The 2017 Buffalo Bills season finds itself at a crossroads.
Sitting at 5-5 and seventh in the AFC, they’re firmly in the playoff hunt. Consequently, they’re also sporting a three-game losing streak in which they’ve looked completely uncompetitive each game. The most recent example came on the West Coast in a comprehensive 54-24 defeat at the hands of the Los Angeles Chargers.
Things aren’t going to get any easier in Week 12 with the Bills on the road for the second straight week. They face a Kansas City Chiefs team whose season trajectory is, in many ways, similar to that of their opponent this coming Sunday. KC raced out of the gates to a 5-0 start that included a nationally televised blowout of the New England Patriots in the season opener. Since then, they’ve dropped four of five including an ugly 12-9 overtime loss to the New York Giants in Week 11.
Both teams are certainly looking to right the ship on Sunday. But with the game at an always raucous Arrowhead Stadium, Buffalo will be hard-pressed to come out on top. In the 48th meeting between two charter members of the old AFL, what must come to pass in order for the Bills to pull off the upset?
Give Alex Smith Another Rough Day at the Office
A few key components highlighted the Chiefs’ blazing hot start to the regular season. Among them was the exceptional play they were getting from quarterback Alex Smith. The 33-year-old veteran has consistently dealt with the “game manager” label throughout his career. But through those first five games, he looked the part of an early season MVP candidate. Smith threw for over 250 yards in four of them, added 11 touchdowns compared to no interceptions, and finished with a passer rating above 100 in all five.
Since then, inconsistency has defined Smith’s play. Though he went toe to toe with Derek Carr in what turned out to be a narrow loss to the Oakland Raiders in week seven, he’s also turned in a few poor performances. The biggest example came last week against the then 1-8 New York Giants. Smith didn’t manage a single touchdown and threw two costly interceptions in the fourth quarter. With the Los Angeles Chargers surging, suddenly the Chiefs don’t look like a surefire division winner out of the AFC West.
The Bills certainly have the personnel in the secondary to contain Smith and the Chiefs’ pass game. Strong safety Micah Hyde is second in the NFL with five interceptions, trailing only Tennessee’s Kevin Byard. Only four players in the league have more pass breakups than rookie Tre’Davious White‘s 13. But that prowess at disrupting the opponent’s passing rhythm has been nonexistent during this three-game skid. The most glaring statistic reinforcing that notion: they didn’t register a single pick in that span.
That has to change if the Bills want to escape Arrowhead with a surprise victory. But it’s not the only component of the defense that needs to improve. Key number two might carry with it even more importance.
Keep Kareem Hunt in the Mid-Season Doldrums
Early on in the season, no other player made a more convincing case for rookie of the year than Kareem Hunt. The third round draft pick out of Toledo exploded onto the scene in accounting for 246 total yards against the Patriots, the highest mark for a rookie since the merger. His versatility as a pass-catching back figured prominently into KC’s surprise win, as two of his three touchdowns came through the air. And though he remains the league’s second leading rusher, he’s experienced a bit of a pullback in recent weeks.
Call it hitting the rookie wall or attribute it to teams able to scheme for him now that they have adequate game film, the fact remains that Hunt’s mired in a slump. His last touchdown of any kind came in week three. And after totaling 609 rushing yards during the Chiefs’ 5-0 start, he’s managed a mere 264 since. Part of it has to do with a banged up offensive line that’s hindering his ability to generate consistent yards before contact. The easier it is for the front seven to shed blocks, the harder it will be for a runner to penetrate past the second level of the defense.
But given that the Bills’ run defense has been so atrocious recently, skepticism abounds as to their ability to exploit this on Sunday. The numbers are telling. After conceding an average of 80.14 rushing yards per game through their first seven, they’re giving up a whopping 212.67 per game over the course of this current skid. Losing Marcell Dareus‘ presence as a run-stuffer who draws double teams and enables linebackers to shoot the gaps certainly hurts. But at some point, players such as Deandre Coleman and Adolphus Washington need to step up.
If not, the Bills are in store for a long day with Hunt rekindling his early season form.
Exploit Chiefs Weaknesses Defending the Run
Obviously the biggest story on offense from last week’s debacle was the epically bad debut of quarterback Nathan Peterman. The rookie fifth round pick became the 12th person in NFL history to throw five interceptions while totaling under 100 yards passing and not registering a single touchdown pass. The last player to do so was Kim McQuilken of the Atlanta Falcons in a 38-0 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on November 9, 1975. Good thing he lasted just a half before getting pulled for Tyrod Taylor.
But despite Peterman’s struggles and as asinine as the decision to start him was in the first place, the Bills’ game plan last Sunday set them up to fail. The Chargers came into the game with the NFL’s second worst run defense. And yet LeSean McCoy saw an unacceptably paltry 13 carries. Instead of running the ball down the Chargers’ throat, offensive coordinator Rick Dennison forced an inexperienced Peterman to sling the ball against an exceptional secondary and a dominant pass rush. The results speak for themselves.
Once again, Buffalo is facing a defense that’s extremely susceptible against the run. Through ten games, the Chiefs are giving up an average of 129.2 rushing yards per game, the fourth worst mark in the NFL. This necessitates the Bills returning to their roots so to speak and gashing teams on the ground. After all, in McCoy’s previous two seasons in Buffalo, they’ve led the league in rushing. Yet they’re 11th in 2017. Having the five-time Pro Bowler gash KC on the ground while enabling Taylor incorporate his dual-threat capabilities is crucial to the Bills’ chances of exiting this current malaise against all odds in week 12.
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