimore Ravens defense that boasts high-quality talents in their front seven. They control the pace of play up front, which allows the linebackers in their 3-4 scheme to shine. While it's a big day for Peterman in erasing the stigma that followed him all offseason, he'll need the help of a unit that is still trying to find their way, which could lead to some unexemplary results in Week One.

3) It's all on McCoy
- The Bills enter the 2018 season with their hopes on offense closely tied to the now 30-year-old runner LeSean McCoy. The best case scenario for them, in the Ravens game in particular, would be for McCoy to mask the deficiencies of the offensive line as he has throughout much of his career. Sunday will also be the first time that we get to see McCoy ramp it up in 2018. McDermott has been quick to point out his belief that the veteran running back is both faster and stronger, but there is a difficulty in testing the accuracy of those claims while just in training camp practices and briefly in the preseason. Up front, both nose tackle Michael Pierce and defensive end Brandon Williams are a load to deal with, and they'll be the ones clogging lanes and setting the table for linebacker C.J. Mosley. It'll be a tall order for McCoy to set the pace against the front seven of the Ravens defense, but if he's the player that we've come to know, there is always that chance. McCoy has a way of reading the play and using his unique athleticism to push it up the field for more yards than you'd often expect given the circumstances. If the Bills wind up winning this game, McCoy will have to be an integral part.

4) First test up front for the new Bills' defensive line
- In the offseason, the Bills put three substantial offseason resources into fixing what ailed them along the defensive line in 2017. Both at defensive tackle and defensive end, the Bills lacked a real consistency in defending against the run and in rushing the passer. Enter free agent signings Star Lotulelei and Trent Murphy, along with third-round draft pick Harrison Phillips. On paper, the Bills improved in that area, and it will go a long way in determining if this defense can reach the potential they believe that they have. However, they all have much to prove individually to get this thing heading in the right direction. Can Trent Murphy shake off all his injuries and be the pass rusher that flashed in the 2016 season, thereby taking some pressure off Jerry Hughes on the other side? Speaking of Hughes, if Murphy helps him along those lines, can he put up the numbers he did a few years ago in Buffalo, or are his best years behind him? As for Kyle Williams, how much longer does he have as a productive player at defensive tackle, and will Father Time start to lessen his impact in the 2018 season? Those questions will need answers as time passes. As for Week One, the defensive line's matchup with the Ravens is one that is winnable for the Bills. At right guard (Alex Lewis), center (Matt Skura), and right tackle (James Hurst), the Ravens have some areas to attack from the Bills' perspective, and that should help them get the defensive season off to a good start. Anything less against this Ravens offensive line would likely be a disappointment.

5) Who starts at cornerback?
- The secondary of the Buffalo Bills is a strength heading into the season in most of the spots in the base defense. The safety pairing of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer was one of the most productive in the NFL in 2017, and Tre'Davious White took his rookie season by storm, which has led him to be one of the most highly well-thought of young defenders in the league. They'll be a strength once again for the Bills, particularly on Sunday against the Ravens and a seemingly lackluster passing attack. However, if there is one cause for concern, it's with who starts at right cornerback. Vontae Davis has not looked like the player that he once was in the NFL, which has led to the Bills question his starting role with the team. Davis went from a locked in, no-doubt-about-it starter to now being in an ongoing starting battle with veteran journeyman Phillip Gaines. You can take this for what it's worth, but at practice during the week, I saw Gaines lined up with the first-team defensive backs during individual drills. Now, that could only have been one day, or maybe they divvied up the reps during the team drills that the media can't see any longer, but it's at least something to go by for the time being. Either way, that's a spot that teams will likely try to exploit until one of those players prove that they can be dependable for the Bills defense. If it's Davis on the field, I'd expect to see the Ravens use the speedy John Brown against him since Davis showed difficulty dealing with speed in the preseason. If It's Gaines in the lineup, perhaps going with the more physical and tactician of a wideout in Michael Crabtree would stand to benefit them the most. And while the Ravens' passing attack isn't close to what it used to be, Joe Flacco can still push the ball down the field and force the issue with the Bills. McDermott and company need one of Davis or Gaines to step it up.

Injury Report
Buffalo
OUT: WR Ray-Ray McCloud (knee)
QUESTIONABLE: LB Julian Stanford (nose)

Baltimore
OUT: DT Willie Henry (abdomen), TE Hayden Hurst (foot)
QUESTIONABLE: CB Maurice Canady (thigh), LB Kenny Young (knee)

Bills inactives prediction: WR Ray-Ray McCloud, WR Robert Foster, OT Conor McDermott, G Wyatt Teller, LB Julian Stanford, CB Ryan Lewis, S Siran Neal

Prediction: Bills over Ravens
- In what is forecasted to be a rainy, sloppy day, this has all the makings of just a grind-it-out, defensive slugfest. When looking at the matchup, there's nothing that stands out about the Ravens that make you think that this is going to be a slam dunk against the Bills, even though Buffalo took a step back offensively in a lot of different areas. Points will be at a premium in this game, and the first team to 17 might just be the victors. I'm taking the Bills in this game mostly due to the defense. I think the Bills defensive line will play well against the Ravens offensive line which can help nullify the Alex Collins-led rushing attack, and the safety play of the Bills will be instrumental in trying to get an interception-prone Flacco to cough the ball up. On offense, there's an element of surprise here for offensive coordinator Brian Daboll because the Ravens have no idea what to expect from him with this group of offensive personnel -- and that might be the edge one of these teams need to pull through with a victory. The game might be ugly and one you'll never want to think about again, but it's one I think the Bills can win.

Twitter: @JoeBuscaglia

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