Losers of their last two games in blowout fashion, the Buffalo Bills are back at it on Sunday — albeit all the way on the other side of the country, and with as big of a change as you could make in the middle of the season. By now, you know the news: rookie quarterback Nathan Peterman will make his first career NFL start on Sunday, replacing Tyrod Taylor.
It’s a game that has a lot of eyes on it from Bills fans wanting to see Peterman in a real-game setting that matters, and for the Bills, it’s a tremendous opportunity to get back on the winning track. If they come away victorious, they can also bury one potential AFC Wild Card competitor in the Chargers, and basically make it so they’d have to win out to have a prayer at the postseason.
Can the switch to Peterman help the Bills get back in the win column? Five things to watch for on Sunday:
1) A successful day for Peterman defined
- The clamoring of a growing contingent of fans was answered by head coach Sean McDermott on Wednesday, when the team announced Nathan Peterman as the new starting quarterback. It was a shocking announcement purely for the timing alone, considering they’re sitting in a Wild Card spot with a 5-4 record. However, the Bills believe they can become a more efficient offense with Peterman. And whether you believe it to be the right or wrong approach, they clearly believe Peterman is a better fit to run Rick Dennison’s offensive scheme. So, what makes Sunday a success for Peterman? To me, it’s mostly about the eye test. The box score is all well and good, and if he ends up with a 250-yard day or more people will cling to that. However, it’s about so much more than just yards — or even getting the victory. It’s his first audition for the Bills and their fans in the ever-evolving decision about what to do with the quarterback position in the offseason. So, keeping that angle in mind, I’d like to see him do some things that we weren’t accustomed to with Taylor. He threw a few passes with anticipation on Sunday against the Saints, and with the receiver not yet open. He also tried to fit a pass into a much tighter window than Taylor did. Now, these will be nice to see just because it’s different, but these are two traits of a pocket passer that is fairly commonplace for starting quarterbacks. Heck, even Blake Bortles does that. I want to see how he’ll respond to pressure coming from all angles — because with this opponent and their pass rush, we’re bound to see it happen. Will he curl up and brace for contact, or will he maneuver the pocket and climb up, or even step into the throw and take a hit? And when he does, what will that do to his accuracy? Furthermore, we need to see if he’s going to play confidently, or if he’s going to look like a scared rookie trying not to make a mistake. There were some errant throws in both the preseason and during garbage time against the Saints. Can he limit those, so as to not completely thwart the Bills’ efforts on offense? And lastly, will Peterman go through his progressions and avoid becoming a pre-snap read player, or will he settle into what Dennison dictates and dump it down if it’s not there? These are all legitimate questions Peterman has to answer. Now, I don’t think you need to see this all at once in an all-encompassing and consistent performance from start to finish. If we did, that would be a strong opening statement from a fifth-round pick. Really, what he needs to show are flashes of doing all those things at different points of the game. Flashes will go a long way into the Bills’ eventual quarterback decision in the offseason, which I’m sure is his long-term goal in the NFL. And as long as he’s not truly terrible and keeps the offense afloat, they should have an opportunity to win this game. This is going to be fascinating to see how it all plays out. I’m really interested to track his progress over the last seven weeks of the 2017 regular season. Let the evaluation process begin.
2) A get right day for the run defense?
- While the offense didn’t do many favors for the Bills over the last two weeks, they were not the sole reason as to why the Bills were blown out. The defense earned an equal share of the blame, allowing both the New York Jets and New Orleans Saints to run all over them. The play of the middle of the defense has been brutal the last two weeks, and that starts with the defensive tackles. Kyle Williams is their best player at the position, and he played the worst game I’ve seen him play since I’ve been grading film for the past four or five seasons. He needs to be a lot better, and I think he might have the matchup to do it. He’s the type of player where if he gets into the pads of a longer-limbed guard or center, he has a bevy of moves to take the leverage advantage and control the play. I believe he’ll have those opportunities against Chargers right guard Kenny Wiggins, a longer-limbed guard that has shown the proclivity to get beaten by a shorter-armed defender like Williams. And then on the other side at defensive tackle, the duo of Adolphus Washington and Cedric Thornton have a plus-matchup against the center and left guard of the Chargers line. Both players, the center Spencer Pulley and the left guard Dan Feeney, are a bit short-armed and struggle with longer defenders — which is just what Washington and Thornton are. While the Bills’ pair has really struggled with holding their ground the last two weeks, they can use their upper arm strength and length to force the issue against the pass and the run. I do like Feeney as a player, and I believe he’s got some potential to be a really good player — it’s just not consistent enough at the moment. Now, this will all be a moot point if the play of the linebackers was as horrid as it was against New Orleans. All three — Preston Brown, Ramon Humber, and Lorenzo Alexander played incredibly poorly and graded out as some of the worst players on the field Sunday. I think both Brown and Humber can bounce back, but they’ll need to be much better at securing tackles, and most importantly, getting off their blocks. The latter was a key reason why the Saints were running at will on the Bills. However, Alexander getting as much time on the field in that strongside linebacker role is a concern. He’s a solid downfield run defender and effective as a pass rusher, but if he has to change direction in the open field — or even down at the line of scrimmage when a runner changes course, it hasn’t been pretty. It continues to mystify me as to why rookie Matt Milano isn’t getting more time on the defensive side of the ball more. In his time on the field, he has been their best linebacker and represents a future starter at an outside linebacker position. With how much Alexander is struggling, my proposal would be to put Milano at his position, and allowing Alexander to chip in as a pass rusher on passing downs, and utilize his skills as a special teams player. That small switch could do a lot for this team in their hopes to stop the run against this team.
3) Potentially a full stable of WRs for the first time
- Well would you look at that… just in the nick of time for the rookie Peterman to make his first career start in the NFL, he’ll likely do so with something Tyrod Taylor didn’t have once as a starting quarterback in 2017: a full stable of receivers after the Kelvin Benjamin trade. Benjamin will be on the field, rookie Zay Jones will make his return after a one-week absence due to injury, and although questionable, it seems like Jordan Matthews will play as well. Then they have Deonte Thompson to filter in at times, with Andre Holmes potentially helping out in the red zone. Taylor had a list of strengths as the Bills starting quarterback, but utilizing all of his receivers — or at times, any of them — has not been a strong suit in two-and-a-half years. That’s where Peterman has to show a stark difference in getting the Benjamin, Matthews, and Jones trio going. I’d assume we see the first two as the receivers in the base offense, and when they go to three wideouts we’ll likely see Jones come in with Matthews shifting inside to the slot. I’m especially interested to see how the Bills utilize Benjamin with Peterman at the helm. He targeted Benjamin 3 times on just 10 passing plays near the end of the Saints game. Benjamin wins in the short and intermediate areas with possession catches, and that’s something Peterman will need to take advantage of to keep the Chargers away from the line of scrimmage and going all in on stopping the run.
4) Bosa and Ingram are the headliners, but watch out for…
-…The answer, ladies and gentlemen, is defensive tackle Corey Liuget. We all know about the combination of edge rushers that the Chargers boast in right end Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. Bosa is strong, and an excellent container of the edge, and effects the pocket by forcing his man back into it. Ingram is the more quick-twitch edge rusher and can wreak havoc even when double-teamed. Right tackle Jordan Mills (mostly vs. Bosa) and left tackle Dion Dawkins (mostly vs. Ingram) will have their hands full and will need help. And when they get that help, the third man to fear is Liuget, and he’s likely to see a lot of one-on-one matchups because of his edge rushing teammates. Right guard Vladimir Ducasse has played above average in most of his starts for the Bills, but if the choice is between him, center Eric Wood, and left guard Richie Incognito at who to isolate Liuget against, the choice would be Ducasse — who has shown some struggles throughout the majority of his career. If the Bills can do a solid job of limiting Liuget’s effectiveness, that can lead to a very important part of the offense getting started and with the opportunity for a huge day if they do it right.
5) Getting McCoy to the second level
- And if they do it right, I think LeSean McCoy has all the potential for a big day for the Bills. The front four is certainly a strength of the Chargers defense, but if you can get through the first line of defense, McCoy will have plenty of opportunities to make defenders look silly in the open field and at the second level of the defense. The linebackers are the ones to attack for this running game, because all three of Denzel Perryman, Kyle Emanuel, and backup Korey Toomer (who is starting for Hayes Pullard) have all showed struggles with securing the tackle and have whiffed. Perryman is really one to attack with a quick change of direction by McCoy because he’s a very aggressive downhill run defender. If the Bills offensive line plays as effective as they did against the Saints, and to a higher degree how dominant they were against the Oakland Raiders three games ago, I think McCoy can really have a big impact on this game.
OUT: T Cordy Glenn, RB Mike Tolbert, G John Miller
QUESTIONABLE: DE Jerry Hughes, WR Jordan Matthews, TE Charles Clay
Los Angeles Chargers
OUT: T Joe Barksdale
DOUBTFUL: LB James Onwualu, LB Hayes Pullard
QUESTIONABLE: DE Chris McCain, QB Philip Rivers
Prediction: Bills over Chargers
- When you look at the matchup from the outside, you see a rookie quarterback making his first start against two incredibly talented pass rushers, and the immediate thought is that they’re going to eat him alive. However, I think the Bills are going to take the pressure off of Peterman with a lot of three-step drops to get the ball out quickly, play action to keep the defenders honest, and then a reliance on the run game. He’ll need to drive the ball down the field in intermediate areas in spots, but there will be some opportunities there against this defense. On the defensive side, the Bills have to be most mindful of running back Melvin Gordon and the quick-footed wide receiver Keenan Allen, but I really feel that against this interior offensive line, that this can be a bounce-back game for the run defense. They’ll be able to move the ball, but I’m anticipating the bend-but-don’t break defense from the Bills in the first month of the season shows up again. I think this is going to be a close game and they’ll need a clutch kick or two, but the Bills have the most thoroughly talented starting lineup in this matchup — and I think they have enough to overcome whatever pitfalls a rookie quarterback making his first start might have — as long as he doesn’t completely play at an ineffective level all game long.
Want a full podcast preview of the Bills game against the Chargers? Join Joe B. and Matthew Fairburn on the most recent episode of the Bills Beat by clicking play below, and you can also subscribe to it on iTunes, too: