For the first time in the 2018 season, the Buffalo Bills have the second matchup of the season on the docket with one of their AFC East rivals. After trouncing the New York Jets on the road in Week Ten, the Bills will welcome in the Jets in Sunday in the hopes of a season sweep.
For the two teams, the matchup will be completely different because both sides have a different starting quarterback this time around -- and both are rookies. Sunday marks the first of at least a few battles between Buffalo's Josh Allen and Sam Darnold of the Jets after their respective teams selected them in the top ten of the 2018 NFL Draft.
Can the Bills claim their third victory in four games? Five things to watch for from a Bills' perspective:
1) Can Josh Allen provide an encore?
- Without question, Josh Allen's performance on the road against the Miami Dolphins was his best performance of the season, and it has both the organization and fans feeling pretty good about his progress as a rookie to this point in time. With Sunday being a home game, there is a certain buzz about this matchup -- just because of how much success the Bills had against the Jets' defense the last time the two teams met, and with Matt Barkley at quarterback. However, I'd expect the Jets to give a lot more different looks than what the Dolphins did last week, and I expect they'll try to utilize safety Jamal Adams as a weapon all over the field as the game goes on to try and confuse Allen. And that's likely going to be the biggest challenge for Allen in his third game back from his injury. How does he react to the different looks defenses give him now that his tendencies from the previous week are on tape? We saw enough evidence from the Miami game to suggest that he is doing a much better job at staying in the pocket for the required amount of time -- and even some signs of reading the defense pre-snap, too. That, along with more confidence in his receivers, has led to more opportunities down the field with his arm that has helped open up the entire field for him. Allen was tremendous when he tucked the ball and ran against the Dolphins, though with John Miller coming back in for Jeremiah Sirles at right guard, there might not be as many plays where he chooses to take off and run because the blocking will be better in front of him. It's a matter of keeping the defense guessing, which he managed to do most of the game in Miami. If that happens, and the Jets don't confuse him completely with their coverages and blitzes, the mostly middling talent on their defense won't prevent Allen from being able to have a similar performance to what he did in Miami. However, with young quarterbacks, it's always fair to expect some regression or mistakes to be made -- which at this stage of his career, is as good as time as any to go through those teachable moments. As long as Allen keeps showing those big flashes on a weekly basis, even with making a mistake here or there, he'll still be trending toward the right direction.
2) Foster due for a heightened snap count
- After giving Kelvin Benjamin one last hurrah with 60-percent of snaps versus Miami, the Bills decided to let him go to give more time on the field to players that could play a role for them in 2019 and beyond. Chief among them stands to be undrafted rookie Robert Foster, who has looked like a completely different player the last three weeks. Foster has played with a lot of confidence and has turned himself into a dependable target for Allen in big spots. Only getting around 50-percent in the last game, that number will likely drift up into the 60, or 70-percent range with Benjamin's departure. What the Bills need to measure more than anything is if Foster can be more than just a stretch-the-field receiver that comes in as the fourth or fifth wideout on the roster. He needs to show he can run the entire route tree with success and win on those routes as well. Foster has to learn how to work back to the ball consistently to give Allen another potential target when things break down. And he must show well as a blocker while giving full effort on those plays. It will also likely bump up his role on special teams as well, considering the Bills also released the special teams-heavy Andre Holmes along with Benjamin. The upcoming four games could be the most influential weeks of Foster's career because it will provide the Bills with the evidence they need to either make him a legitimate part of the offense in 2019, or if it will signal to them that they need to go heavy on the wide receiver position in the upcoming offseason. That's part of the reason why it was so crucial to the Bills that they release Benjamin now, rather than wait until the end of the season.
3) Levi Wallace to face his biggest test?
- The Bills made a move about a month ago now to release cornerback Phillip Gaines, which gave an opportunity to Levi Wallace to be the full-time starter at cornerback. Wallace, also an undrafted rookie, hasn't had any glaring errors in his three games of starting. However, he hasn't faced a quarterback that would try to punish the Bills for starting a rookie cornerback, either. In order, the Wallace and the Bills have faced Josh McCown, Blake Bortles, and Ryan Tannehill -- one backup, and two starters that could be replaced by their teams ahead of the 2019 season. This time around the Bills will be up against rookie Sam Darnold. And while he might be inexperienced, he isn't afraid to sling the ball around -- at least not yet -- as his league-leading 14 interceptions would indicate. Darnold and the Jets are likely quite aware of Wallace, considering on the opposite side of the field they'd have to contend with second-year player Tre'Davious White, who is one of the better cornerbacks in the league. It's natural logic to think that a quarterback willing to throw the ball around would target Wallace rather than White. So, like Foster, this is a clear opportunity for the undrafted rookie cornerback. In the next three weeks, Wallace will go up against Darnold, the throw-friendly Matt Stafford with Detroit, and then the ultimate challenge in Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. Should Wallace be able to show well in those three games, that will likely bump down adding another starting cornerback on the priority list. He's off to a good start, but this Sunday begins the real test for Wallace.
4) Ray-Ray McCloud needs to show signs of life
- When the Bills released both Benjamin and Holmes, it opened up the window a bit more for a few different players that had already been receiving some time on the field. Of course, there's Foster, veteran Deonte Thompson will likely see an uptick in snaps, and perhaps the speedy Isaiah McKenzie as well. However, the Bills shut the window entirely on rookie sixth-round draft pick Ray-Ray McCloud since McKenzie's arrival. Including the first game McKenzie was with the Bills, in seven appearances McCloud was getting somewhere between 10-to-20 snaps on offense. And in McKenzie's first game, with only seven snaps, he already showed more on offense than McCloud had in all his active games. For that reason, McCloud became expendable and has been inactive each of the last two weeks. Now with some clearing ahead of him on the depth chart, and even with a mid-week toe injury to McKenzie, McCloud likely has an opportunity to show the front office and coaching staff that there's more to him on offense than what he previously showed them through the first three months of the season. If he doesn't, the Bills could be inclined to bring Cam Phillips back up from the practice squad to give him another look at the fifth wide receiver on the team. It's likely to be a crucial week for McCloud, who as of now, will likely be battling for one of the final roster spots in 2019. One or two good performances can go a long way for players like that.
5) Is it time to mix in Boettger and McDermott?
- You're probably noticing a trend with these 'things to watch.' It's all about the youth on the roster and what they have to gain or lose with games like these -- and it's with purpose. The Bills have made it abundantly clear with all the moves they've made over the past month that that is the most critical priority for the remainder of the season. Considering that, outside of Wyatt Teller, the Bills haven't been following that principle with the offensive line -- though I think that has the potential to change over the final quarter of the season. Undrafted rookie guard Ike Boettger was active on gameday for the first time in his career last week, and with the injury to Russell Bodine, there exists a good chance he'll be active as the reserve guard once more. The only reason he wouldn't be active on Sunday would be if the Bills changed their mind about the former starting left guard Vladimir Ducasse, though his status as an inactive last weekend likely means they've moved on in their minds. Even with Miller back, I thought Boettger showed enough in the handful of snaps he had at right guard to warrant a few more series throughout the game. It's not as though Miller has been incredible in 2018, and the Bills need to see if Boettger can play -- even to be a potential backup. With only 49 healthy players on the active roster at the moment, that means the Bills will have to make only three healthy players inactive -- which likely bodes well for the young reserve tackle Conor McDermott. With Ducasse likely to be inactive, and the Bills just bringing up a pair of practice squad players in defensive end Mike Love and cornerback Denzel Rice, that would make them logical candidates to be a healthy scratch. If they do make McDermott active, I think it should be a priority to get him some series at right tackle in place of Jordan Mills. The long-time Bills right tackle has taken a turn for the worse really since Week Six of the season, and with him on the final year of his contract, the Bills owe it to themselves to at least look at the progress of McDermott. The only argument to make McDermott inactive would be to dress Rice as the potential backup nickel corner just in case something happens to Rafael Bush, but the Bills have repeatedly played with fire by dressing only four cornerbacks on game day, and that's what scratching Rice would do. So, if McDermott dresses, he and Boettger should both get some time on the field -- preferably not at the same time.
OUT: QB Derek Anderson (concussion), CB Taron Johnson (shoulder)
DOUBTFUL: TE Jason Croom (groin)
QUESTIONABLE: WR Isaiah McKenzie (toe)
New York Jets
QUESTIONABLE: WR Robby Anderson (ankle), RB Isaiah Crowell (toe), TE Jordan Leggett (knee), CB Buster Skrine (shoulder, hip)
Bills Projected Inactives: QB Derek Anderson, WR Da'Mari Scott, TE Jason Croom, G Vladimir Ducasse, DE Mike Love, CB Taron Johnson, CB Denzel Rice
(Updated after the Bills added WR Da'Mari Scott to the roster after the original time of posting.)
Prediction: Bills over Jets
- As opposed to the last time these two teams played, I don't think there's going to be any element of surprise working in the Bills' favor. The Jets know quite well what they're getting from this Bills roster after their first meeting, and after Josh Allen's performance against Miami, they know that he has the potential to be the best player on the field. With a defensive head coach, I wouldn't be surprised to see them call some blitzes and coverages that will confuse Allen in the early stages of the game, and could potentially get him to rely on his legs early on. However, what this game might wind up being is a matchup between two rookie quarterbacks against solid defenses, with the one that makes the least amount of mistakes being on the victorious side. In my mind, the most talented side of the ball in this game is the Bills defense. They have shown once more the ability to take the ball away from the opposition this season, and that will come in handy against a rookie quarterback that has thrown a lot of interceptions -- and one that isn't afraid to throw the ball around to make a play, as well. I think both Allen and Darnold will have their flashes, but in the end, I think Allen has a better chance of success against the Jets defense than Darnold against the Bills.