Following a somewhat surprising result last weekend in Minnesota against the heavily favored Vikings, the Buffalo Bills hit the road once again for their third away tilt in the first four weeks of the season. This time, the Bills are up against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.
The last time the Bills played in Green Bay — all the way back in 2010 — a rather significant moment happened in their recent history. It was the final start made by former starting quarterback Trent Edwards, and a blowout loss was the precursor to Buffalo starting Ryan Fitzpatrick for the first time and eventually riding the Fitz wave through the 2012 season, while Edwards was released from the roster altogether just a couple of weeks later.
This time around, there won’t be any quarterback controversies as rookie Josh Allen will get his third straight start while hoping to help propel the Bills to a second straight victory. How do they stack up against the Packers?
Five things to watch for as the Bills take on the Packers:
1) Can Daboll continue to manufacture a passing game?
- After two straight weeks of being stifled by the opposing defense, Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll took it upon himself to concoct a game plan for the Minnesota Vikings that aimed at doing a few different things. He used misdirection and pre-snap motion to get his players in space, he stressed to quarterback Josh Allen to get the ball out of his hands much quicker than he had been, and he wasn’t going to allow a lack of separation from the wide receivers on a play-to-play basis to be where the passing game begins and ends. Without a doubt, Daboll was successful in his attempt, while also a tad fortunate along the way thanks to some timely penalties and a pair of turnovers that put the Bills on the doorstep of adding more points. That was the first time we saw Daboll focus his offensive attack around those principles, and all the same, now their next opponents have plenty of evidence to base their defensive attack should the Bills try to do the same things. Daboll might need to continue that trend out of self-preservation, because the wide receivers aren’t winning the routes often enough, and it brings about his rookie quarterback having to hold on to the ball for too long and either going on the run, taking a sack or trying to make something out of nothing with a sometimes ill-advised decision. You have to wonder if the offensive success that the Bills had against the Vikings is a temporary victory. The Bills had just about everything go their way, and the Packers will likely have a game plan to deal with the quick strike attack the Bills looked to employ in Week Three. Daboll’s next game plan will be fascinating to track in the early stages of the game.
2) Keeping an eye on the wide receiver depth chart
- Speaking of the offense, after just three games it’s been easy to see where there is a definite weakness on that side of the ball — and it’s not the offensive line. The answer is at wide receiver — and most notably, the top two on the roster. While it’s still too early into the season to rush to judgment, all the signs up to this point are not good. Zay Jones, the 2017 second-round pick, has received the most snaps on offense of all the wide receivers on the roster. To his credit, Jones is tied for the lead on the team with receptions and is the leader in yards. The problem is, he’s only caught six passes for 106 yards, which looks much less impressive considering one of the catches was a 57-yard reception that he had to double catch to bring in. However, Jones is fading into the background in games and fails to win on his routes consistently — which speaks to his pedestrian numbers. As for Kelvin Benjamin, he also has six receptions on the year, but for only 58 yards — and lest we forget the two drops to his name. Benjamin has been a bonafide disappointment and hasn’t come anywhere close to developing a chemistry with the rookie QB Allen. Just like Jones, he fails to separate from his defender — and now he’s struggling to win contested catches. Interestingly, Benjamin has played only 66.32-percent of the team’s offensive snaps as opposed to Jones’ 79.27-percent. My question is this: How long are the Bills going to wait around for Benjamin to pick it up before they start to give his backups more time. I think Jones is probably immune from this because the Bills invested a high pick in him and will likely give him every opportunity to improve in a year designed for development. With Benjamin, there is no long-term commitment there and with every unremarkable game of his that goes by, the closer we get to the nail in the coffin to the Bills moving on at the end of the season at least. I won't be shocked if the Bills try to trade him at some pointing October ahead of the trade deadline, either. There is a compelling case to be made to get Robert Foster some more snaps on offense because, even if he isn’t completing the play with a catch, he has shown the ability to separate — which is a rarity with the current core of wideouts. The other wide receiver-related item I’ll be keeping an eye on is the snap count of Ray-Ray McCloud. The sixth-round pick received almost 21-percent of snaps in his first game active on game day, and without a true slot receiver on the roster, that could be a number that grows with each passing week. He offers some speed and explosiveness, so it would be worth it to the Bills to see if he can provide a spark to the passing game at all. No matter what, the Bills wide receivers likely won’t have any concrete answers until May of 2019.
3) Full McCoy or more Ivory?
- For the first time in three weeks, the running backs on the roster woke up and had the first noticeable game of the young season. The only trouble is, it was without the headlining act of the running back group. LeSean McCoy had to miss the contest due to an injury to his rib, and told reporters earlier in the week that he would be back against the Packers. All Chris Ivory did, in his most action since signing with the Bills in the offseason, was be one of the critical forces on offense to help them to a victory. Ivory is a decisive runner that hits the hole and doesn’t dance around much. He’s also deceptively proficient in the passing game, showing an innate ability to read the defense and leak out to the weak spot with the quarterback under duress — all while maintaining a natural throwing window for the passer. While McCoy has been able to get loose as a runner a bit more than Ivory, it’s not as though he has been anywhere close to being the game breaker that he has been over the last several years. With McCoy coming off his injury, I would expect his usual hold on the top job in the backfield to be a bit less than usual. Ivory looked the part as a reliable option as both a pass catcher and a pass blocker on third downs, all while taking what the offensive line gives him on the ground. If I were the Bills, I would keep Ivory involved with the game plan and wouldn’t play McCoy more than 55-to-60-percent of the snaps.
4) Who gets the start at cornerback?
- After cornerback Phillip Gaines suffered a dislocated elbow in Week Two, the Bills made the wise decision to make him inactive against the Vikings -- even if he did practice the whole week leading up with an aggressively large brace to keep the injury intact. Now, with a week of practice leading up to the Packers game, the Bills removed Gaines from the injury report completely -- even though he still wears the bulky brace that extends from his mid-forearm to his mid-bicep, with bars in place on each side of the arm. You have to wonder how much that would hold back Gaines from doing the job the way that he usually does, and if that could be a huge weakness for the Bills should they start him against Aaron Rodgers. However, the Bills also have a healthy Ryan Lewis available to them, just a week removed from his first start of the season. Unlike Gaines, Lewis possesses great recovery speed and has a contract situation that the Bills can control for the next three years at least. Not to mention, his elbow isn't being held in place by a brace that is longer than half of an arm. If Gaines' playing level was better in his first two games, I might think about giving him a start in this game. But, he wasn't, and I don't think he should automatically garner the starting job with his injury. If it were me, I would start Ryan Lewis and keep Gaines active in the event of an injury to either an outside corner or at nickel. On Thursday, Lewis took the first rep on that side of the field -- and ahead of Gaines -- during individual drills. I wouldn't read too much into that, but, it's food for thought.
5) Another plus matchup for the pass rush
- If the Bills are going to win games in 2018, we saw their formula for doing so in the Week Three win over Minnesota. The defensive line and front seven set the tempo, generating multiple pressures throughout the game that brought on incompletions, turnovers, and then a great starting spot for the Bills' ensuing offensive drive. The pass rushing ability is paramount to the Bills' operation in 2018, and Jerry Hughes leads that. He was on fire against the Vikings, continuously winning his one-on-one matchup to get in the backfield and bring on great opportunities for the Bills to take the victory home. Going against a good left tackle in David Bakhtiari, Hughes might see some one-on-one opportunities once again -- even if that is entirely ill-advised. Hughes has help from defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and starting defensive end Trent Murphy, as they require attention themselves and sometimes frees up Hughes to work against only one blocker. If the Bills can get to Rodgers, they stand a chance in this game, but the degree of difficulty against an incredible pocket quarterback like him is far beyond anything the Bills have seen so far this season. It all starts up front, so if the Bills want a second straight win, the pass rush will need to play another huge role.
QUESTIONABLE: TE Charles Clay (shoulder, hip), TE Jason Croom (knee), RB LeSean McCoy (rib), RB Marcus Murphy (rib)
OUT: DE Muhammad Wilkerson (ankle)
DOUBTFUL: G Justin McCray (shoulder)
QUESTIONABLE: WR Randall Cobb (hamstring), S Josh Jones (ankle), CB Kevin King (groin), LB Nick Perry (concussion), QB Aaron Rodgers (knee)
Bills Inactives Projection: RB Marcus Murphy, TE Logan Thomas, OT Jeremiah Sirles, G Ike Boettger, G Wyatt Teller, DE Nate Orchard, S Siran Neal
Prediction: Packers over Bills
- From a talent perspective, the Packers aren't quite as gifted on an individual basis as the Vikings were. However, two areas that show a massive improvement from what the Bills were up against last week are two that could completely neutralize what the Bills want to do. Rodgers is a shoe-in to be a Hall of Fame quarterback, and with him going up against either an inexperienced Ryan Lewis or a banged up Phillip Gaines, the quarterback will look to pick that player apart in the way that the Vikings just couldn't. The Packers also have a superior offensive line to what the Vikings had, which will make the central piece to the Bills' formula for winning a huge question mark. Will the Bills be nearly as effective in that area, and if they're not, can the coverage hold up? For those two reasons, I think the Packers have the team to neutralize what the Bills did in Week Three and come away with the victory. I believe it's going to be far tighter than the other two Buffalo losses, but I think it might be a bit too much to ask for another above and beyond type performance from the entire team against an opponent that will likely push for the playoffs in 2018.