Following their bye weekend, the Buffalo Bills return to New Era Field to try and make it two wins in a row -- and this time around it will feel a lot differently. The mere presence of just one player changes the entire outlook of the upcoming contest with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Bills will have rookie quarterback Josh Allen back in the lineup for the first time since suffering an elbow sprain on his throwing arm in mid-October. Since Allen represents the future, the Bills will resume the most crucial piece to their 2018 season by having Allen back in the lineup.
They also have a matchup with a team that has performed way below expectations in 2018 -- and the team that defeated them in the 2017 playoffs, too. Can the Bills get another victory and further add to the frustration of the Jaguars?
Five things to watch for in Bills vs. Jaguars:
1) What's fair to expect of Allen?
- When the Bills take the field on Sunday, Josh Allen will have a tough challenge ahead of him against a good defense that can shut down a solid offensive attack. And when they're going up against a team that just recently found its legs on offense for the first time in over a month that will be starting a quarterback that hasn't played in the same amount of time, what is the best case scenario for the Bills? More than anything, you'd like to see some improvement in the areas that led him to some struggles during his pre-injury starting stint. It's almost as though this is a blank slate for Allen, with so much time in between his first set of starts to now, to nearly recreate what his rookie season will be defined by over these last six weeks. Among the parts of his game that bears watching the most, his ability to stay in the pocket and operate the passing offense without leaving it too prematurely is atop the list. That also gets tied closely to his recognition skills and the ability to read the defense on the fly, to process the right decision for that given play. This game is not going to be an easy matchup for Allen to walk into as his first game back. The rookie will be up against one of the top cornerback duos in the NFL — led by one of the best in the game in James Ramsey. Allen better get comfortable with throwing into tight windows. Otherwise it might be a long day for the passing offense
2) Wide receiver rotation bears watching
- The last time we saw the Bills, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll made some notable changes with their rotation at wide receiver, and it would be fair to expect for that to continue again. As the Bills have effectively entered into the ‘play the youth to get more experience’ mode with six games to go in the season, the snap counts for the young players they see something in will likely see a similar role at least, if not an enhanced one. With the Bills choosing to release Terrelle Pryor, he and his 40-percent of snaps likely will transfer over to the newly signed Deonte Thompson. Besides that, Robert Foster should keep his role, and perhaps even have some of his time on the field cut into Kelvin Benjamin’s, seeing as how Foster made more of an impact on two plays than the veteran Benjamin has for much of the season. I think the one big change we could see is a bigger workload for Isaiah McKenzie, considering his impact on just a handful of snaps. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get some of the snaps designated for Ray-Ray McCloud — the rookie sixth-round pick that has just blended into the background many of the times he’s been on the field on offense. No matter what, the Bills owe it to themselves to continue giving the youth a chance to show them that they can have a role moving forward.
3) Big test for the Bills young LBs
- Considering the team they’re about to go up against, the Bills know that their run defense will need to lead the way. Just last week, Jacksonville had no qualms about taking the ball away from quarterback Blake Bortles and instead choosing to put the ball into the arms of Leonard Fournette, TJ Yeldon, or Carlos Hyde on a running play. It was almost comical at times as to how much they ran the ball rather than to throw it, but that’s how they’ve chosen to deal with their quarterback situation. That means the players that are facing the most pressure to shut down the Jacksonville attack the most will be linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano. The Jaguars will surely go with heavy formations to try and churn out yardage against a stacked box, which makes it of the utmost importance for Edmunds and Milano to not get covered up by a blocker at the second level, and to instead either get skinny and fill the running lane, or to keep the defender off their pads with the intention to disengage and fill the running lane as soon as the rusher gets to it. Milano has been an outstanding weapon on defense for most of the season and Edmunds has undoubtedly come along as well, but they’ll need both on top of their game all afternoon. Additionally, don’t be surprised to see the Jaguars attack the defensive ends with Blake Bortles as a runner, especially with how much success they had against the Bills in the playoffs last year. Though, an experienced and intuitive linebacker duo will help those efforts quite a bit as well.
4) Keeping an eye on the left defensive end
- Speaking of those defensive ends, the Bills need Shaq Lawson and Trent Murphy both to help set the edge versus the wide runs, but also to help take pressure off of one another. At this point, both players are listed as questionable, though every indication that we’ve had to this point was that Lawson is likely to be available to the Bills. However, Murphy is a bit more up in the air having missed multiple games because of an injury. With two legitimate injuries, having both available to limit the workload of one another is a fairly substantial part to this matchup — considering that both are plus-run defenders going against a run-heavy offense. If both are available, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Lawson get the start, with Murphy mixing in as he works back from injury, and with Lorenzo Alexander getting some time at left end as well.
5) More OL changes on the way?
- Offensively, the Bills are also going to rely on their rushing attack to get them ahead, but they’ll be working against a front seven that’s as capable as any in the NFL. That means this is quite the proving ground of a game for two members of the offensive line: right tackle Jordan Mills and right guard John Miller. Both players have had their fair share of struggles this season, which have put both on the radar for potential replacement — especially considering the youth movement at many other starting positions on the team. In tackle Conor McDermott and guard Ike Boettger, the Bills have young players that they’ve felt strongly enough about to hang on to and develop in the background. And both of those players are at their best at the positions currently held by Mills and Miller. If the Jaguars defensive line exhibit a strong showing versus the current right side, that could be all the Bills need to give one of their other young offensive linemen a look with the starters.
OUT: QB Derek Anderson (concussion)
DOUBTFUL: TE Charles Clay (hamstring)
QUESTIONABLE: C Russell Bodine (shoulder), CB Taron Johnson (shoulder), DE Shaq Lawson (elbow), DE Trent Murphy (knee)
OUT: WR DJ Chark (quadricep), DE Lerentee McCray (hamstring), CB Quenton Meeks (knee), G Josh Walker (foot, ankle)
QUESTIONABLE: DT Eli Ankou (calf), G AJ Cann (hamstring), DT Marcell Dareus (back)
Bills Projected Inactives: QB Derek Anderson, WR Ray-Ray McCloud, TE Charles Clay, G Vladimir Ducasse, G Ike Boettger, T Conor McDermott, LB Corey Thompson
Prediction: Jaguars over Bills
- This Jaguars contest is one of those games that coming into the year you wouldn’t think twice about the outcome, but the results of the season heavily impacted the feelings about the game coming into the week itself. Jacksonville has performed well below the expectations set for them ahead of the season. The quarterback position has held them back significantly, which has paved the way for a disappointing 3-7 start to the season. I think these two rosters have a lot in common, but where I think Jacksonville will ultimately gain the advantage is in their stubbornness in sticking with the ground game as opposed to the Bills who will want to see their rookie quarterback learn as a passer. The Jags have no reservations about taking the ball out of the hands of Bortles, which oddly enough might give them a leg up between two teams that have similar strengths and weaknesses. Jacksonville will have a plan for the rookie Allen to make him uncomfortable, and the types of playmakers on defense to follow through with it. If Allen can rise above and lead the team to a win with some positive play through the air, it will be one of the most formative games for him in his rookie season against the best defense he’ll face the rest of the way.