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Joe B: 5 things to watch for in Buffalo Bills vs. Detroit Lions (12/16/18)

Posted at 2:18 PM, Dec 15, 2018

(WKBW) — For the first time in several years, the Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions did not face off against one another in the preseason in 2018. Fittingly, though, as one team is eliminated from playoff contention while the other awaits their likely inevitability, a mid-December showdown awaits to reconjure the rivalry.

Above all else, the upcoming Bills-Lions matchup is a swing game for draft order angling. If the Bills lose, with a game against the New England Patriots on the docket, that will lock them into 11 losses at least, which in this year's standings would be a pretty solid bet to be drafting either in or very close to the Top Five. If the Bills win, it puts a six-win season on the table for them, which would most likely drop them into the bottom part of the Top 10, or quite possibly out of it all together.

However, what should you be looking for from a Bills perspective heading into the game? Five things to watch for in Bills vs. Lions:

1) Allen's bounce-back game?
- As compared to some of the games he started early in the 2018 season, the Josh Allen performance against the New York Jets wasn't a terrible one all things considered. However, there were definite moments where Allen needed to be better than he was, and made crucial errors that ultimately led to the demise of the Bills. Now, without Allen, the Bills likely wouldn't have been as close to a victory as they were, either. The prominent examples here are of the three Allen turnovers. The fumble was eventually unavoidable for a quarterback forced into running as much as Allen has, but he could stand to hold the ball with a bit more purpose than he did on the play. However, the two interceptions were inexcusable, and the last of which was a product of Allen trying to do too much at once and forcing a throw as opposed to taking what the defensive coverage dictates. In the final drive against the Miami Dolphins two weeks ago, Allen did a much better job of working the ball down the field in medium-sized chunks as opposed to all at once -- so they know he can do it. Going up against a less talented secondary this week against the Detroit Lions, I think many opportunities exist for Allen to get back to more of the way he played against Miami in taking advantage of the weaknesses of the defense as opposed to trying to be the hero. The Bills also have to give him a lot more help in a couple of critical areas than they have over the last two weeks, but that help might not be on the way until 2019.

2) McCoy's availability -- but does it matter?
- And the running back position -- most notably, LeSean McCoy -- is one of the two most significant areas that need to help Allen a lot more than they have been. McCoy, except for the road game against the New York Jets, has been an effective no-show in the 2018 season. Some of it is not his fault, but the offensive line is not the only reason that the running game hasn't existed for the Bills throughout the season. Coming into the Lions contest, the Bills listed McCoy as questionable due to a hamstring injury -- though the runner has participated in each of the last two practices in a limited capacity. Based on McCoy's track record in dealing with injuries, if he's able to get practices in, he's mostly been good to go. And considering the lack of wins from the upcoming opponents along with his struggles this season, I think that would be a lot of motivation for him to get on the field in trying to rectify his season. If he does play, much like Allen late in the game against the Jets, McCoy can't try to force the issue. I don't think he has the same elusiveness as he once did, which means he needs to shift into taking what the yards that the play provides will be necessary. It's the same reason why it seems that Chris Ivory is the more effective runner at times because Ivory rarely passes up on the hole that's there to instead looking for something bigger. If McCoy helps himself in that way, he could wind up with a solid outing -- even against a team that features some good defensive linemen. It's really up to him, and if he's willing to vary the running style that hasn't worked in unison with the offensive line in front of him in 2018.

3) A shift at tight end?
- The Bills have needed more out of their tight end position, and based on the snap counts last week against the New York Jets, and starter Charles Clay may not have the same hold on the job since joining the team a few years ago. Ahead of the Jets game, for the weeks that Clay has been healthy and active, he has been on the field for the offense on 76.14-percent of snaps available to him. That does not include the Chicago Bears game in Week Nine in which Clay suffered an injury early on that had him sit the remainder of the afternoon. The point is, when Clay has been healthy enough to play, he has been a massive part of the offense regarding being on the field. So, when you see the snap breakdown against the Jets -- mainly when the alternative was only third tight end, Logan Thomas, you have to wonder if the Bills have grown tired of Clay's lack of effectiveness. Against the Jets, Clay received 55.3-percent of the snaps on offense as opposed to the 47.4-percent from Thomas. Considering Clay's hold on the tight end job ahead of that Jets game, getting his snaps chopped down by more than 20-percent is significant. With the young Jason Croom healthy enough to play in Week 15, and with the trust they put in him early on in the season to be the second tight end, you'd have to wonder if the Bills might want to find out about Croom in a more enhanced role -- much like how they are with many of their young players in the lineup. It seems as though the likely ending in the 2019 offseason for Clay is to be released and for the Bills to get out from that terrible contract, and if the snap share from last week is any indication of what's to come over the previous three weeks, it could show the decision has already been made.

4) The plan to replace Milano
- Late in the contest against the New York Jets, with the Bills doing everything they could to keep the opposition out of the end zone in a goal-to-go scenario, weakside linebacker Matt Milano motioned his way into the running lane of Sam Darnold. So much so, that it put him at risk to suffer a gruesome injury -- a broken fibula -- that required both surgery and a premature end to his 2018 season. The loss of Milano in the lineup is a humongous one, as he has been both a revelation in the starting lineup and a steal of a fifth-round selection. And while it doesn't mean a ton regarding the outcome of the season, the Bills will need to hope that the rehab of the injury doesn't have any long-term effects on their young and promising linebacker. So, for the final three weeks, what might the Bills do? I think the most likely of outcomes is for Lorenzo Alexander -- the team's starting strongside linebacker -- to take over as the every-play running mate to middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. Alexander's position is one that primarily comes off the field when the opposition brings a third wide receiver in the game, but with the injury, the Bills likely trust only Alexander to fill that role. When the Bills are in their base defense with three linebackers though, I think we'll see undrafted rookie Corey Thompson get some time on the field at weakside linebacker. With the team's mentality to get young players some time on the field, this is a great opportunity to see if Thompson can play without having to worry about him having to play in close to 100-percent of the defensive snaps. The Bills have always liked Thompson -- so much so that in the final game of the preseason, the Bills barely played Thompson (he had a defensive-low 21-percent of snaps in that game) so they could sneak him on to the practice squad. They get a chance to see how Thompson fares, and at the same time, figuring out if they have some trustworthy youth and depth behind Milano.

5) The offensive line remains the same -- for now
- In what will likely be an infuriating thing for fans, the Bills seem content to keep the offensive line with the same group as what they had in the previous week. When the Bills went through positional drills on Wednesday and Thursday, both right guard John Miller and right tackle Jordan Mills -- the two obvious candidates for a replacement -- remained with the starting five. The Bills did decide last week to activate backup right tackle Conor McDermott for just the second time this season, so perhaps the Bills are open to the idea of getting their young player some time on the field -- much like they did with Wyatt Teller before inserting him into the starting lineup. Considering the injury report, and the Bills having a handful of recently promoted practice squad players now on the active roster, I think there's a chance the Bills dress eight offensive linemen -- which includes both McDermott and backup right guard Ike Boettger. You'd have to think that eventually, as the season winds down and the offensive line play on the right side hasn't shown any improvement, that one or both of those players will get a chance to play at some point.

Injury Report

OUT: CB Ryan Lewis (concussion)
QUESTIONABLE: K Stephen Hauschka (right hip), RB Chris Ivory (shoulder), RB LeSean McCoy (hamstring), TE Logan Thomas (hamstring)

OUT: WR Bruce Ellington (hamstring), DE Da'Shawn Hand (knee), RB Kerryon Johnson (knee), T Rick Wagner (concussion), S Charles Washington (hamstring)
QUESTIONABLE: LB Trevor Bates (ankle), RB Nick Bellore (ankle), CB Marcus Cooper (back), T Taylor Decker (shoulder), LB Devon Kennard (hip), QB Matthew Stafford (back)

Bills Projected Inactives: QB Derek Anderson, RB Keith Ford, WR Da'Mari Scott, TE Logan Thomas, G Vladimir Ducasse, DE Mike Love, CB Ryan Lewis

Prediction: Bills over Lions
- The Bills have been knocking on the door each of the last two weeks, and against an opponent that has both injury concerns and glaring weaknesses that favor the Bills, I like the home team to come away victorious in this one. Against the Lions secondary, Allen will have some opportunities to move the ball down the field as long as he has the time to do so. The interior of the Lions defensive line is their strongest asset and will likely serve up some trouble for the offensive line, but Allen has shown enough in helter-skelter situations over the last three weeks that he can make plays when defenders quickly get into the backfield. On the flip side, I don't know that the Lions have enough offensive firepower to move the ball down the field consistently enough, which ultimately leads me to the Bills coming away victorious -- even if it could ruin their hopes for a potential top three-to-five draft selection. I expect Josh Allen to be a bit smarter in his decisions this week as he's shown the ability to quickly learn from his mistakes from one week to the next. If he does that, that could wind up being the difference between these two sub-par rosters.

Twitter: @JoeBuscaglia

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