What's it going to take to go into Buffalo and come out with a win? I've studied four Bills games leading up to this article, and one thing resonates with me when I consider Buffalo: "What the...?"
In my preseason Power Ranking, I picked the Buffalo Bills to win the AFC East outright. The addition of Mario Williams seem to capitalize the "D" in their defense. They had a tremendous draft, filling corner back weaknesses from 2011. Stephon Gilmore (1st Rd) has been a solid, and they've recently elevated another first year player- Ron Brooks (4th Rd) out of LSU - giving them a rookie corner back duo. Leodis McKelvin may not be available after suffering an injury on a kick return against Jacksonville last Sunday.
I think Buffalo may have one of the best safety duos around facing the Rams this Sunday. The rise of Da'Norris Searcy - a 5'11", 211 lbs bruiser - is now splitting reps with George Wilson, and veteran Jairus Byrd give them solid deep run help with decent cover skills.
The Buffalo defensive line has been slow to get rolling this season. Williams now has 9.5 sacks, and the rest of the line featuring Marcell Darius has improved against the run in the last few weeks. Their linebacker corps is solid, but unremarkable. I do like what I've seen of rookie Nigel Bradham.
While I studied the Bills, I became curious about how they stood in the penalty category. I watched Gilmore and Brooks playing tight man coverage at the line of scrimmage, drawing a few flags for pass interference, holding and illegal contact. It turns out Gilmore is #2 in penalties in the NFL. Brooks, who has only seen limited time, is starting to mirror Gilmore. I put it down to their being rookies, as well as the tight man coverage that's extremely physical starting at the snap of the ball. Buffalo struggles against the run, ranking #30 (Rams #13) in the NFL. Their pass defense is better, ranking #13 (Rams #12). I think their pass defense has struggled due to using safeties to help out in the box, and it would explain the tight man coverage of the corner backs. The Bills defense keys off of buying the secondary time to read run or pass. Their safeties play three to five yards shallower than most teams, but I can't help but notice their set looks remarkably similar to the 49ers. They lack linebackers like Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman, so they have a short zone under the safeties tight ends have found success in.
One of the biggest keys to the game for the Rams will be the field and weather. Buffalo knows this field and how weather affects it. C.J. Spiller is going to be the key player for the Bills on offense. The Rams need to treat Spiller - whose averaging around 7 yards per carry - with patience. He waits for defenders to commit before changing direction. Chris Long and Robert Quinn will need to treat Spiller like an RGIII. They need to stay home and not pursue down the line until Spiller commits. He makes most of his yardage off of a second read of the defensive line. Fred Jackson isn't as fast as Spiller, but I like his pass catching skills in short flairs.
Where I think Buffalo makes a big mistake is the time they take between shifting from Spiller to Jackson. This is a true "running back by committee" approach, but they seem to wait and exchange player based on rest, not game situations. In one game, where Spiller looked to be the better choice in a situation, Jackson stayed in. This - in my opinion - marks an offensive coordinator who is matching the player that's in with plays that fit them alone, and not utilizing the best player for the situation at hand. The argument a running back needs to get into a rhythm may be true, but the commitment to the committee format needs to have players who can switch out constantly if needed. Both these running backs are more than capable of this, so I have to assume it's a coaching preference that - in my opinion - has hurt the potential of this team on offense.
The Bills wide receiver have struggled with injuries. Stevie Johnson is an outstanding receiver, but his route tree appears limited. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is an aggressive passer, but yet again I find some of the opportunities this team has had wasted with Johnson troubling. Rookie T.J. Graham is a solid field stretching option, and if he's in single coverage look for Fitzpatrick to go to him several times this Sunday. Brad Smith really impressed me. He's not only a decent return man, but the third string quarterback the Bills run in their Wildcat sets.
If I were to pick areas the Bills should be concerned, it would be with their rookie corner backs. Their tendency toward penalties, and the close man coverage they play could be key if the Rams have both Amendola and Givens are in the line up. They also may be shocked by which Rams running back will have the biggest day too. While Steven Jackson will get his carries, this field and possible weather conditions could be an enormous opportunity for Daryl Richardson. I can see the Rams 7th round surprise hitting the right side of the Buffalo line at the DT/TE gap. Look for Richardson to break a few 15 to 20 yard gains. He'll have to concentrate on his ball security with the wet conditions expected.
The Rams have a pile of concerns with this team, the field and the weather. C.J. Spiller is the first of 4 top tier running backs they'll face down the stretch. He's fast, physical and I'd be surprised if Spiller didn't hit 100+ yards on the day. They need their outside linebackers to seal, and their safeties to read fast to be able to get to Spiller's second read. They'll be running at the DT/DE and DE/OLB gaps on the left side of the Rams defensive line. Sacking Ryan Fitzpatrick has to stay low on the priority list. Contain Spiller, and the Rams will win this game.
Earlier this week Jeff Fisher remarked how similar these two teams are, and for the most part I think he's bang on. Where the Bills have the edge is Spiller and field conditions that'll play into his success or failure. If the Rams' defensive line plays physical and patient, they can negate Spiller. James Laurinaitis will need to play deep to add coverage for Bills tight end Scott Chandler, especially in the red zone. He has the most touchdown receptions (6) for the Bills this season, and all but one of them came in a very Gronk-like release route.
This game is going to be a penalty fest, so get ready to cringe. The Rams are ranked #3 in total penalties, and the Bills are ranked #7. Wet condition are going to have penalty flags flying and passes dropped. Wind shouldn't be a factor, but I doubt anyone will see Greg Zuerlein kicking 50+ yard field goals. Johnny Hekker's "shank-itis" could continue too. This game will teach a very young Rams team a great deal. Weather and the field are going to be a tough "12th" man to beat this Sunday, and it will be interesting to see how Jeff Fisher adjusts his game plan to a sold out home field advantage. Can the Rams end their three game slide against the AFC East? It's a coin flip...