The Buffalo Bills, after two straight weeks of being on the road, finally get back to New Era Field for just their second home game of the season. It's the lone break of a grueling stretch on the road, with it being the only reprieve of four away contests over a five-week span.
On Sunday, they'll be up against the Tennessee Titans, a team that has found the way to win three of their first four games under a new head coach. Before the season began, it looked like a potentially winnable game for the Bills, but the Titans' hot start has made them the road favorites.
Do the Bills have a chance to get back in the win column? Five things to watch for on Sunday:
1) What's next for Allen? How can he bounce back?
- After a pitiful offensive performance in Week Four against Green Bay, the Buffalo Bills have to try to erase all that held them back and figure out how to return to offensive rhythm. It's not going to be an easy task, given that all parts of the offense failed against the Packers, and every facet influenced each other to make for a total flop of a game. However, where it needs to improve above all else is with rookie quarterback Josh Allen. He has to hope that his wide receivers initially win on their routes more often than they have been, but he also has to give them a chance to, too. Allen showed a concerning trait in the Packers game of dropping his eyes while still having time in the pocket and then taking off into scramble mode as some of his targets were about to come open. Worse yet, when he took off, there were far too many plays where Allen turned his entire body around, which means there is no way he was trying to work the pocket while keeping his eyes down the field to make a throw. Addressing that, combined with working over the middle of the field, needs to be the focal points of how the Bills go about developing Allen this week. And for the young quarterback, there is a definite opportunity to work the ball over the middle of the field where the Titans appear to be their weakest in pass coverage. As the Chargers and Packers did, I would expect to see the Titans to continue the trend of forcing Allen into a sack or a bad decision by blitzing defensive backs at him to get him to drop his eyes. Learning to deal with that effectively, and even attempting to read that from the defense before the snap, will help him to overcome the current snag of his development. There will be opportunities for success and pushing the ball down the field a bit more in this game for Allen, and it's merely on him to capitalize and turn the offensive woes around to a more competitive level of play.
2) Wide receiver movement coming?
- As I mentioned before, it's not all the fault of the rookie quarterback. While he should get a large portion of the blame for how he dealt with pressure, his wide receivers can't escape responsibility, either. I found a few things to be somewhat telling this week from head coach Sean McDermott. One point he made abundantly clear was how his players had to do a much better job of winning their battles at the line of scrimmage and then clarified that he wasn't just talking about the offensive and defensive line. Couple that with how agitated he sounded on Monday with the state of his offense, issuing his most critical comments -- by his standards, anyway -- that we've heard from him in 2018. I believe his frustration, at its core, is likeliest with the wide receiver group, and who could blame him? They are a strong contender, if not the outright favorites, for the honors of the worst wide receiver group in the league. McDermott also made it a point this week, twice mind you, to point out that he's not usually a patient person. So where does this all leads us with that position in particular? I think the majority of the frustration is likeliest pinned to the perceived top wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. McDermott, who effused praise for the effort of Zay Jones in working back to the ball when the initial play isn't there, said Benjamin doesn't do that all the time. Then when asked if Benjamin was a tone-setter for the offense, McDermott quickly turned the conversation to how he felt veteran wide receiver Andre Holmes was a leader for his team. Ultimately, I think we could be in line for a significant change this week. I would not be surprised, in the slightest bit, if Benjamin's spot as a starter will belong to Holmes against the Titans. Heck, I wouldn't even rule out the Bills making Benjamin inactive to attempt to send a message to the offense to wake everyone up. Should Benjamin see his playing time cut at all, I would expect Holmes, Robert Foster, and Ray-Ray McCloud all to see their playing time go up as a result. Should Benjamin be active and get some snaps, I think this could be the week that we see Benjamin return to the slot and try and take advantage of those weaknesses over the middle of the Tennessee defense. In the end, it's about how McDermott wants to communicate to his offense that things need to change, and if sending a message through Benjamin's play time is the way, then I think it would be one that was both loud, and clear to his players.
3) Tre'Davious White's next assignment
- On the defensive side of the ball, over the last three games, the Bills have made a concerted effort to match up their top cornerback -- Tre'Davious White -- with the opposition's top receiver. In Week Two, he was with Keenan Allen of the Los Angeles Chargers. In Week Three against Minnesota, it was Stefon Diggs. And last week in Green Bay, it was Davante Adams. Of those three weeks, Adams was the only player to beat him for a couple of large gains through the air when matched up 1-on-1, which also means it's likely that the Bills continue using White in this way. After his breakout game against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week Four, I believe White will follow second-year wideout, Corey Davis. An exquisite route runner, Davis thrives in the technical aspects of the position to help him gain separation, which is why having the inexperienced Ryan Lewis on him is a potential recipe for bad results. When the Bills are in man coverage, expect to see White follow him wherever he goes in the effort to nullify the Titans' top pass-catching option.
4) Attacking Mariota up the middle
- When the Bills defeated the Minnesota Vikings, it was all made possible by the play of the defensive line to get the necessary pressure on Kirk Cousins so that they could help force turnovers. After watching the Titans' last game against the Eagles, I believe the Bills have another opportunity to do just that against Marcus Mariota. However, I don't think the majority of the pressure will come from the outside. The Titans' two tackles are early picks that have performed well since getting in the league, which is why it might be in their best interest to have a reasonably specific game plan for their front four. The Bills' best chance to win up the middle -- through both of the guards and the center. All three players, Quinton Spain on the left, Josh Kline at right guard, and Ben Jones at center, can get knocked into the backfield which then would derail Mariota. The trouble is, Mariota is one of the best athletes at the position regardless of injury, and if he can escape the pocket, there is potential for a first down on the ground. I think the way that I would attack Mariota, given the personnel of both teams, would be to have the defensive ends play more of an edge contain to pin Mariota inside while allowing for the interior rushers to force the issue. Don't be surprised to see the Bills use a bevy of players inside to take advantage of this weakness, because all of them do something a little bit differently. Star Lotulelei, who has had a much stronger start to the season than given credit for by some, has shown the best snap reaction time of the interior players so far this season, and it's also helped him get into the backfield even from his one-technique position. Harrison Phillips has as violent of hands as you'll find on the team, and should one of the linemen drop his head against him, Phillips can chop them down with ease to get into the backfield. Lorenzo Alexander and Shaq Lawson have both shown an ability to provide a speed element as an interior rusher, to which I would try to isolate them against the slower-footed left guard, Spain, when the opportunity arises. Kyle Williams, with given the proper rest for a player likely in the final year of his career, can still show some flashes to get in the backfield, too. Even the new player Jordan Phillips can make an impact by using an impressive power that he possesses in bull rush opportunities one-on-one. All in all, the matchups are there for the strength of the Bills to make an impact, which is why this game could be much closer than people think given the results from Week Four.
5) A switch at safety
- Working against the Bills is that two of their top three safeties, Micah Hyde and Rafael Bush, are both likely to be out. Neither practiced in any capacity for the Bills this week nor did they even work along the sideline as the players who are 'close,' often do. Bush, even though he didn't practice, sported a red non-contact jersey, which is also a likely indication of his potential status for Sunday. After their Saturday move to promote Dean Marlowe from the practice squad, that leaves the Bills with Jordan Poyer, and a big fat question mark next to him. Based on where they are in this point in their careers, I would not be surprised if Marlowe -- not the longer-tenured roster player Siran Neal -- is the starter next to Jordan Poyer against the Titans. Consider this: Marlowe got his first chance in the NFL with Sean McDermott in Carolina, so there is a certain degree of trust there from McDermott. I think the only reason the Bills cut him at the end of the preseason was because they had a good idea that he would pass through waivers with the ability to re-sign him to the practice squad. Had they risked cutting the fifth-round pick and rookie Neal, it was more likely that another team would scoop him up. At this stage of Neal's career, he likely isn't ready to see the light of day in an enhanced starting role just yet, which is why Marlowe makes the most sense for this week. After all, Marlowe worked ahead of Neal for the entire summer at safety with the second-team defense. While he won't provide the same potential for splash plays as Hyde does, Marlowe is a better bet to steady the ship while going against a good, young quarterback.
QUESTIONABLE: S Rafael Bush (shoulder), TE Charles Clay (ankle), S Micah Hyde (groin)
OUT: S Kenny Vaccaro (elbow), LB Wesley Woodyard (shoulder)
QUESTIONABLE: T Dennis Kelly (illness)
Bills Inactives Projection: RB Marcus Murphy, OT Conor McDermott, G Wyatt Teller, G Ike Boettger, CB Dontae Johnson, S Rafael Bush, S Micah Hyde
- If the Bills do make Kelvin Benjamin inactive, my hunch is that Murphy would be active from this group.
Prediction: Bills over Titans
- Offensively, it's going to be a challenge for the Buffalo Bills this week. The Tennessee Titans are a great group against the run, and the young pass rusher Harold Landry has flashed some significant ability coming off the edge, which could lead to some more Josh Allen mistakes. However, I also believe that the Titans' record is higher than their talent level across the board would indicate, which could pave the way for a regression to the mean. Given the struggles on the interior offensive line, I think there is potential for turnovers for the Bills, which was their recipe for success in Minnesota. Plus, coming off an emotional high after beating the reigning Super Bowl Champions last week, being on the road against a perceived much-inferior opponent, the psychological aspect of it has letdown written all over it. Should the Bills be able to take advantage of the Titans' weakness over the middle of the field with their passing game -- something that Allen has shown an ability in previously, but hasn't done as much in recent weeks -- this looks to be an excellent opportunity for them to do just that and to win a game. However, if the Bills can't get the interior pressure on Mariota, that could be the biggest turning point for a Titans victory. However, I like that matchup for the Bills, and I think that's the one that can help lead them to the victory all the same.