(Photo Courtesy of Buffalobills.com)
This weekend, the Bills are back in action at the Ralph for a week seven matchup against the Minnesota Vikings. Like the Bills, Minnesota is coming off of a loss against a divisional opponent, and on paper, this appears to be a very winnable game for Doug Marrone and his charges. Buffalo is already 2-0 against the NFC North this season, and a home win against one of the NFC’s basement dwellers would allow the team to keep pace with New England in the divisional race. However, as Bills fans know, there are no free wins in the NFL (well, except maybe the Jaguars and the Raiders), and the Vikings could certainly come in and shock the Bills on Sunday, especially if the team gets caught looking ahead to next week’s important divisional battle against the Jets.
For now though let’s take a look at some of the key storylines heading into this week’s game.
1. Figure out the Running Game
After another dismal performance on the ground last Sunday, Doug Marrone said that the team’s number 1 priority this week would be fixing the running game. Luckily, the Bills have a great opportunity to figure things out with Minnesota’s 19th ranked rushing defense coming to town. On the season, Minnesota’s defense has given up, on average, almost 120 yards a game and in each of their 4 losses this season, the Vikings have surrendered 100 or more yards on the ground.
Its no secret that the Bills are struggling to run the football right now, and a lot of the talk this week has been the ongoing struggles of CJ Spiller and his performance against the Patriots last Sunday. However, Spiller could possibly use this game to break out of his slump in the same way that Packers RB Eddie Lacy did back in week five when he rushed for 105 yards and 2 touchdowns on just 13 carries. Prior to that Thursday night game, Lacy’s play had been similarly questioned, so there’s reason to be optimistic for Spiller and the Bills rushing attack. In interviews this week, the former Clemson speedster said that he’s “overthinking things” and needs to play “like that little kid in the backyard, playing with his friends and having fun.” It would also be nice if the halfback got some help from his coaching staff and offensive line.
Ultimately though, the team has no excuse this week. In playing a weak defense at home, the Bills need to force-feed their running backs, especially Spiller, the ball and take advantage of the Vikings’ porous run defense.
2. Make Bridgewater Miserable
Minnesota will be led under center this week by Teddy Bridgewater, the 32nd overall pick in this past year’s NFL Draft. The rookie out of Louisville is making just his 3rd career start, and is facing one of the top-five pass rushes in the NFL for a second consecutive week. Last week, the Lions made life miserable for Bridgewater, sacking him eight times, hitting him another 13 times, and intercepting three of his passes. After a week in which the pass rush failed to live up to its billing against the Patriots, Marcell Dareus and co. need to redeem themselves tomorrow and make it a long afternoon for the Vikings’ quarterback.
Coming into the season, Minnesota’s offensive line was regarded as something of a strength for their team and featured promising players in tackles Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt. However, its been a long season for Kalil, the former 3rd overall pick from USC, and the Bills should try to attack the third year pro early and often. Unofficially, Kalil has surrendered 6 sacks, 3 hits, and another 16 (!) hurries this season, and the Bills’ defensive ends should be thrilled with their prospective matchup this week. Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams should be disruptive forces tomorrow, and if the Bills can muster a few sacks early in the game, things could go south in a hurry for Bridgewater again this week.
Just a word of advice for Jim Schwartz though: If it’s a one-score game in the 4th quarter, don’t leave Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes on the bench.
3. Get Sammy the Ball
Another frequent topic of discussion of this week has been the role of Sammy Watkins in the Bills’ offense. Against the Patriots last Sunday, Watkins was targeted just three times the entire game after seeing coverage from Darrelle Revis all afternoon. While Revis is still an excellent cornerback, the fact that the Bills allowed their most potent offensive weapon to be taken out of the game so easily is cause for concern. In comments this week, Marrone also admitted as much, saying that it was the coaching staff’s fault for not having Watkins as the primary read on more passes.
This week, the Bills face a Minnesota defense that currently sits among the NFL’s best units against the pass so don’t expect Kyle Orton to throw for 350 yards. But getting the ball to Watkins will be imperative for the Bills to be successful, and the offense needs to incorporate more screens, sweeps, and short throws to get the 4th overall pick in space. In losses to New England and San Diego, Watkins has just 2 catches, so the game plan should be obvious: put the ball in Watkins’ hands, or risk losing the game.
Prediction: Bills win 26-13, Watkins goes over 100 yards receiving for the second time.