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Strategy And Personnel

The Sports Xchange

September 05, 2018 at 1:08 am.

GAME PLAN: The Bills will be facing a Baltimore defense that ranked in the top 12 in points allowed, total yards allowed, rushing yards, passing yards and first downs, plus intercepted a league-best 22 passes. It’s a difficult test for a team that is expected to struggle moving the ball this season, especially early in the year. RB LeSean McCoy will be the focal point of the Buffalo attack, and if the Bills can’t establish their running game and then get into difficult down-and-distance situations, Nathan Peterman will be asked to shoulder a burden he may not be ready to carry.

On defense, the Bills will be confronted with a Baltimore offense that could be vastly improved in 2018, especially if Joe Flacco can regain the form he showed a few years ago. He has three shiny new weapons in WRs John Brown, Michael Crabtree and Willie Snead IV, and while the Buffalo secondary is above average, this group could present some problems. RB Alex Collins fell just shy of 1,000 yards last year, and a Bills defense that ranked 29th against the run last season has to contain him first. Buffalo ranked 31st in sacks per pass attempt and it has to find a way to get pressure on Flacco. The Bills hope free-agent acquisition DE Trent Murphy, who has not been healthy since coming to Buffalo, can get on the field and produce.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH

–Bills Ts vs. Ravens LB Terrell Suggs. Suggs may be 35-years-old, but he registered 11 sacks and four forced fumbles last season, and he remains a difficult pass rusher to contain. RT Jordan Mills and LT Dion Dawkins, depending on which side Suggs lines up, will have to keep him off Nathan Peterman, and it won’t be easy because the Bills’ receivers have not shown an ability to get separation, and their routes typically take longer to develop.

–Bills RB LeSean McCoy vs. Ravens MLB C.J. Mosley. McCoy is going to be an integral part of the game plan, not only as a runner but as a receiver. Given the Bills’ offensive line woes, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll will have to utilize a short passing game to avoid the inevitable pressure Peterman will face, and McCoy coming out of the backfield will be a big part of that plan. Mosley, who made 132 tackles and earned his fourth Pro Bowl invitation last year, may find himself in constant contact with McCoy.

–Bills MLB Tremaine Edmunds vs. Ravens RB Alex Collins. The Ravens will probably try to poke holes in the Bills’ run defense early in an effort to open up Joe Flacco’s play-action game. Edmunds is a rookie first-rounder with immense potential, but he’ll have a lot on his plate in his first regular-season start as he quarterbacks the defense while trying to make plays from sideline to sideline which was his calling card in college at Virginia Tech.

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Nathan Peterman. Backup — Josh Allen.

The Bills conducted a comprehensive competition that began the moment OTAs got under way. All three players were given their opportunity with the first-string offense, and they each got a start in the first three preseason games. Ultimately, McCarron’s shoulder injury derailed him, and when he played the entire fourth game, it was clear he was no longer in the running to start. He was then traded to Oakland on the day the team cut its roster to 53 players, so the Bills will go into the season with two quarterbacks who have one combined year of NFL service time, and two starts. Head coach Sean McDermott officially named Peterman the starter Monday morning, though Allen is expected to play at some point this year, and the only question is when.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters — LeSean McCoy, FB Patrick DiMarco. Backups — Chris Ivory, Marcus Murphy, Taiwan Jones.

McCoy is the Bills’ most indispensable player; if he were to get hurt, their offense would very likely sink to the bottom of the NFL. He is the key to the running game, which we know the Bills will have to rely on, and he’s also an important part of the passing game because the Bills do not have quality playmakers in their receiving corps. Ivory is a nice addition who can fill in if McCoy is out, and Murphy was one of the stars of the summer, though his role, at least early, will probably be limited to punt and/or kickoff returns.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Charles Clay. Backups — Jason Croom, Logan Thomas, Khari Lee.

Clay has been an underwhelming player during the first three years of his bloated five-year, $38 million contract. No one has really challenged him during his time in Buffalo, but Croom was impressive in training camp and the preseason games, and he could warrant meaningful snaps. Lee is the best blocker of the group and will mostly likely see playing time in short-yardage and goal-line situations, though he did show that he can catch the ball. Ultimately, Thomas beat out fourth-year player Nick O’Leary, who entered training camp No. 2 on the depth chart.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Kelvin Benjamin, Zay Jones. Backups — Jeremy Kerley, Andre Holmes, Ray-Ray McCloud, Robert Foster.

Benjamin is the only proven player in this group, and even at that, he would be a No. 2-type on the majority of NFL teams, but he’s No. 1 in Buffalo by default. He is a big-bodied, physical receiver who can make catches in the intermediate range, but it’s not too often that he’s blowing past anyone on a deep route. Jones is looking to put behind him a rough rookie year and an even rougher offseason, but the questions about his viability at this level remain. Kerley will be a useful player in the slot, where he has often excelled. After that, the Bills have an abyss at the position.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LT Dion Dawkins, LG Vlad Ducasse, C Ryan Groy, RG John Miller, RT Jordan Mills. Backups — C Russell Bodine, G Wyatt Teller, T Marshall Newhouse, T Conor McDermott.

It was a nightmarish preseason for this group as they too often failed to protect whichever quarterback was behind them, most notably in the third game against Cincinnati, when they played into the third quarter and offered no help to Allen in his lone start. Dawkins has already proven he’s a solid replacement for departed Cordy Glenn, but the losses of Richie Incognito and Eric Wood have severely depleted the talent level. Ducasse and Miller could be the weakest guard tandem in the league, and neither Groy nor Bodine outright won the center job. In terms of depth, there’s almost nothing as Newhouse seems past his prime, McDermott is a project, and Teller is a raw rookie whom the Bills hope can develop as fast as possible.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — DE Jerry Hughes, DE Trent Murphy, DT Kyle Williams, DT Star Lotulelei. Backups — DT Harrison Phillips, DT Adolphus Washington, DE Shaq Lawson, DE Eddie Yarbrough.

Murphy has to get healthy because the Bills’ pass rush was one of the worst in the NFL last season. If he’s not the threat he was signed to be, it might be a long season for Hughes, who will get doubled on every snap. Williams is currently injured, but the Bills are very happy with the progress of Phillips, their third-round pick, and he will start alongside Lotulelei until Williams is back. Lawson and Yarbrough provide adequate depth on the ends, but Washington, a former third-rounder, needs to do something in this, his third season.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — MLB Tremaine Edmunds, WLB Matt Milano, SLB Lorenzo Alexander. Backups — Deon Lacey, Ramon Humber, Julian Stanford.

Edmunds, the Bills’ second of two first-round picks in April, really came on at the end of the preseason and he looks like a future star in the NFL, but he is flanked by two big question marks. Alexander is now 35 and clearly slowing down, so he won’t be an every-down player. And Milano is an undersized 223-pounder who flashed last season but needs to be stronger against the run. The depth is non-existent and the Bills have to pray they keep their starting three healthy.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Tre’Davious White, RCB Vontae Davis, FS Micah Hyde, SS Jordan Poyer. Backups — CB Taron Johnson, CB Phillip Gaines, CB Lafayette Pitts, CB Ryan Lewis, S Rafael Bush, S Siran Neal.

Buffalo’s secondary was one of the NFL’s best last season, but there are two key changes this season. Davis takes over for E.J. Gaines on the outside, and rookie fourth-rounder Johnson is in line to replace Leonard Johnson as the nickel corner. At this point, the Bills do not appear better at either of those spots. White is a star in the making, while Hyde and Poyer joined the Bills as free agents last season and were an outstanding tandem in combining for 10 interceptions. Depth is an issue at cornerback, while Bush is a solid reserve at both safety spots.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Stephen Hauschka, P Corey Bojorquez, LS Reid Ferguson, PR/KR Marcus Murphy, KR Taiwan Jones, KR Ray-Ray McCloud.

Hauschka is superb, and in his first season playing in windy New Era Field, he had very few problems as he made 12 of 14 field goals and all 17 of his extra points in Buffalo’s eight home games. The Bills parted ways with Colton Schmidt. After he held off a late challenge from former Seahawks veteran Jon Ryan to keep his roster spot, he was cut Sunday and the Bills claimed rookie Corey Bojorquez, who had been cut by the Patriots. Ferguson was unchallenged. The return game still needs to be fleshed out, but Murphy, Jones and McCloud (assuming his knee injury from Thursday’s preseason finale isn’t serious) are the leading candidates.

PRACTICE SQUAD: T Gerhard de Beer, RB Keith Ford, OL Ruben Holcomb, DE Mike Love, S Dean Marlowe, WR Cam Phillips, DT Robert Thomas, LB Corey Thompson, CB Levi Wallace, T De’Ondre Wesley,.

Phillips was a player who showed some promise in practice, though he