Assessing the Bills at the Midpoint

(Photo Courtesy of Rant Sports)

As the Bills regroup for the second half of their 2014-15 season, Adam Augustyn and Zac Hirschbeck discuss what they liked and disliked during the first eight games, as well as how they envision the remaining of the season playing out. 

Zac: If you had told me prior to the season that the Bills would be 5-3 after nine weeks, I’d have been thrilled. After hearing reports of dissension among Bills coaches and management, it appeared all of the talent compiled over the last few years would go to waste. Fortunately that has proved not to be the case.

Despite losing two of it’s top playmakers to injury (Kiko Alonso in the offseason, CJ Spiller to a broken collarbone against the Vikings), and making an offense-altering change at quarterback (EJ Manuel benched in favor of Kyle Orton), the Bills have a great opportunity to finally end their 14-year playoff draught.

Before we delve into the remaining schedule, or what the Bills need to improve upon down the stretch, let’s start with the positives. Adam, what, or who, has impressed you so far this year?

 

Adam: Agreed Zac, it’s definitely been a bit of a roller-coaster ride for Bills fans this season with the ownership change, the quarterback change, and some big injuries. But for me, and I think most other Bills fans, the most impressive aspect of this season has been the development of Sammy Watkins.

No disrespect to the excellent play of Marcell Dareus and the defensive line, or the savvy veteran play of Kyle Orton, but the biggest moments this season have come from the next great hope of the franchise. I’ll admit to being skeptical of the trade that brought Watkins here last May, and even despite seeing the weekly, highlight-reel catches that he made in training camp, I was worried that Watkins wouldn’t be able to stay healthy and his impact as a rookie would be fairly limited (as is often the case for rookie WR’s).

Eight games in though, and I’m ready to buy the kid’s jersey. He’s gotten better every single week, barring the New England game, and he’s been absolute dynamite every time he touches the football. Statistically speaking, he either leads or is near the top of every major wide receiver category in what has been an impressive crop of rookie pass catchers, and his hands, footwork, and route running are all far beyond where the normal rookie level. The bottom line is that he’s already demonstrated that he was clearly worth what it took to move up and nab him, and thinking about the fact that he’s only 21 years makes me even more excited for the franchise’s future.

What about you Zac? What part of the season has really warmed your cockles so far?

 

Zac: Sammy is the real deal.

Like you, I was a little worried about the injuries that slowed him down in the preseason and first quarter of the season. I was also a little wary of his indifference towards really selling out to help EJ Manuel through his on-field struggles. However over the last several weeks, Watkins has displayed a skill-set that resembles the most talented players at his position. His hands and route running seem to already be at elite levels. He’s also dispelled the notion coming out of Clemson that he wasn’t a complete receiver. After receiving a consistent number of screen passes from Tahj Boyd, Watkins has failed to truly display the violent run-after-the-catch ability that wowed scouts during his time with the Tigers. In my eyes, that’s room for improvement, and reason for excitement. Hopefully the much-maligned Nate Hackett can incorporate some simple ways to get Watkins involved, rather than allowing opposing defenses to dictate how much Watkins is utilized in the offense. As the running game continues to sputter, a persistent desire to put the ball in Watkins’ hands should be a top priority each week.

In addition to Watkins development, I’m really encouraged by the performance of the Bills’ defense so far. After eight games, the Bills rank 8th in yards allowed per game, 13th in passing yards allowed per game, and 8th in rushing yards allowed per game. In addition to that, the Bills are tied for first in interceptions (12), tied for second in total takeaways (18), and are second in the NFL with 28 sacks. Those last three rankings are also a bit skewed due to the fact that not every team has played the same number of weeks to this point.

The defensive line has been absolutely dominant. Marcell Dareus has been a force in both the running and passing game. Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes have consistently provided pressure off of the edge, and despite being slowed the last few weeks by injury, Kyle Williams has not displayed any signs of aging.

The linebacking core, which certainly left room for concern following Alonso’s offseason injury, has performed better than preseason expectations. Brandon Spikes has been exactly what he was billed as: an elite run-stuffer and a non-factor on passing downs. Nigel Bradham, despite a below-average last couple of weeks, has developed into a valuable player in his third season. Preston Brown has continued to develop each week. Following a shaky opening performance against Chicago, Brown has steadily become the Bills’ most complete linebacker. His interception against the Jets displayed improved coverage skills, and he’s also contributed to the unit’s encouraging, and long-awaited development against the run.

Lastly, the secondary has keyed the Bills two-game win streak heading into the bye. Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin have shaken off of the rust from offseason injuries that perhaps played a role in some of their early season struggles. Corey Graham has provided depth at both corner and safety. Aaron Williams has recently battled injury, but he’s resembled both a cheaper and smarter investment than his departed teammate Jairus Byrd.

Ultimately, I believe the defense has largely been responsible for the Bills encouraging record to date. This team has endured a quarterback change and a mostly ineffective running game because of the fact that the defensive unit continued to keep them in games. If the Bills defense can continue to play at a similar level, and the offense can provide more steady production, this club will have a realistic chance to beat anybody they play.

Before we examine the remaining schedule and make our rest-of-season predictions, what do you think needs to improve for the Bills’ second-half to be a memorable one? The running game? The play-calling?

 

Adam: Wow, you really hit on a lot of different points there, but I can’t say that I disagree with you.

The overall play of the defense has been what has carried the team so far. Between the dominance of the defensive line, and surprise performances from players like Preston Brown and Aaron Williams, the defense can keep the team in just about any game and is deserving of the plaudits they’ve received this season.

As far as what needs to improve in the second half of this season, it’s pretty clear for me that the offensive line will need to play better. As you mentioned the run game has been poor all season, and, without Fred Jackson or CJ Spiller, is unlikely to improve in the immediate future. That means the Bills are going to need to rely on Kyle Orton during this upcoming stretch of games that unfortunately features two of the league’s best pass rushes in Kansas City and Miami. As we all know, Orton isn’t exactly a “dual-threat” out there, and the offense will struggle if he’s not given time to step up in the pocket and make his reads. Everyone has justifiably called out the poor play at the team’s guard positions, but Eric Wood was a turnstile against the Jets and Cordy Glenn looks like he’s regressed from the solid play of his rookie season. As I mentioned, the second half of the season features games against some of the best pass rushes in the league, and this unit will need to play better.

A close second for me also would have to be more consistent play from the secondary. Although you touched on how well Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin have been playing as of late, these games came against a rookie quarterback making his first start on the road and a combination of Geno Smith and Michael Vick. Frankly, I’m tired of hearing talk of how these players are “turning a corner” only to watch them get embarrassed by a Philip Rivers or Tom Brady. With 3 games against future hall-of-fame QB’s in the month of December, the play of this unit will go a long way toward deciding the Bills’ fate and I’d like to see some consistent performances against good competition from them.

 

Aaron Williams and the rest of Buffalo's secondary needs to play well down the stretch (Photo Courtesy of Buffalo Bruises)

Aaron Williams and the Rest of Buffalo’s Secondary Needs to Play Well Down the Stretch
(Photo Courtesy of Buffalo Bruises)

 

Zac: I completely agree that the offensive line and secondary represent the positional groups that need to play well in order for the Bills to remain in the playoff picture.

Cordy Glenn and Eric Wood were both looked at as the most reliable members of the line, and though they haven’t struggled as much as some of their peers, they’ve failed to resemble the cornerstones that many believed they were. While their performance is a bit disappointing, I believe a large portion of their struggles stems from the men playing beside them. Wood has been flanked by an awful collection of guards. Chris Williams didn’t look good when he was healthy. Cyril Richardson was terrible. I’m still entirely confused by Erik Pears’ presence in the starting lineup, and while Kraig Urbik appeared to be an improvement, one has to wonder why Doug Marrone thinks so little of him. Although it doesn’t appear to be happening anytime soon, I’m still intrigued by the prospect of Cyrus Kouandjio slotting in at guard. He looked horrific at times in the preseason against opposing pass rushers, but at this point can he be much worse than Pears?

I also agree with your take on the secondary, and perhaps my enthusiasm was a bit short-sighted. The entire unit looked fantastic against two poor passing offenses, but it’s hard to forget Tom Brady’s effortless destruction of the pass defense in the second half of the Patriots win here a little less than a month ago. Luckily for the Bills they have four games in a row against quarterbacks that fail to elicit the same fear that Brady’s presence creates.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the remaining schedule.  The next four games appear to be very winnable. Home against Kansas City. Away on Thursday night against the Dolphins. Home to the Jets. And home to Cleveland. Although all four teams pose matchup problems for the Bills (even the Jets), I like our chances in each matchup. If the Bills can emerge from this four-game stretch 3-1 or 4-0, I’d be enthusiastic about their chances at clinching a playoff berth in a far more difficult final quarter of the season. After the Thanksgiving weekend matchup against the Browns, the Bills go away to Denver, play Green Bay at home, journey west to play Oakland, and finish up with a matchup at Foxboro against the Pats.

To finish up our midseason chain here, how do you see the remainder of the season playing out? Will the Bills be able to get to 10-6? And is 10-6 even going to be enough to get you into the playoffs?

 

Adam: I think the season will ultimately come down to how the Bills play in these next two games.

Coming off the bye the Bills face a Kansas City team that is surging, and, even at home, will be a very difficult team to beat. The Chiefs rush the passer extremely well and are very careful with the football, so I’m expecting a bit of a low-scoring chess match on Sunday where the team that doesn’t turn the football over will win. After that the Bills will need to travel to Miami on a short week to face another team playing some of their best football of the season right now. I had the opportunity to watch the Dolphins dismantle San Diego this past Sunday and, even though I think we still match up very favorably with Joe Philbin’s team, Ryan Tannehill and Miami look like a totally different ball club from the one that lost to the Bills back in week two.

If the Bills come out of this grueling two week stretch with two wins, I think that they’ll win at least one of their next two games at home against Cleveland and the New York Jets to put the team at 8-4 heading into the month of December. From there, it will become considerably tougher, but I think the team could potentially surprise Green Bay at home to complete the season-sweep of the NFC North and, after beating the Raiders, finish at 10-6 and break the NFL’s longest playoff drought.

Call me crazy, but I’m a blindingly optimistic Bills fan and I believe that if the team wins their next two games, they’ll be in the playoffs at the beginning of January.

 

Zac: Since I too am a blindingly optimistic Bills fan, I share your hope for the final eight games.

Aside from Denver and New England, who appear to be two of the strongest teams in the entire league, every other game is winnable. New York and Oakland should be wins. Kansas City, Miami, Cleveland, and Green Bay all are above .500 and very much in the playoff discussion, but they also have significant issues that the Bills could really take advantage of.  A 5-3 finish is very much in play, and if the Bills can build momentum, 6-2 isn’t necessarily out of the question either.

It all starts this week against the 5-3 Chiefs. Though I’m sure you’ll get into far more detail with your upcoming preview for Sunday’s contest, I think the Chiefs are a very beatable team.

Until next time Adam…

GO BILLS.

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