The 2017 NFL regular season isn’t even a quarter of the way old. So overall records at this point need to be taken with a grain of salt. But as of right now, the Buffalo Bills stand at 2-1 and find themselves atop the AFC East. Taking into account tiebreakers, they’re second in the conference behind the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs.
Having said all that, the reality is this. Both of the Bills’ two wins thus far came at home, one to the hapless New York Jets and the other to a Denver Broncos team who still have questions as to whether Trevor Siemian is franchise quarterback material. Their lone blemish elicited questions about Buffalo’s entire offense altogether considering they held the Carolina Panthers to nine points and still lost.
But there’s a noticeable sense of early season optimism among Bills fans. Head coach Sean McDermott has the defense playing disciplined, hard-nosed football. Tyrod Taylor isn’t lighting the world on fire but he’s keeping it simple and has been efficient in Buffalo’s two victories. If that can continue, there may yet be playoff contention in this team’s future.
But Bills fans have been down this road before. During the current playoff drought, Buffalo has had a winning record through three games in seven of 17 seasons. Only two resulted in an above .500 record at season’s end and obviously neither resulted in postseason football. With the Bills on the road against the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons in week four, things could head south in a hurry (no pun intended).
Help Facilitate LeSean McCoy’s First Breakout Performance of the Season
Three games into this year’s regular season and one of the bigger concerns for the Bills is the less than impressive numbers on offense. Buffalo currently ranks 25th or worse in points per game, pass yards and total offense. Though the run game is expectedly putting up bigger numbers with a player of LeSean McCoy‘s caliber in the backfield, there’s room for improvement there as well.
This is particularly the case with respect to actually punching the ball into the end zone via the rushing attack. The Bills are one of 12 teams in the NFL to have no more one rushing touchdown on the young season. It came in the season opener against the New York Jets as fullback Mike Tolbert ran it in from a yard to give Buffalo a decisive two-possession lead in the fourth quarter.
That means the Bills are still waiting for their bell cow back in McCoy to find the end zone. It’s a stark contrast to 2016 when he had three touchdown scampers through three games. Though he faces a Falcons team that ranks eighth against the run coming into week four, they seem susceptible to giving up the big play. Atlanta is fourth worst among NFL teams in opponent yards per carry.
Throughout his career, McCoy has proven capable of getting into the second and third levels of the defense with regularity. Among active running backs, he currently ranks third in yards per rushing attempt, trailing only Jamaal Charles and Adrian Peterson. That skill set may come in handy against the Falcons, who gave up 13.2 yards per carry to Chicago Bears rookie Tarik Cohen in Week One.
Winning the battle at the line of scrimmage will be key. If the offensive line can open up holes between the tackles, while enabling McCoy to use his elite perimeter speed outside of them, he may finally be able to find pay dirt in 2017.
Try to Prevent Julio Jones’ First Breakout Performance of the Season
The Bills secondary is part and parcel of a defense that’s asserted itself as one of the NFL’s best early in the 2017 season. But that doesn’t mean much this week against the Falcons who possess perhaps the NFL’s most dynamic pass catcher in Julio Jones. The seventh-year man out of Alabama epitomizes the term elite wide receiver. Over the last three seasons, he’s averaged over 1,600 receiving yards while catching 20 touchdown passes.
Few receivers in the league boast a total package skill set to match what Jones brings to the table. He’s an athletic freak. He runs routes with surgical precision. His catch radius is ridiculous. That in turn makes him a nightmare for opposing corners in contested catch situations. Comparing him to some of the NFL’s greats, he almost a hybrid of players such as Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson, Terrell Owens and Sterling Sharpe.
But similar to McCoy above, Jones has yet to register a touchdown of any kind in 2017. Something has to give on Sunday against Buffalo, the only remaining team in the NFL who hasn’t conceded a passing touchdown. Expect Jones to draw plenty of double teams over the course of the game. And though Tre’Davious White won defensive rookie of the month for September, he’s in for his biggest challenge to date against Jones.
One of the keys to success in the NFL is setting up the offense in a way that leverages the strengths of your quarterback. For the Bills, this involves utilizing Taylor’s athleticism and managing his perceived deficiencies as a pocket passer. Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison did a commendable job in this regard against his former team in week three. In particular, it entailed the incorporation of play action in pass situations.
What this does is that it keeps opposing defenses honest. This is especially important against a team with a dominant rushing attack like the Bills. The situation is even more pronounced when Taylor goes under center. If second level defenders need to worry about a potential run play, it usually puts them an extra step towards the line of scrimmage. On second and medium or third and short, this can make play action extremely lethal.
Against the Broncos, two plays stand out. The first came early in the second quarter with the Bills facing a second and eight from Denver’s 40. A clear tweener down with McCoy always a threat to break a big run play, Taylor found Kaelin Clay on a 28-yard pass after play action created enough of a seam for him to get open. Later on in the third, play action on first and goal not only caused the linebackers to bite. It also created enough confusion in the secondary to give Charles Clay acres of space across the middle. The resulting touchdown toss from Taylor ended up being the game-winning score.
Both Taylor and Matt Ryan come into Sunday’s game with identical 99.2 passer ratings. That’s pretty impressive on Taylor’s part considering who won the NFL MVP award last year. Though it’s partly due to Ryan enduring a sluggish start to the year (he’s already thrown three interceptions), it’s also testament to the Bills coaching staff putting Taylor in a position to succeed. They must continue to do so on Sunday with the Bills facing their toughest test of 2017.
View the original article on Last Word On Pro Football: Week Four Buffalo Bills Keys to Victory