Sunday, September 25, 2011

A win like this embiggens even the Flutie-sized among us.

In case you weren't reminded often enough, it had been 2,940 days since the Bills last beat the New England Patriots.

The imagery from that opening-day victory in 2003 remains vivid: Waves of pressure on Tom Brady. Sam Adams rumbling, bumbling, stumbling into the end zone with a pick-six. Total domination. It seemed like the Bills knew exactly what the champion Pats would do, and maybe they did, by virtue of the late acquisition of Lawyer Milloy to bolster the defense and cram for the proverbial exam. Then, all of that would prove pretty meaningless, as the Bills couldn't sustain that effort in a 6-10 season.

Today's win? It feels different. As in 2003, it feels really, really good, too -- but better. The Bills are just under a fifth of the way through this campaign, and they now have three wins. That's one fewer than in all of the trying 2010 season. Let's make this clear, though: three wins doesn't buy you much. A divisional win buys you a little more. Winning at home when you need to, when your fanbase so desperately desires it, against the juggernaut Patriots, goes a little further. None of that, though, can really express why the Week 3 win over the Pats feels irrationally good, though. Let’s dive a little deeper.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Three Quick Keys to Beating the Patriots

1. Pressure up the middle

Tom Brady is a handsome, rich impregnator of supermodels, and as such, kind of a hard guy to like for most ordinary mortals. That said, even the most virulently anti-Brady fan has to admit that no quarterback in football has better pocket awareness than Brady. He won't threaten you as a runner like Mike Vick, or shrug off hits like Ben Roethlisberger, but Brady is a master of making those subtle movements to keep his feet clean and allow him to step into his throws.

The trick with Brady (as it admittedly is with most pocket QBs) is attack the A gap. Brady is much less effective moving and resetting either to his right or (especially) to his left. The Bills are going to need to crowd those A gaps with rushers and cause some confusion for backup center Dan Connolly. Whether or not the rush is coming, a split second of hesitation from Connolly is all Kyle Williams will need.

2. Do the small things. 

In each of the Patriots' games this year, there have been two primary storylines:

1. The Patriots amazing up tempo passing game and,

2. The Patriots capitalizing on the mistakes of their opponents.

The latter was especially true in the San Diego game, where the Chargers turned the ball over four times in a 35-21 loss. Fortunately, these little plays are exactly the type of things that the Bills have been doing throughout this season. Here's a couple of stats for you:

Penalties- 8 (3rd)
First downs- 28.5 (2nd)
TOP- 33:54 (5th)
TO Diff- +3 (8th)
3rd down- 44% (9th)

Yep, the Buffalo Bills have, in a weird way, become the New England Patriots. They're controlling the ball, not taking bad penalties or making crucial mistakes. If you don't believe, let's look at those same stats from a year ago.

Penalties- 82 (6th)
First downs- 16.4 (26th)
TOP- 28:36 (26th)
TO Diff- -17 (32nd)
3rd down- 38% (18th)

Although I have to admit I was surprised how few penalties we took last year, the point still holds- the Bills have been a much more efficient club this year.  If you're going to have a chance against the New England Patriots, you are going to need to minimize your mistakes and capitalize off of theirs.

3. Put the ball in the end zone.

Probably the single most important key. The Patriots are going to score their points, there really doesn't seem to be any way around that. The Chargers scored on only two of four attempts in the red zone. The Dolphins were goal to go five times and ended up with only three touchdowns. Last week we saw the Bills generate five touchdowns on five second half drives. While its probably too much to ask that they continue to be that automatic, they need to be aggressive in terms of 4th down and red zone opportunities. Kicking a 25 yard field goal instead of going for it on fourth and nothing cannot happen this game. If the Patriots end up stuffing us and going 93 yards the other way, so be it. We've got the best running game in the NFL, a huge offensive line and a couple of players designed by nature to generate first downs (I'm looking at you Brad Smith and David Nelson).

Let's play this game to win.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Bills fan's Excitement-Skepticism Complex: Episode I

It's fair to say that after Week 2's epic 38-35 comeback against the Raiders in the home opener, the Bills have generated more excitement than we thought possible just a few weeks ago.  This is all the more enjoyable following a preseason marred by tinkering with the offensive line, the loss of the team's de facto #1 receiver and offensive elder-statesman, and a lockout that should have made the learning curve steeper for a young and developing team.

Healthy skepticism seems to be part of the membership application process for a Bills fan.  For every golden moment on the horizon, there is usually a Lucy in waiting, ready to pull the ball away and laugh at our Charlie Brown-ish pursuits.

Yet, this looks and feels real.  Two legitimate victories against last year's #1 and #2 rushing teams.  Fresh off a great win against a tough opponent.  7 TDs for Fitzy in two games.  If you don't recall such excitement, it's because your memory of Jim Kelly has been dimmed by the long, feckless search for his successor.  So, we've got the best start by a Bills QB since the Kelly era on our hands.  The media who hate us, except for when they love us, love us right now, bringing Stevie Johnson and even Kirk Morrison into the studio to get the story of this unlikely turnaround.  Our guys are jumping into the stands, for crying out loud.

Mid-high-five, though, look the hell out for a leg sweep from the other boys in white, blue and red, with Sensei Belicheck and his cackling pupils looking once again to put us in a bodybag.  Pundits and fans alike will forecast a classic "back-to-earth" game, with Tom Brady and co. proving that once again, they have the Bills' number.  (Early lines give 8.5 points to the Bills, making them a big underdog at home).  For good measure, Brady has assembled almost a third of a Pro Bowl season in two games.

With this in mind, we're highlighting a few reasons to remain excited for the Bills in the face of their biggest challenge yet this season, as well as some cause to temper our expectations despite these two big - and drastically different - wins.  We'll continue this as a series throughout the season, and thus we present Episode I of The Bills fan's Excitement-Skepticism Complex.

1. Two big wins! Woo hoo!
Perhaps you were watching at home.  Maybe you were listening to 97 Rock while doing something productive, so as not to rue time spent taking in a loss passively on the couch/barstool.  You could have even been trying to discern the action in a crowded bar from a pixellated DirecTV feed that resembled a cubist masterpiece.  No matter how you took this one in, you just knew the Bills were going to come up short, like they always do.

Except this time, they didn't.

Every post-game interview with every Buffalo player has cited something "different" about this Bills locker room.  They believe that when this team is down, it's not out.  Against the Raiders, it was a relentless, punch-for-punch comeback effort from the Buffalo offense, highlighted by critical and thrilling fourth-down conversions.  Whenever this team does return to meaningful January football, this game will be one that a young team can call upon for inspiration, a sign of their ability to get it done in the clutch.  Going into Week 3 with half of 2010's win total in their pockets has to feel good.  Says the cliche, winning breeds confidence, and I believe for the first time in years that this team thinks it can beat the Pats.  They may be crazy, but let's let them enjoy the ride, and with nothing to lose, there'll be no harm in going on that ride with them.

2. The last traces of Levy/Jauron's fingerprints are gradually fading
God bless him, and thank him for his many accomplishments in Buffalo, but Marv Levy was not a good football GM.  Russ Brandon was no better.  And when Dick Jauron had his way?  Yuck.  If there was a philosophy, it was somewhere between "you can never have too many DBs," and "let's find linebackers built like kickers."  But the days of the small, speedy, smurfy Bills that they assembled are numbered, and this is a good thing.

The team has shifted toward road-graders and big, strong men at most positions, with a few gadgets here and there.  The offensive line is slightly bigger and stouter, and they are holding up well at the point of attack.  So far, they lead the league in rushing (though in no small part to the shiftiness of Fred Jackson, who looks better than ever at age 30).  This looks like a team that can play football.  Sure, there are a few exceptions.  Roscoe Parrish, who has actually survived 3-4 front offices depending on your count, is a nice toy that breaks down too easily.  (Note: as we published this, word came that Parrish was placed on injured reserve, which might spell the end for him in Buffalo.)  CJ Spiller is not large, but he starting to turn the corner in the role of Chan Gailey's "waterbug" running back.

But Donte Whitner: gone (how's that workin' out for you, San Fran?).  Aaron Maybin?  The CFL is calling.  Guys who play smaller than their bodies, like John McCargo?  We hardly remember ye.  The revamped front-seven and some underrated pickups are working wonders, despite the defensive foibles in the Raiders game.  The WRs not named Roscoe are bigger targets that Ryan Fitzpatrick can loft it to - and they get tough yards over the middle.  Speaking of Fitzpatrick, who among us does not believe in this guy anymore?  And how much better off are we with #14 instead of #5 taking the snaps?  Answer: a whole lot.  (Come on! You knew this!)

We could write a whole post about unsung hero Erik Pears, who, along with much-maligned left tackle Demetrius Bell, is putting together a solid season thus far.  Pears also is a redemption signing for GM Buddy Nix, who signed the ghastly Cornell Green to man right tackle last year. Gailey and Nix have sifted through the Levy/Jauron era and refashioned a team of nobodies who refuse to accept their destiny, rather than a team that plays like a bunch of nobodies.  That's easy to love, and it's easy to get excited about with these kinds of results.

1. Tom Brady will eat this secondary alive
Not literally, of course, because no one is suggesting that Tom Brady is a cannibal.*  But if Brady isn't looking at the Raiders game film and seeing exploitable defensive back play for miles, it's probably because he has stepped away from his 70" TV to use the john, and hasn't turned the on the 70" TV in the john.

If these guys hailed from Quebec, we'd call them the French Toast secondary.  They were horrendous in the home opener - George Wilson and Leodis McKelvin in particular.  Bills DBs HAVE to look back at Brady and contest balls in Week 3.  If they don't, they will continue to draw up a blueprint for opposing QBs for the rest of the season.  Where will relief come from?  Rookie Aaron Williams is being thrown into the fire a bit with Terrence McGee gone, and Drayton Florence and Jairus Byrd are playing admirably.  Wilson is a vocal leader and good guy who may need to take a backseat to Bryan Scott in some situations to limit liabilities.

Of all the DBs, McKelvin should seriously be on the hot seat.  He shows flashes, and then he has games like this one where he makes for easy target practice.  Ever the Jauron product in times of failure, McKelvin actually seems to think he played pretty well, while making a 5th string WR look like Jerry Rice's bionic son from the future.   It is not simply about showing the talent that made him a #1 pick, though he most certainly possesses the speed and athleticism necessary for a #1 corner.  The greater concern is that at a time when the game starts to slow down for most veterans, McKelvin looks perplexed about what's going on out on the field.  He has three INTs in 3+ seasons, and not for lack of opportunities.  He is putting himself in bad position regularly, and he does not seem to see the play developing until it's too late.  Unless he begins a substantial turnaround, he could be yet another high Levy/Jauron pick sent packing next year.

2. They are the Buffalo Bills
..and this will remain the root of all skepticism, until the happy day that the Bills hoist the Lombardi Trophy in something other than our dreams.  A better move on the ball by Scott Chandler's man Tyvon Branch, and we're talking about the same old Bills, finding a way to blow it.  A blocked field goal was a bad sign, even if Chan's call to kick one from fourth-and-pinkies proved the difference.  To wit, this kind of excitement doesn't always produce a victory, as we well know. "Last team with the ball wins" is a dangerous game for this team to play, with many opponents equal to or better than the Raiders remaining on the schedule.  We can't expect good hands, busted coverage, (un)timely penalties, and for even more to go the Bills' way.

That, my friends, is why this is bound to end badly.  For there are unlucky teams, and then there are the Buffalo Bills.  It's hard to care about football in quite the same way after Wide Right, Home Run Throwback, Just Give it To 'Em, and losing in the big game to jerks like Deion Sanders, Jimmy Johnson, Bill Belicheck and Bill Parcells.  Perhaps it's better not to let ourselves get hurt again, despite the temptation to give in.  This cast of lovable underdogs makes the test harder, but it's also a good reason to keep a level head.  Keep expectations low.  Under-promise, over-deliver.  Ask for nothing and be rewarded -- and surprised -- with more.  There is strength in remaining underrated, and this way, no one gets hurt.

Will our skepticism and excitement be rewarded as the Bills seek to beat the Pats for the first time in 16 games before a once-again-raucous crowd at The Ralph?  We're not holding our breath, but oh, are we ready to cheer like madmen if they can pull it off.

*Also, we are not not saying Tom Brady is a cannibal.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Bills-Raiders Recap

As the kids would say: OMG. After an abysmal first half, the Bills collected themselves and managed to pull out an exciting 38-35 win against the visiting Oakland Raiders. It was in no way a pretty victory. The pass defense in particular acquitted itself poorly, giving up 323 yards to a very average Jason Campbell. The Bills did however, take a helluva beating in the first half but scrapped back outscoring the Raiders 35-14 after halftime.

Freddie Jackson had another huge game with 117 yards and 2 TDs only 15 carries. Even better, the much maligned CJ Spiller ran for 63 yards on just four carries. That's 15 and change per folks. As a whole, the Bills averaged a whopping 8.7 (you read that correctly) yards per carry.

This week's re-cap may skimp a little on details, as your faithful narrator was stuck watching a Directv feed that, well, just wouldn't feed.


-Great second half adjustments on the offensive side of the ball. Partially it was just a matter of getting the ball into the offense's hands, but credit where credit is due. Gailey went to a quick passing game in the 2nd half and his quarterback responded with 162 yards and 3 TDs after halftime. Its been a while since the Bills had a coach that could make quality adjustments at halftime. Enjoy it folks.

-Kudos for the second straight week to our beleaguered offensive line. Oakland the second best in NFL in sacks last year, and they got nary a one against Buffalo. That makes one sack surrendered in two games for the Bills, against some very good pass rushing teams. It may not last, but for now, its pretty sweet.

-On the other side of the ledger, the Bills pass rush is a genuine concern. The Bills have a single sack in two games, that lone sack belonging to Spencer Johnson. For most of today's game Jason Campbell had enough time in the pocket to chainsaw an ice sculpture. Thus far the regular season version of Shawne Merriman has been less than impressive in the pass rush department (not mention some issues with setting the edge in the run game). If things keep on like this, might Coach Gailey think about moving Arthur Moats back to the outside?

-Speaking of poor pass defense, Leodis McKelvin had just an awful game. He was repeatedly beaten by Raiders 5th round rookie Denarius Moore (Moore ended the game with 5 catches for 146 yards and a TD). Both George Wilson and Drayton Florence were also inconsistent, if better than McKelvin. At this point, I'm only truly comfortable with Jairus Byrd, who had another solid, sure-tackling game.

-When's the last time you felt this good about a Bills Tight End? Not only did Chandler catch another touchdown pass, but he threw a couple of keys blocks to spring Freddie for big yardage. Chandler now has three TDs in two games, which ties him for second most TDs in a single season by a Bills TE during the decade (tied with Jay Riemersma and Robert Royal). The immortal Mark Campbell is currently in the lead after hauling in five touchdowns in 2004.

-In case you were wondering: Ryan Fitzpatrick has 7 TDs in two games.

Next week is the New England Patriots. Tom Brady has thrown for 940 yards in two games. We just gave up 323 to Jason Campbell. This could be painful to watch.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Three Quick Keys to Beating Oakland

1. *Sigh* Stop the run.

The hardest part about writing this whole "Three Keys" thing, is that this one is far and away the most important thing virtually every week. Its just so painfully, devastatingly obvious that every week the Bills will lose if they can't defend against the run. Last week it was the Chiefs, who were the best rushing football team in the known universe last year, and this week its the Oakland Raiders, who were the second best rushing football team in the mapped cosmos. I scrambled my brains every day after work this week for something other than "stop the run", and there just isn't anything as valid. I have to make it a key. I have to.

Stop the run defense. I don't want to spend anymore of my life talking about this.

2. Win the one-on-ones. 

Last year, the Raiders were quietly one of the best pass rushing teams in the league, registering 47 sacks (tied for 2nd in the NFL). The Raiders achieved that feat in impressive fashion, getting four or more sacks from seven different players. Frankly I don't expect us to win in the trenches offensively that often. I do however, expect us to win on the outside, and thats where things get interesting.

Last year, the Raiders were 21st in the league when it came to surrendering passing plays of 20 yards or more. Even more interestingly, they 28th in the league in giving up touchdown passes. They gave 29 TDs, and only picked off 12 passes. Remember, this is with Nnamdi Asmougha still holding down one corner. Last week against the Broncos, six different Broncos receivers had a reception of 15 yards or more. The Bills receiving corps is going to need to have similar success against Oakland's banged up secondary.

 3. Attack Jason Campbell's right arm

Before you say anything, I'm not advocating breaking anything. History has shown however, that Campbell has predilection for putting the ball on the ground. His fumble last week was his 43rd fumble in his last 58 starts. Twice he's fumbled 13 times in one season.

Obviously its easier said than done, and Campbell has managed to recover quite a few of his fumbles, but the opportunity is there. Hopefully Buffalo's defense will put in some extra strip drills this week to prepare.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Bills-Chiefs Recap

As usual, the Bills fought hard in a close game but were unable to...what's that, they won? Good God.

Yes, I've double checked and it turns out the Bills have defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 41-7 at Arrowhead Stadium. The Bills dominated in all three phases of the game against the defending AFC West champions, turning three Chiefs turnovers into 17 points. New starting tight end and resident yokel Scott Chandler caught two touchdown passes from Ryan Fitzpatrick, who threw four total on the day (the other two were to Stevie Johnson and Donald Jones).

The Bills much maligned defense (dare we say it) dominated the Chiefs offense, allowing only 227 total yards against a team that run for 274 yards against them last year. The Bills surrendered only one long touchdown drive, an 11-play, 81-yard drive at the end of the first half. Jamaal Charles, who last year torched the Bills for 238 total yards, managed just 65 yards (although he did score the Chiefs lone touchdown).


- Excellent use of waggles and rollouts by Bills offense. Using Fitzpatrick's mobility helped keep the Chiefs defense off balance, and more importantly, kept him off his back.

- Speaking of keeping Fitzpatrick off of his back, a hat tip is due to the Bills O-line. I'm sure most of us were expecting our line to be 1600 pounds of human misery against even an average pass rush, but they did very well, even if Tamba Hali did manage to rack up a sack.

- No one who watched the game could doubt that value of Fred Jackson to this offense, but I thought Spiller ran reasonably well during his few carries. I'm sure folks will have a problem with this stat line (5 carries, 16 yards, 1 TD), but I thought he was much more decisive than what I'd seen last year. He didn't get a lot of assistance from the line in his limited carries, but he made the most of them.

- The defense was much better at dealing with delays and draws. They did allow one big play to Dexter McCluster, but in general they were able to hold contain.

Next up for Buffalo are the Oakland Raiders, led by undead owner and GM Al Davis. It'll be another excellent test of our re-vamped run defense, and also a chance to use some of the value pack garlic the Bills picked up at Costco.

(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)


Fix up your wings.  Make sure you've got a case of something or other to deal with that thirst.  You'd better have plenty of napkins on hand -- for wing sauce.  Or tears.  Football season is upon us once again.  GO BILLS!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Three Quick Keys to Beating Kansas City

1. Play with discipline defensively.

I was going to headline this bit with something slightly more dramatic, like "Please stop the run. For the love of all that's holy, please stop the run". I would then curl up into a ball and ask for warm milk. I have my pride though.

No one was worse at stopping the run last season than the Bills, and no one was better at running the football than the Chiefs. A stout run defense hinges partially on the size/physicality of your defense (something the front office has concentrated on improving), but mostly on technique and discipline. Buffalo's defense will need to stack and shed well, and tackle better. A lot of responsibility will fall on the outside linebackers, who routinely failed to set the edge in 2010. Merriman and company will need to make sure that Jamaal Charles is funneled back to the strength of the defense. This defense is simply no longer built to deal with someone of Charles's speed and agility in the open field.

2. Hit Tamba Hali every play.

Last year, Hali had 1.5 sacks against an overmatched Bills line (well to be fair, just about everyone was overmatched against Hali- he was second in the league in sacks). If anything, the offensive line is less settled than it was last year, with both starting LT Demetrius Bell and starting LG Andy Levitre shuttled in and out of the lineup during the preseason. Neither Bell nor very tall journeyman RT Erik Pears is going to be up to the task of handling Hali on pass downs.

What the Bills do have going for them are three old fashioned blocking TEs in starter Scott Chandler (6'7" 263) and backups David Martin (6'4" 264) and Lee Smith (6'6" 269). They also have one of the NFL's best blocking running backs in Freddie Jackson. Expect to see a lot of chipping and double teams on Hali. Make him fight off consistent double teams, both in the pass game and the run game.

3. Forget about last year.

This seems an odd suggestion at first glance, I'm sure, but in many ways last season's game against Kansas City was the quintessential Bills game of 2010. They played extremely hard for nearly five full quarters and almost beat a playoff bound club. They failed to do so partly because of their terrible run defense, and partly because of self inflicted wounds. This game won't be about getting payback for last year's loss, this game will be about starting 1-0.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

2011 Buffalo Bills Season Preview- Two Unanswered Questions

Every NFL team goes into their offseason with a variety of questions that it needs to answer. This is especially true of 4-12 teams. We decided to preview the Bills' 2011 season by asking the two most important questions from the end of last year, and then trying to determine whether the Bills answered those questions.

1. Who Is The Guy?

For the last 15 years the Buffalo Bills have started every seizing asking the same question: Who is the starting Quarterback? Every year the answer also been depressingly the same: Not Jim Kelly.

At this point in 2010, the Bills had just wrapped up an epic exhausting three-way QB competition between Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brian Brohm. Edwards won, only to be waived by the team a few weeks later. He was replaced by Harvard alum and Oak Ridge Boy Ryan Fitzpatrick, who proceeded to stun mildly surprise Bills fans with arguably the best year by a Bills QB in the last decade. Fitzpatrick threw for 23 touchdowns in 13 games, the most since Drew Bledsoe threw 24 TDs in 2002 (16 games). He also played a fairly important part in the development of Buffalo's young receiving talent, including Donald Jones, David Nelson and especially Stevie Johnson.

As impressive as he looked at times, Fitzpatrick was also maddeningly inconsistent. He was often wildly inaccurate and made more than one extremely unfortunate decision. Fitzpatrick turned the ball over nearly as often as he got it into the end zone, surrendering 15 INTs and losing 5 fumbles. Bills fans were left to wonder if Fitzpatrick could be the long term answer.

So did Buffalo answer their question at QB? Yes (sort of)! Contrary to some thinking around the organization, the Bills did not draft a QB. They did bring in former Gailey protege Tyler Thigpen in order back Fitzpatrick up in a way which would provide absolutely no real competition at the position. So on the plus side Bills fans, you have an undisputed starter at QB for the first time in the last decade. On the downside, even "good Fitzy" is at best, a slightly above average QB. Here's hoping he can take the next step.

2. Is There Any Chance We Could Keep Our Opponents Under 150 Yards Rushing a Game?

If you were asking that question of the 2010 Buffalo Bills, the answer would be no. No we cannot. The Bills gave up on average 170 yards on the ground per game, surrendering a total of 2714 yards on the year. That's 4.8 yards per carry. I really can't state in strong enough terms how horrible that is. If only last year was an aberration. Since the beginning of Dick Jauron's tenure, the Bills have surrendered over 2000 yards on the ground three times. The two years they held opponents under that mark (2007 and 2008) they yielded a mere 1993 and 1946 yards on the ground respectively. I say again, horrible.

So did Buffalo answer this question? Of course we won't know the answer to any of these questions definitively until the year really gets started (sorry if I've led you on), but the current front office has given answering this question their best effort. Only three players from the Jauron era still remain in front seven on defense. One of them, Kyle Williams, is one of the best players in football at his position. The other two holdovers, Spencer Johnson and Chris Kelsay, are playing different positions than they were under Jauron. The rest of the front seven has been re-tooled with Nix/Gailey era imports. The Bills have swapped out an ailing Marcus Stroud for the 340-pound Marcell Dareus. In the last two years they've stockpiled proven 3-4 talent in the shape of Dwan Edwards, Shawne Merriman, Andra Davis and Nick Barnett. They've also added several intriguing younger players to the mix, players like Danny Batten, Torell Troup, Alex Carrington and Arthur Moats.

Early returns are cautiously optimistic. The Bils finished 29th against the run in the preseason, but the first team defense looked much improved. They showed very well against the Bears and Lions first team offenses, and was certainly respectable against the Jags (even if they were without Jones-Drew). We'll have a much better idea just how far along they are after this week's game against Kansas City,  2010's best rushing offense.