Vs. Jags: Bills Waiting for Alarm Clock to Go Off

The Bills, whose offense has been snoozing through the preseason, finally rolled over in bed vs. the hapless Lion defense last Thursday. The question of the season is are they now getting out of bed, or was that simply a lazy morning shift repositioning them for a continued snooze. After all it was only one drive against an extremely mediocre defense in the midst of a completely issue-laden preseason all around.

Drew Bledsoe was quickly shuffled off the field after a successful, albeit not particularly impressive, drive for the season's lone first team touchdown at least temporarily leaving the perception that perhaps the first team's offensive woes have been solved. A strong argument could be made for the offense having stayed in the game for a second series in order to prove that it was not an opening drive fluke as well as to have established much more clear momentum. Yet fans and media will find out for sure what kind of team these Mularkey-led Bills, now having been sculpted via the Donahoe methodology for four seasons, have on the 12th vs. the Jags at the Ralph.

This season's offensively challenged Bills meet this season's red-hot Jags defense in what is currently a recipe for disaster. Whether or not that disaster unfolds remains to be seen, but if the play of the respective units in preseason is the guide, then trouble looms in this first must-win game for the Bills.

Several aspects of the Bills play this season can independently and easily doom a team in any game, but the Bills have numerous aspects of their game that they bring into the Ralph this Sunday in a sketchy state.

First, their special teams have trended from spectacular to below average following a season of well below average performance on special teams other than in the punting department.

Second, the defensive line has not proven that they can stop running backs such as Quentin Griffin, Chris Brown, and Dominic Rhodes from turning premier performances. How they will stop Fred Taylor and Greg Jones remains to be seen.

Third, the offensive line has provided absolutely no indication that they are capable of blocking ala a power running attack even vs. the geriatric collection of has-been defensive line talent that Detroit put up. How they do it vs. this Jag line featuring one of the best defensive tackle tandems leading last season's 2nd ranked rushing defense and the preseason's stingiest defense certainly remains to be seen.

Fourth, 12-year veteran quarterback Drew Bledsoe has been unable to lead this team to a single offensive touchdown other than vs. Detroit, again, against a defensive collection of post-prime vets, journeymen, rookies, and first time starters among perhaps three above average players.

Fifth, the team cannot seem to avoid playing a game without committing nearly a dozen penalties. The team averaged 10 penalties for 85 yards during the preseason.

Sixth, the first team offense has been 4-for-19 in 3rd down conversions during preseason, two of which came during the Detroit game.

Seventh, Travis Henry and Willis McGahee have barely averaged over three yards-per-carry on a team that insists that its strength will be its "power running game."

Eight, all of this is occurring on a team with a rookie head coach and rookie offensive coordinator.

Was anything overlooked…

Perhaps these things will all gel in time for the home opener vs. a seemingly destructive and tenacious Jacksonville defense. I sure hope it does. But simple hopes cannot overcome all of these things simultaneously in addition to Mike Mularkey and Tom Clements coaching in their very first game. Nor will any analysis of mine determine the outcome of this game. This analysis is simply a compilation of the facts surrounding the play of the team this preseason coupled with an observance of how the Bills played throughout the last 14 games of last season.

Many fans translate last season's early 38-17 rout of the Jags to mean a quick and easy victory to start off the 2004 season on the right foot. However, a quick analysis of the two teams will indicate that this game is less the walkover, or perhaps simply the guaranteed win in a close game, than many seem to believe it is. Just about all of the key tactical matchups favor the Jags.

First of all, reflecting back on last season, the Jags in last season's game were without star wideout Jimmy Smith starting Matthew Hatchette and J.J. Stokes instead. They were a "Brunnell-on-the-outs" led team with only Fred Taylor as a viable weapon. The Bills went up 14-0 early, nearly as many points and twice the touchdowns as the first team offense has managed to put up throughout the entire preseason this year, thereby taking Taylor out of the game. Taylor averaged over five yards per carry in that game generating 57 first half yards on 6.3 yards-per-carry as a side note. The Jags as a team had 83 rushing yards on over five yards-per-carry in the first half of last season's game, all without a passing game.

This season, Jimmy Smith returns and lines up opposite top draft pick Reggie Williams. More stringent enforcement of defensive back contact does not figure to help the Bills either. Solid tight ends, and now with Florida State rookie power runner Greg Jones in the backfield to assist who may be the league's most underrated running back, Fred Taylor. Throw in second year quarterback Byron Leftwich and this is a team whose offense should not be taken lightly.

In fact, this is what is shaping up to be a duel of power running games. The difference between the two teams is that during the preseason in Buffalo the Henry/McGahee tandem are averaged barely over 3 yards-per-carry (3.1) not exactly against a barrage of run stuffing teams whereas in Jax the Taylor/Jones tandem has yielded nearly 5 yards-per-carry (4.8) vs. three teams finishing in the top 10 rushing defenses last season and 13th ranked Tampa Bay.

The Jaguars had easily the league's stingiest defense allowing only 13 points to opponents' first teams in the preseason in their first three preseason games. Granted, they did not play the N.E. offense with Brady at the helm, rather Davey, which is why that game is not counted in among those statistics. The Bills also played decent defense but left their seeming inability to stop novice and inexperienced running backs at the forefront of critics' minds.

Why this game will be a difficult one for the Bills:

The Jags bring their very well gelled, seasoned, and improved over last year's 2nd ranked rushing defense and 6th ranked yardage defense to the Ralph in peak readiness. This is not good news for a Bills team that is fully and unmistakably predicated on a power running game, at least on paper and in team statements. The new and improved power running game has yet to make an appearance in the 2004 season leaving fans to question whether the team has simply been playing possum or whether what fans and media see is what fans and media will get.

Thus far the Bills, even vs. Detroit with McGahee averaging only 2.2 yards per carry, the Bills have not proven that they do not at present possess anything close to a power running game. This component is absolutely critical for the success of the Bills this season. However, injuries, albeit those of the minor/nagging variety, have hindered expected development of this issue-laden line. Lack of talent has also not done line coach Jim McNally any favors. Depth is and remains a huge issue, as is the quest to find competence at that now issue-laden left guard spot. AHEM….cough….Ruben Brown…. Chalk up yet another one for GM Tom Donahoe!

Either way, Bills games getting into the mode whereby they need to rely on Bledsoe, particularly behind this current Bills line, will only make matters worse as has now been proven for nearly five seasons easily. It is absolutely imperative that the Bills find this power running game prior to this matchup. If they can, victory is possible. If they cannot, Bills fans should expect a loss and the first in a string of games trending off of last season's woeful performances.

No team in the NFL any longer respects Bledsoe's play or dreaded deep ball and just as in the case with Rob Johnson, teams are going to pressure, pressure, and blitz up the middle to attempt to clog precious running lanes and rattle Bledsoe. This will occur this season until such a time as Bledsoe proves that he is capable of overcoming that. But opponents fully realize that over the long haul Bledsoe is more apt to make costly errors on big plays for the defense than he is to make a big play offensively.

Bledsoe's interior line protectors appear to be Lawrence Smith, Trey Teague, and Chris Villarrial. This trio vs. some of the early-season opposing defensive tackle combinations will be intriguing to say the least. This is exactly why my openly stated predictions are of early and continued "Bledsoe experiment" failures.

Gone entirely unnoticed by many last season was that Fred Taylor ran very well against the Bills. It was the Jags having fallen behind early by 14 points coupled with their complete absence of a passing game per above that was their undoing. Those components or lack thereof, will not be present in this game. The key to stopping Jacksonville will be to shut down their running game. This was not even done last season other than via the offense which no one is expecting will happen again, not even the most optimistic of fans.

As well, Jacksonville clearly improved last season as the season moved forward. The opposite occurred in Buffalo. This season, thus far, has only had each team pick where they left off and sent both of them on their trending ways from the end of last season.

How important is this game for the Bills:

The importance of winning this game is enormous! The value of this game cannot be overstated. The Bills do not have a realistic shot at a winning season if they cannot win this game. It is one of the few games vs. an opponent that was weaker than the Bills last season from a won-loss perspective. It is also one of the very "winnable" home games on paper. The Bills face a horrendous road schedule, which means that in order to achieve team expectations they will need to win at least five home games, perhaps even six or seven. This is clearly one of those games.

With three difficult road games @ Oakland, @ the Jets, and @ Baltimore interstrung with home games vs. New England and Miami to start off this season, the Bills must absolutely prove that they capable of hanging with an above average yet not quite AFC championship team, led by a second year upstart QB. If they cannot, then the problems will come to the forefront like the proverbial "A" on the front of Hester Prynne in "The Scarlet Letter." In the Bills' case that letter will be "L."

If the Bills have truly improved from last season to this, this game is one of those falling into the "must win" category. Of course the degree and particulars surrounding a win or loss may suggest more as well. I.e., if the Bills lose the game on dumb turnovers by special teams yet the offense puts up 27 points on long drives with solid rushing production, then it would suggest improvement nevertheless. That can be looked at following the game and pending those particulars.

What to expect:

What the Bills will bring to the table is anyone's guess. Have they been "playing possum?" Is Lee Evans ready to bust out like no one's ever seen? Are the lines just duffing it in preseason? The looming questions are nearly endless per the above litany of question marks.

Running off of how the last 14 games of last season went coupled with the performance of the first team in this preseason, it stands to reason that Bills fans can expect more of the same under rookie head coach Mike Mularkey. Lack of discipline in the form of penalties splattered throughout the preseason is not a good indication that this team is competition ready. Nor is the play of this hodge-podge offensive line seeking five solid starters let alone any reliable depth.

If the Bills cannot get the "power running game" going, then expect a loss. Expect to see frequent blitzes on obvious passing downs giving Bledsoe little time to throw thereby taking the passing game out of the picture on those downs. The entire league knows now exactly how to take Bledsoe out of the game, the Bills' "four second buzzer" notwithstanding. If Henry and McGahee cannot begin averaging at least 4 yards-per-carry then expect things to unravel fairly quickly. Whether or not they can do that behind this line remains to be seen, but it has not happened yet this preseason.

Key Matchup:

The key matchup for the Bills offense will be the marquee and top-shelf John Henderson lining up opposite first time starter and Ravens castoff Lawrence Smith. This one's gonna be ugly folks. Count me in among those thinking that this is going to be a career game for Henderson. Smith could not block much less talented, much weaker, and worse defensive tackles. He's gonna get a first class schooling in this game.

Throw in Marcus Stroud on the opposite side, and the Villarrial, Teague, Smith trio is gonna have their hands full all day and I would still predict an enormous impact by the Stroud/Henderson tandem. Meanwhile, this will leave Jonas Jennings and Mike Williams to go one-on-one with the Jags' defensive ends, which may not be a problem, but throw in pressure from the linebackers who then have a straight shot at Bledsoe with the mobility of a utility pole, and it is easy to picture a bad day for a quarterback whom the fans won't tolerate poor play from for two quarters. There is not even any sense in discussing safety blitzes or other types of pressure schemes. Three and four WR sets by the Bills should be a rarity in this game.

On the flip side, for reasons already stated in the prior analyses of the Bills throughout the offseason and preseason, expect the Taylor/Jones tandem to easily amass over 100 yards and quite possibly much more if they do not go down by many points early in this game. If I had to wager a guess it would be for 160 Jag rushing yards in this game with a fresh rusher in there at all times as aging vets Adams and Williams fatigue. Expect that Jag rushing attack to pave the way for its passing game with perennial standout Jimmy Smith and rookie protégé Reggie Williams to make a few big plays testing the new Bills secondary. Again, the key to victory for the Bills will be shutting down the Taylor/Jones rushing tandem however.

Special teams may also have a large role. At present, with Bills' special teams having cooled off significantly over the past two preseason games, I am loath to speculate in this area. Advantage here could go either way.

Expect about 10 drives for each team, perhaps fewer, given what will surely be an emphasis on the running games in this matchup. If the Bills offense can amass at least 300 yards of offense led by a rushing game averaging at least four yards-per-carry and producing well over 100 yards, then it will indeed be cause for at least some optimism. If not, it could very well spell out the beginning of yet a fifth season of disappointment for Bills fans including a very rough start with a string of initial losses and projecting some rough times looking forward.

The Bills fan in me says that this game will be good game resulting in a win. But the objective analyst in me says expect more of the same based on the things that I have been ranting about for well over a year now even predating the 2003 season. Let's hope that heart wins out over head in this most key of early season matchups!!

Prediction: Jags 24, Bills 16.

Comments: mweiler.billsreport@cox.net

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