1. Bottle up running game
The Bills reached a new low last week…in a win. Despite stunning the New York Jets in overtime, Buffalo's soft spot was sorely exposed — the run defense. Every team from here on out will surely look to mud the game down against Buffalo. Even with starting middle linebacker Paul Posluszny back, the Bills were gashed for 318 yards on the ground in New York. One week prior, 171 to Cleveland. The week before that, 250 to Miami. And a week before that, 220 to New Orleans.
See the theme here?
Carolina boasts one of the league's top 1-2 rushing duos in the NFL. After a slow start, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have gained a mack-truck head of steam the last two weeks. The two combined for 262 yards and three touchdowns last week against Tampa Bay, hinting that they've rediscovered their rhythm from a year ago. Williams is the dash, stealthily picking and blasting through lanes. Stewart is the mash, lowering the kaboom at the point of attack. Together, they're going to give the Bills loads of trouble. The Panthers rely on powerful two-tight end sets all game. Offensive tackles Jordan Gross and Jeff Otah are loads on the edge, which allow both backs to stretch plays to the outside.
The key to damage control is improved play from the outside linebackers. Recently acquired Chris Draft may supplant rookie Ashlee Palmer on the strong side, while Keith Ellison remains the man on the weak side. Posluszny's return helps, but he only comprises one-third of the second level. Ellison, Draft, Palmer and whoever cannot keep getting bullied around. If so, the Panthers will cruise.
Last week was a reawakening for Lee Evans. He saw the light. With Ryan Fitzpatrick in for Trent Edwards at quarterback, Evans was reintroduced into the offense. Suddenly, there were passes in his and T.O.'s direction. And after the game, while praising Fitzpatrick up and down, Evans sure sounded rejuvenated.
Against the Jets, 11 passes were thrown to Evans and 8 were thrown to Owens. Both were targeted more than they have been all season long. Even with a deep ball called back after instant replay, Evans finished with 68 yards and a touchdown. Both must be the go-to guys in the passing game. Edwards has been reluctant all season to go vertical. In one game, Fitzpatrick wasn't. He looked downfield on his first read…and second…and third…before deciding to check down.
While pounding the ball to Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson should be Buffalo's offensive identity, Evans (particularly) needs to be used. He has seen single coverage all season. Up until last week, Buffalo hadn't taken advantage. Unlike T.O., Evans is in the prime of his career. He must be the priority in the passing game.
Again, this key is easier said than done. Statistically, Carolina boasts the best pass defense in the NFL. The Panthers allow only 157 yards per game through the air. But with safeties creeping up to stop Jackson and Lynch, Fitzpatrick will need to burn the Panthers with a play or two downfield. Fast fact? Owens ranks 92nd in the NFL in receptions. That must change for Buffalo to escape Charlotte with a win.
3. Find a killer's instinct
All week, optimists have repeated that the Bills could just as easily be 4-2 than 2-4. Take away two bonehead fumbles, they say, and this is a different season.
Very true. Leodis McKelvin and Roscoe Parrish have cost the Bills from being in first place right now. But at the core of Buffalo's sluggish start, is the stark lack of a killer instinct on the sideline. Head coach Dick Jauron has played not to lose all season. The fact that last week even went to overtime was an indictment of Jauron. The opposing team throws six interceptions and you almost lose? Unacceptable, really. That's on Jauron.
Enough punts on fourth-and-short. Enough concessions on third-and-long. Enough passive football, period. If Buffalo wants to turn this season around, Jauron needs to go for the jugular. I know, I know. The guy has been a play-it-safe coach his entire life. But anything out of the ordinary would be a breath of fresh air. Some play-action bombs when you least expect it. Some corner blitzes. Maybe a reverse on a kick return. A flea flicker. Something, anything to catch the opposition off guard.
Jackson and Lynch need to be fed all game, sure. But to get the win, Jauron needs to sprinkle in an element of surprise.
BFR Prediction: Bills 20, Panthers 16
Buffalo took a big step last week. Don't underestimate that win. The Bills earned a gritty, ugly victory over a divisional opponent on the road. Not easy. Against Carolina, the Bills will be able to move the ball. If the defense bends without breaking, Buffalo will improve to 3-4.
Talk about the game all day inside The Rockpile.