The 2017 NFL season is at the quarter pole, and there are a few surprise teams at the top of their respective divisions. One of them is the Buffalo Bills, currently first in the AFC East and riding high after shocking the Atlanta Falcons in week four. They face a second straight road trip this coming Sunday when they head to Paul Brown Stadium for a date with the Cincinnati Bengals.
These two teams met in week 11 last year, and a cursory perusal of the final scoreline provides an indication of how ugly the game was. They combined for 11 punts, three turnovers and just three trips to the red zone in the Bills 16-12 win. The irony of those point totals for both sides is that it now matches how many regular season wins they have against each other all-time.
With a win this weekend, the Bills can enter relatively rarefied territory with respect to the franchise’s recent history. Only twice since 2000 has the team entered Week Six with a 4-1 record. Given that they’re on a bye after Sunday’s game, the incentive should be there to put in a standout performance against a beatable Bengals team. The following keys are among the things that need to happen for that to become a reality.
Week Five Buffalo Bills Keys to Victory
Bring Out Bad Andy Dalton Early and Often
Over the first two weeks of the regular season, the Bengals exhibited offensive ineptitude of historic proportions. In losses to the Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans, they found themselves unable to muster a single touchdown. This despite both games occurring at home. In so doing, they became the first team since the 1939 Philadelphia Eagles to be held out of the end zone in their first two home games.
That spelled the end for offensive coordinator Ken Zampese, whom the team fired after their 0-2 start. His replacement, Bill Lazor, seemed to have a tall task reviving an offense with a bevy of talented players yet mired in a frustrating funk. Suffice it to say he’s done so in the first two games of his tenure. They took the Green Bay Packers to overtime in a losing effort and routed the Cleveland Browns a week later.
Among the more “night and day” revivals for Cincy on offense since Lazor took over is that of their veteran quarterback Andy Dalton. In his first two games, the seventh-year man out of TCU completed just 54.5 percent of his passes while throwing for 394 yards, no touchdowns and four interceptions with a passer rating of 52.4. In the next two: 80.7 percent completion rate, 498 yards passing, six touchdowns, no interceptions and a 135.1 passer rating.
But both those performances came against suspect secondaries. Buffalo’s quartet of starting defensive backs including Tre’Davious White, E.J. Gaines, Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer don’t appear to be in that category. The Bills as a whole have allowed just a single passing touchdown all year. Couple that with opposing quarterbacks garnering the second lowest passer rating in the league against Buffalo’s defense and it points towards a return to Earth for Dalton.
Expose the Bengals Offensive Line
NFL free agency can have a “one team’s loss is another team’s gain” feel to it at times. That certainly applies to two offensive linemen who are now playing for teams other than the Bengals. Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler‘s departures to the Rams and Browns respectively left significant questions about this unit’s ability to win the battle at the line of scrimmage. Through four games, the results haven’t been pretty.
Cincinnati’s offense ranks fifth worst in the NFL in both sacks allowed per game and yards per rushing attempt. It speaks to an offensive line that’s getting cut to pieces at the point of attack. That should be music to the ears for a Bills defensive front creating its fair share of havoc in the backfield. It’s especially true in passing situations, with only eight teams managing more than Buffalo’s 11 sacks thus far.
All of this necessitates that the Bills pass rush has a big game on Sunday. The perimeter pressure needs to be particularly vociferous with the Bengals two starting tackles, Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher, getting a composite grade of 39.4 from Pro Football Focus. This may be the game for a coming out party of sorts for one Eddie Yarbrough. The young edge rusher came into training camp as a virtual unknown but impressed during the preseason and already has a sack through four games.
Stay Healthy on Offense
Let’s face it. In a game as violent as football, injuries are an unfortunate inevitability that every team has to deal with. Yet they do have the potential to derail a promising season when they happen to key players. The Oakland Raiders are already dealing with this reality given Derek Carr‘s back injury suffered in last week’s loss to the Denver Broncos. And even the Bills will be without leading tackler Ramon Humber and wide receiver Jordan Matthews for the next month due to thumb surgery.
A quarter of the way through the season and things really feel different with this Bills team compared to previous years. The tanking narrative has quickly given way to legitimate discussion about the erasure of a frustratingly long playoff drought. The defense is playing at an elite level and Tyrod Taylor is exhibiting franchise quarterback qualities, particularly with respect to his newfound rapport with tight end Charles Clay.
But in order for the Bills to exorcise those playoff demons, they have to avoid falling victim to the injury bug. That fact carries with it enhanced significance against a Bengals team who has Vontaze Burfict, a player whose reputation for dirty play precedes him. In 2015, his ugly hit on Le’Veon Bell resulted in a season-ending torn MCL. And last week was his first game of the year after he served a three-game suspension for a cheap shot hit on Anthony Sherman of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Buffalo’s skill position players certainly have to be on the lookout. Losing Taylor, Clay or LeSean McCoy to a long-term injury would certainly put a damper on the Bills solid start to 2017. If the Bills can get to their bye in week six with a W in Cincy while remaining relatively injury-free, it will be a huge bonus in their quest for the postseason.
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