In Week Five, the Buffalo Bills caught the favored Tennessee Titans by surprise and wound up getting their second victory of the season. In Week Six, in the midst of their four road game in five slog, the Bills get an AFC South opponent once again in the Houston Texans.
The Texans, like the Bills, enter the game with a 2-3 record after a much-needed victory. How do the two sides match up?
Five things to watch for when the Bills take on the Texans in Houston:
1) The Derek Anderson tutelage begins
- Over the first month of the season, many had clamored for the Bills to sign a veteran quarterback to help rookie quarterback Josh Allen through his first season as a pro. It took a while, but finally, the Bills succumbed to the thinking and brought in Derek Anderson, which is about as perfect as it gets for someone in that role. Why is he so perfect? He is as non-threatening of a backup veteran quarterback that you’re going to find out there. His best playing days are long behind him, and at 35 years old, he understands the role he was brought in to do. He comes across as an incredibly likable and approachable that tries to keep things light for his teammates. On his first day of practice, over the 20 or so minutes I was allowed to watch practice on Wednesday, I saw Anderson go up to and interact positively with just about anyone that he was around. They ranged from Josh Allen to Zay Jones, to Charles Clay, to even someone like practice squad wide receiver Hunter Sharp. It’s clear that when the Bills brought him in, that’s the type of influencer they wanted on the locker room. And so far, for Allen, he’s taking to Anderson as well as they could have hoped early on. Now, let me be clear, I’m of the belief that Anderson was brought in solely to be the sage veteran for Allen to not only learn how to be a professional quarterback and the habits that it takes to do so, but to take the negative moments and have someone to lean on — that has actually been there in situations like the ones he’ll face — to gain even more from those teachable moments. I do not believe that Anderson is an immediate threat to the playing time of Josh Allen. After all, 2018 is about the development of Allen above all else. On Sunday, that begins with that steady voice regularly with him on the sidelines. I wouldn’t be surprised if it even starts on the plane Saturday in that duo sitting next to each other and bonding, because that’s what seems to drive Anderson. As Allen faces two of the toughest front-seven defenders he’ll see all season in J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney, Anderson will be there waiting on the sidelines to help him through all of it. Before Anderson, the Bills didn’t have a single person on staff that took high-level snaps at quarterback, so having that unique voice is what the Bills are hoping is worth its weight in gold. How Allen responds, and how he develops along with that relationship in a tough matchup, will go miles to tell us what the rest of his rookie season will become.
2) Will the Bills limit McCoy’s touches?
- Following the story from the week that their top running back LeSean McCoy could be a trade target for the Philadelphia Eagles, or whoever else, it’s fair to wonder how much it has the Bills thinking as the October 30 trade deadline draws closer. With a 2-3 record, the upcoming game with the Texans has the potential to be a possible fork in the road for the team. Should they win and get to 3-3, they’ve got a somewhat promising matchup with the Indianapolis Colts which could bring on a fourth victory in the first half of the season, which in turn would get them thinking about the playoffs once again. A loss to Houston on Sunday drops them to 2-4, and with the New England Patriots waiting for them in Week 8, the idea of them getting to that same four-win marker by that point becomes increasingly unlikely. And that, for a team that’s thinking about the future as much as any organization in the league, could be all they need to use as a catalyst for trading an asset like McCoy that can yield a player, pick, or both that would factor into their future. Considering all that, and with the most recent success the Bills just had on the ground, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Bills limit McCoy’s touches much more than they did last week — to protect both him and themselves a bit. That thinking is the primary reason why I have Marcus Murphy as a projected active player over wide receiver Robert Foster. Plus, Murphy is now two weeks removed from a ribs injury and Foster only received eight snaps against the Titans. Plus, if the Texans jump out to a big early lead, dressing both Chris Ivory and Murphy gives the Bills the means to protect a potential trade asset in McCoy. Brandon Beane is the type always to attempt to maximize value, and finding a desperate team for an impact running back for a playoff push on a contract that they can snip before next season is quite enticing for a GM that isn’t afraid to make a big move.
3) Tre’Davious White’s biggest test yet in 2018
- Throughout the season, we’ve seen the Bills go away from their thinking when Tre’Davious White was a rookie in dedicating him to only one side, now to using him like a shadow for the opponent’s top target. Over the first five weeks of the season, the only time it didn’t occur was during the Bills’ loss to Baltimore in Week One. Since then, though, it’s been one top target after the next. White has held up to the challenge for the most part, with his only two busts happening against Green Bay’s Davante Adams. This time around, it’s an entirely different beast in one of the best route runners in the game in DeAndre Hopkins. Quarterback Deshaun Watson routinely looks for Hopkins and isn’t afraid to throw it to him in the tightest of windows, and Hopkins has made cornerbacks that shadow him fall prey to his talent all throughout his career. The Bills cannot allow anyone else but White to be lined up against Hopkins. If the Texans find themselves in a Hopkins vs. Phillip Gaines or Ryan Lewis matchup, the throw should immediately be going there no matter the circumstance. The Bills got caught by this on two separate plays with Tennessee’s Corey Davis — and both went for big gains that kept the Titans on the field. It won’t be easy for White, and it’s most likely that Hopkins has a certain degree of success. However, if White can limit him to a handful of catches and keep everything in front of him, I think it will be a success. That will force Watson to use Will Fuller and Keke Coutee to beat the Bills. Fuller is probably the biggest player to watch on Houston’s offense. If lined up against Gaines, that’s an extremely winnable matchup for the young wideout. Even though that matchup exists, I can’t repeat one line of thinking enough. Under no circumstances should anyone but Tre’Davious White be lined up and covering DeAndre Hopkins. If they do, or they switch into it, the Bills are asking for trouble from a mostly dormant offense in 2018 that has the potential to explode through the air.
4) J.J. Watt vs. the right side of the OL
- To this point of the season, the offensive line of the Buffalo Bills has been mostly passable. The strong spot is on the left side of the line with tackle Dion Dawkins and guard Vladimir Ducasse. On the right side, it’s been a different story. Tackle Jordan Mills has had a strong start to his season by his usual standards, but we also know from all his starts through his career about him becoming a potential liability against a great defender. Then, you couple that with an incredibly inconsistent John Miller next to him, it brings even more worries to the tables. Now, add J.J. Watt to the equation, and it could break out all out night sweats. Mostly lining up over the right side of the offensive line, Watt is going to command an automatic double-team of some sort almost every play. Just like the Bills with the notion of putting Gaines or Lewis on Hopkins in the passing game, should Watt be in a one-on-one matchup against either Mills or Miller, that would be the equivalent of asking for a negative play. They could always try to use a one-on-one with the technique to siphon him way back into the backfield, but by now, Watt has seen that strategy against him multiple times. He’s savvy enough to counter it if it gets him a time or two. The left side has enough of a headache on their hands in Clowney, who is every bit of living up to his draft status as a top overall selection. Dawkins will draw Clowney more often than not, and the last time he went up an edge rusher with that sort of skill-set was Cleveland’s Myles Garrett in the preseason, and Garrett got the better of him. With due respect to Garrett, Clowney’s experience and talent right now is way ahead of what Garrett was at that point of his career. The front-seven of the Texans is a legitimate one to fear with the type of playmakers they have. The Bills must adjust accordingly — if that’s possible.
5) Trent Murphy’s performance could be game-shaping
- By now, we know the formula that the Bills have to follow most times to come away with a victory. The defense has to lead the way, win their potential mismatches for much of the game, cause some turnovers, and take the pressure off of the offense from having to come back in games. While the goal is for the offense to have the ability to bounce back from an early deficit, they aren’t there yet. In the Bills’ three losses, the defense allowed two touchdowns in their first three series — and it doomed them all three games from that point forward. Now, to this matchup, where the Bills have to win to have the chance to leave Houston with a victory, the single-biggest advantage for the Bills on defense is at the left defensive end, where Trent Murphy will be lined up against right tackle Kendall Lamm. If there’s something that Lamm struggles with, it’s a quick-footed defender that can get around the edge. His feet aren’t nearly quick enough to deal with it, and it’s a breeding ground for wins with a bend, or even with a counter move to the inside when his feet get too far in front of his body. Murphy has the ability to both of those things, and even if he doesn’t come away with a sack, he needs to influence the pocket enough to give Jerry Hughes and the defensive tackles a better chance to bring down the quarterback. There are two things that I think to be true about the Texans. One, I believe their offensive line is better than they’re given credit. Two, while he’s an exciting young quarterback that is an effective passer, Watson tends to hold on to the ball a bit longer than some other quarterbacks, which likely negatively impacts the first point. If Murphy can win his matchup against Lamm enough, that could be the Bills’ best hope for having their defense lead the way as they did against Minnesota and Tennessee, but this is a tough matchup all the way through.
OUT: CB Aaron Colvin (ankle), LB Brian Peters (ankle)
QUESTIONABLE: QB Deshaun Watson
Projected Inactive Players: QB Derek Anderson, WR Robert Foster, T Conor McDermott, G Wyatt Teller, G Ike Boettger, CB Dontae Johnson, S Siran Neal
Prediction: Texans over Bills
- From an on-field perspective, the matchup with the Texans is tilted much more in the opponents’ favor than it was for the Titans against the Bills last week. In most places that the Bills have a great player working for them, the Texans have an answer for that. On the flip side, with the Texans big players, the Bills don’t have as many answers. The two biggest matchups in the Bills’ favor, at least to me, is Trent Murphy against right tackle Kendall Lamm, along with former 2017 Bills cornerback Shareece Wright (remember him?) who is starting in place of the injured Aaron Colvin. Given the Texans’ prowess in their front seven, it would be a fascinating look to see the rookie Josh Allen try to attack a weaker cornerback than Wright who is susceptible to double moves. I would line up Zay Jones against Wright for most of the game, and with Jones starting to pop a bit more over the last two games as a route runner, it gives him every opportunity to continue that success. The trouble is, the Bills’ passing game is as inconsistent as you’ll find in the NFL, so even a plus-matchup like that one can’t be fully depended. Through all of it, I think the Texans have more talent on their roster and explosive playmakers to help flip this matchup on its head. Add in the fact that the Bills are on the road, and I don’t like their chances to pull off another road win. I’ve got the Texans in this one, and I don’t think the 10-point line in Vegas is an egregious one. This is a talented Texans roster that has underperformed in 2018, though I think they could be a monster lying in wait. I don’t know if it will be this week that they put it all together, but they have enough pieces to be a real contender for the playoffs in 2018. At the very least, I think the Bills will find a tough time finding a win in Houston.