One week ago, the Buffalo Bills had a chance at a .500 record through six weeks with a rookie quarterback at the helm. That would have been a tremendous accomplishment given how the season began.
One week later, rookie quarterback Josh Allen suffered a sprained elbow on his throwing arm which will cause him to miss at least this week if not more, all while watching their other young quarterback implode at the end of the game. The Bills lost, bringing their record to 2-4 on the season, and now have the 35-year-old Derek Anderson listed as their starter heading into Week Seven.
What might it all look like, and where are the biggest matchups for the Bills against the Indianapolis Colts?
Five things to watch for when the Bills and Colts face off at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday:
1) Bills strength on offense is also the Colts strength on defense
- The situation for the Bills on offense hasn’t been ideal for much of the season. A seeming lack of talent on that side of the ball has held them back, and the offense is widely considered to be the worst in the NFL. If that much wasn’t “ideal,” then adding a 35-year-old backup quarterback — that didn’t sign with the Bills until last Tuesday — to the starting equation makes this into a full blown panic mode situation for fans. So, when teams primarily have to rely on a quarterback that doesn’t fully know the playbook, most times they’ll look to depend on the running game. And for the Bills, that’s great -- in theory, at least. LeSean McCoy has played well in recent weeks and is, without question, their top player on offense even at the ripe age of 30. However, when you watch the Colts on film, you’ll see a front-seven that has played well against the run. In the middle of the defensive line is Al Woods who usually plays on the nose. Woods brings a lot of power to his game, and as predisposed to being pushed back into the backfield by power as Bills’ starting center Russell Bodine is, doesn’t make for a great situation for the Bills. The Colts will also have Margus Hunt returning to the lineup this weekend to pair with Jabaal Sheard at defensive end, and both have played the run well. Then, on the second level, rookie weakside linebacker Darius Leonard is a fast reactor and possesses the athleticism to get to the running lane, gets skinny to fight past the block, and then makes the play. Middle linebacker Anthony Walker has also flashed against the run. The offensive line for the Bills did not play well against the Houston Texans, and I think the Colts have an underrated group to give them some problems in stuffing the run. While it’s fair to expect McCoy to break some runs just because of his exceptional ability to make people miss, the Colts are likely going to load up the box with a good front seven, and dare the Bills to beat them through the air.
2) Derek Anderson might need to throw it a bunch
- That’s where the jovial Derek Anderson comes in, who went into cram mode since Sunday night to prepare for his first NFL start since 2016. The Bills will look to Anderson, above all else, to steady the ship and be a calming influence for a fledgling offense that hasn't been able to move the ball consistently all season. And with the potential pitfalls the Bills may face when trying to run the ball, that could put a more significant workload on Anderson than the Bills may have originally wanted. The good news for the Bills is that they can have some success through the air if Anderson has picked up enough to this point. I'm not expecting the Bills to try and push the ball deep down the field with Anderson, but I do believe they can exploit a weakness in the game of the young linebacker Leonard. Though quite impressive, I've seen him get a little too ahead of himself on play-action attempts, which opens up the middle of the field a bit more. The middle area is where tight end Charles Clay wins on his routes the most, so I wouldn't be surprised to see Anderson look his way early and often on those play-action attempts, and even regularly as well. The wide receivers can also do some damage from the outside, particularly against cornerback Nate Hairston. I think that's a spot for Zay Jones to be able to win, too. I know how it reads, seeing as how the Bills have to rely on an aspect of their offense that hasn't worked the entire season. However, for the Bills to win this game, I genuinely believe Anderson has to have enough success through the air to take advantage of the biggest weaknesses of the Colts defense.
3) Andrew Luck will test the secondary
- It’s been an incredibly long road back for Andrew Luck, and for a while, I’m sure most were worried if he could get back to the top flight NFL prospect that he was ahead of his injury. In his first season back from the injury Luck has slowly progressed, and even with an injured and underperforming stable of skill players around him, the quarterback provides plenty of evidence to suggest that he still has what it takes to be successful. He stands tall in the pocket, scans the field, manipulates defenders with his eyes, and isn’t afraid to fit the ball into a tight window. The Colts are allowing him to push the ball down the field more now than at the beginning of the season, which means they recognize that he is their primary asset on offense. The Colts removed top wide receiver T.Y. Hilton from the injury report, so it appears that he’ll be involved in the offense at least in a limited capacity. However, even if he’s out there to be a decoy for the Bills top cornerback Tre’Davious White, I think Luck will look to attack starting cornerback Phillip Gaines on the outside, and the linebackers over the middle of the field as much as possible. Rookie linebacker Tremaine Edmunds has improved in coverage as the season has gone on, but is still susceptible to drift where the quarterback is looking initially. That is one of the strengths of Luck, and it’s why I believe he can have some success even against a high-powered defense like the Bills have shown to be over the last month. The Bills will provide pressure on him, but I do not doubt Luck’s ability to do just enough to help them secure a victory.
4) Bills must put pressure on center Ryan Kelly
- In the Bills’ Week Six loss to the Houston Texans, we saw the Bills make a concerted effort to attack the offensive tackles in different ways to throw them off. Whether it was with a straight rush, or a stunt to get a defensive tackle wide, most things the Bills did were working on them. However, after watching the Colts, I think this time around should be a more internally based attack for the defensive line. The primary person to go after, at least to me, is center Ryan Kelly, who is a little too bendy at the waist for my liking. That throws off a player’s balance, creating opportunities for the defender to either rip him down or to get him on his toes so much that a counter move will get the job done, too. So I look to both Star Lotulelei and Harrison Phillips for the Bills as the players that can provide the most pocket disharmony for Andrew Luck if they get those one-on-one matchups with Kelly. I would expect the Colts to try to have the center as a part of a double-team as much as possible, but when those solo matchups arise, the Bills must take advantage to make it harder on Luck and to make sure the Colts sub-par rushing attack doesn’t establish itself.
5) A role on offense for Cam Phillips?
- In the middle of the practice week, the Bills made a move to call up undrafted rookie receiver Cam Phillips from the practice squad, replacing Robert Foster who previously had a sizable role in the offense early in the season. Most times a call-up to the main roster is indicative of a rash of injuries at a position, but that’s not the case here. Dating back to the summer, Phillips has impressed every step of the way. I genuinely believe that had Phillips not suffered an injury early into the preseason, there was a legitimate chance he would have made the roster ahead of Foster. Since that time, Phillips has done all the right things in the background, staying late after practice every day to work on routes and also committing the playbook to memory. Head coach Sean McDermott gave Phillips a high compliment by mentioning that he always knows where to be when to be there within the offense. With all of that written, and with both Foster and rookie Ray-Ray McCloud failing to make an impact, don’t be surprised to see Phillips with a more prominent role than you’d expect to see a recently called up player from the practice squad. The wide receivers desperately need a boost somewhere, and Phillips could provide that. No matter how many snaps he gets, he has to produce — or at the very least be where he’s supposed to — and if he does, there is a role on this offense ripe for the picking for any receiver that shows a spark. I’m not expecting him to start, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get anywhere from 10-20 snaps. Keep an eye on number-87.
OUT: QB Josh Allen (right elbow), RB Taiwan Jones (neck)
OUT: DT Denico Autry (hamstring), TE Jack Doyle (hip), S Clayton Geathers (concussion, neck), WR Ryan Grant (ankle), RB Robert Turbin (shoulder)
QUESTIONABLE: CB Arthur Maulet (hip), CB Chris Milton (hamstring), TE Erik Swoope (knee)
Bills Projected Inactives: QB Josh Allen, RB Taiwan Jones, T Conor McDermott, G Wyatt Teller, G Ike Boettger, CB Ryan Lewis, CB Dontae Johnson
- After getting burned by special teams last week, I’m anticipating a bit over an over-correction to get Julian Stanford, who has received 70.41-percent of special teams snaps in games the Bills have made him active. With Rafael Bush a bit healthier and having the ability to play nickel corner in a pinch, the Bills can feel comfortable in making both Ryan Lewis and Dontae Johnson inactive to try and get their special teams back on track.
Prediction: Colts over Bills
- The Colts are the heavy favorites at home, and for a good reason. The Bills have done next to nothing on offense all year, and it has spoiled two great defensive performances over the last month. The defense will undoubtedly play a substantial role in this game, but my primary concern for the Bills is quite rudimentary. They have a quarterback that has only participated in six practices with the team that’s about to start a game for them. Then when you mix in a few things, it becomes tough to envision a Bills win. First, most of the Bills’ strengths will be up against strengths of the Colts (running the ball on offense, putting pressure on the quarterback on defense). Second, a Colts strength is up against a Bills weakness (passing the ball versus Gaines and Edmunds). Third, the Colts primary weakness (pass coverage) doesn't appear to be one the Bills can exploit. Most of the matchup sways into the Colts direction, and that's even before you calculate the Derek Anderson factor into the equation. Injuries have ravaged this Colts team, and they look much better on film than a team with a 1-5 record. I think the Bills defense will keep it close, but in the end, I think the Colts get the win at home.