As the Vikings meet the Buffalo Bills, they have the opportunity to do something Vikings teams of recent years have found extremely difficult – win games they should win on the road. They got the job done in the first road game of 2006 by beating down the Redskins and have a similar opportunity against the Bills.
Like the Vikings, the Bills have yet to score more than 20 points in a game this year. But unlike the Vikings, they have rolled up a ton of offensive yardage only to come away with two losses in their three games. They set a dubious record last week when J.P. Losman threw for more 300 yards and Willis McGahee ran for 150 yards and the team lost – the first time since the NFL-AFL merger that has happened. Both of those players will be critical to the success the Bills will have Sunday.
Losman is a brash – some would say punk – young quarterback with a strong arm and is still learning the game. To hear him talk, you would think his name was J.P. Manning, because self-confidence isn't a problem. What has been an issue is winning, which Losman hasn't done. Thus far in his career, he has compiled a record of 2-9 as a starter and has a total of eight touchdowns in those 11 starts. He has improved his completion percentage – below 50 percent last year and 60.8 percent this season – but many of his completions are of the short variety. That should play well into the Cover-2 defense of the Vikings. If Losman is pressured, he will make the mistakes young quarterbacks do, so it is critical for the Vikings to get a push up the middle and make him uncomfortable.
The best way to put the heat on Losman will be to shut down McGahee, which is no small task. Through three weeks, he leads the NFL in rushing with 311 yards on 71 carries. He's a big back who grinds out yardage and gets stronger as the game goes on. Although he has former Bear Anthony Thomas playing behind him, look for McGahee to again be near 25 carries as the Bills attempt to keep the Vikings defense on the field with long drives that feature the run. The Bills have run more times than they have thrown, which is why so many of their games have been low scoring. If they can stuff McGahee on first-down carries and force the Bills into bad down-and-distance situations, the Vikings defense could be in place to make the big plays that turn tight games around.
The Bills, like the Vikings, have employed several multi-receiver sets, which Vikings fans remember all too well from their last meeting – a 45-39 overtime loss at the Metrodome. The big target is Lee Evans, but through three games he has been limited to just 12 catches for 151 yards – well off the pair of 100-yard games and four touchdowns he scored in the final month of the 2006 season. Veteran Peerless Price, after flaming out in Atlanta and Dallas, looks more comfortable in a supporting role. Josh Reed, now in his fifth season, sees the field a lot, but he's being pushed by second-year man Roscoe Parrish, who had a big week in the Bills' game last Sunday vs. the Jets. All of these players can get behind a defense, but until Evans steps up, there isn't a player among them that terrifies a defensive coordinator. Tight end Robert Royal has just three catches in three games, so there likely won't be any added attention paid to him.
Last year, the Bills offensive line was brutal and they have shown some improvement this year, but not enough to keep the skeptics from waiting for the other shoe to drop. Left tackle Mike Gandy has struggled against bull rushers and will give up sacks. At the guards, Tutan Reyes is a converted right guard playing left guard by force and right guard Chris Villarrial is steady, but in his 11th year is showing the signs of age. Former Viking Melvin Fowler starts at center and, one of the reasons he wasn't re-signed by the Vikings is that he gets smothered in run blocking assignments. At the right tackle, Jason Peters is a converted tight end still learning the nuances of the tackle position. There is vulnerability up and down this offensive line and depth is razor thin, which could be a huge advantage for the Vikings.
The key for the Vikings will be to sustain long drives and that will entail winning the battle in the trenches, where the Bills have some skilled players. On the defensive front, the Bills have a strong pass rusher in Aaron Shobel, who had 12 sacks last year, but is currently third on the line behind Ryan Denney and Chris Kelsay, who have three sacks each. In the middle, Larry Triplett and Tim Anderson man the tackle spots. Triplett is an undersized DT that came over as a free agent from the Colts and has good explosion, while Anderson is likely keeping the spot warm until rookie John McCargo is ready for full-time duty. The strength of the line is on the outside, so look for the Vikings to try establish a between-the-tackles rushing game.
Perhaps the biggest question heading into this game is the health of linebacker Takeo Spikes. An expensive free agent signing in 2005, Spikes played in just three games and has yet to play this season. He's listed as questionable with a hamstring injury, but is a true impact player when healthy, so he could be the key to success for the Bills defense Sunday. If he can't go, he'll be replaced by fourth-year man Mario Haggan, who will flank leading tackler London Fletcher and Angelo Crowell in the starting lineup. While undersized, Fletcher is a tackling machine who never gives up on a play. Crowell, who filled in for Spikes last year, has earned his starting nod and has ability in both run and pass coverage.
In the secondary, Nate Clements was so important to the team they slapped the franchise tag on him. He has excellent speed and cover skills and can be put on a team's top receiver the entire game. On the other side, some think Terrence McGee is even better. He didn't get beat nearly as often as Clements last year and has premium speed. At the safeties, the Bills let Lawyer Milloy leave via free agency and replaced him with rookies Donte Whitner and Ko Simpson. Whitner was a surprise to some with the eighth pick of the draft, but hits like a linebacker and can knock teeth loss. Simpson, a fourth-rounder who many thought would go on the second round, has size and hitting ability and coming from a successful program like USC brings a winning attitude with him.
The Bills are a team that invested heavily in defense in the draft – their first five picks were on that side of the ball – and believe they have enough impact players on offense to make a push for a 9-7 record. The Vikings could go a long way to crushing that dream, but, for many observers, the Vikes may be fortunate to be catching Buffalo early. Later in the season, it could be a different story with a team showing a lot of improvement.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
BRAD JOHNSON VS. DONTE WHITNER AND KO SIMPSON – It is rare when a rookie safety becomes an immediate starter in the NFL. It's almost unheard of for a team to start two rookies at safety, but that is the situation the Buffalo Bills find themselves in and something that makes Brad Johnson's eyes widen during film study as he knows what we all know – that this is the Matchup to Watch Sunday.
Between the two of them, Whitner and Simpson are a combined 44 years old – only six more years than Johnson has been around. Between them, they have played six professional games – 127 less than Johnson. In his 133 games, Johnson has learned almost all of the tricks quarterbacks need to perfect, among them using play-action and misdirection to get safeties out of position and set up one-on-one matchups. Johnson is a master of this, even with veteran safeties. Much less a pair of safeties who are still wet behind the ears to the NFL game.
A year ago, the Bills had a wealth of experience at the position with veterans Lawyer Milloy and Troy Vincent. It had been hoped that they would be around for another year to groom the youngsters, but salary issues and age concerns came into play and both the youngsters are learning on the job.
While the Bills are strong at the corner positions, having young safeties who are prone to making mistakes is a luxury most defenses can't afford to risk. The Bills don't have a choice. Both are aggressive and like to make the big hit. One mistake and it can mean a 60-yard touchdown over the middle of the field.
While the Vikings haven't tried to exploit the deep middle of the field much this season, expect that to change Sunday. There could even be a flea-flicker in the game plan for Sunday, in order to bring the safeties up and beat them deep over the top. In a game that from outside appearances has the makings of another low-scoring game, one or two mistakes in the secondary could mean the difference between a tight game and a 14-point deficit the young Bills offense will overcome. The Bills have struggled against the pass thus far this year and, while Johnson hasn't posted great numbers yet, that could all change Sunday – making this the Matchup to Watch.
Preview: Bills Have Weaknesses to Exploit
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