Here are my five takes on Sunday’s season-opener between the Buffalo Bills and Indianapolis Colts at Ralph Wilson Stadium:
1. Tyrod Taylor does his best work throwing rather than running. He won the hearts of Bills fans with the exceptional speed and dynamic athleticism he displayed during the preseason. Ever since Doug Flutie, the Buffalo faithful has had a thing for undersized quarterbacks that make big plays because of how well they can move. However, despite Taylor’s virtually non-existent NFL body of work from four seasons of backing up Joe Flacco in Baltimore, the Colts will be sufficiently prepared to handle his mobility. They do an excellent job of containment with ends Kendall Langford and Trent Cole. They’ll make it extremely difficult for Taylor to get outside when scrambling or on designed run plays, so he must be effective throwing from the pocket. The Colts’ frequent use of safety Dwight Lowery in deep-middle coverage will make it tempting for Taylor to air it out, but videotape study has shown him that Lowery covers considerable ground in a hurry so Taylor needs to attack vacancies underneath coverage.
2. Generate maximum pressure with minimum pass rush. The Bills will blitz; that’s what Rex Ryan teams do. But they must be particularly smart about it against Andrew Luck, who in only three NFL seasons has become a master at devouring blitzes. Luck has an incredible knack for finding the vulnerabilities that sending extra pass-rushers his way creates and exploiting them to the hilt – or the Hilton, as in T.Y., his favorite receiver. For the most part, the Bills need their defensive line to produce the greatest amount of heat by itself and keep as many defenders as they can available for pass coverage because Hilton and Andre Johnson are more than capable of game-breaking catches early and often. A crowded secondary tends to lead to Luck getting himself in trouble because he trusts his exceptionally strong and accurate arm so much, he will often try to force throws into tight windows.
3. Richie Incognito, Eric Wood, and John Miller dominate inside. We should get our first true indication in this game if the Bills’ additions of Incognito via free agency and Miller via a third-round draft pick will pay off. The Colts’ defensive line basically has a couple of very ordinary players in the middle in nose tackle David Parry and defensive tackle Henry Anderson. Middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson is good, but he can’t carry the Colts’ run defense by himself. Incognito, Wood, and Miller should be able to consistently get a strong push on running plays. Put it this way: If they don’t, there won’t be too many other opponents that afford them a similar opportunity. Expect LeSean McCoy to find the bulk of his running room in the holes between guard and center. And there should be plenty of them, given how impressive Incognito and Miller have looked through most of training camp and the preseason.
4. Protect Ronald Darby, but don’t be afraid to pull the plug on him. The Bills will do what they can to keep the rookie cornerback out of trouble by giving him help from safeties Aaron Williams and Corey Graham. But they can’t go overboard. Putting an extra defender around him too often is obviously going to leave them exposed in other places that Luck will find in a heartbeat. And this presumes that Stephon Gilmore holds his own in single coverage, because that’s what he is likely to play for most, if not all, of the game. If things start bottoming out with Darby, the Bills can’t hesitate to yank him from the game and move Graham to cornerback while putting Duke Williams at safety. Williams did an excellent job against one of the best quarterbacks in the game, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, last season.
5. No Dan Carpenter meltdown. Ryan has played his head game with the Bills’ kicker. He publicly called him out for missing three of six field-goal attempts and an extra-point try in the preseason, saying he was going to be looking at every available potential replacement. Now, Ryan’s expecting results. And he should get them. Carpenter is an outstanding kicker. He does not lack self-confidence. He took Ryan’s comments to the media in stride, and has kicked well in practice. The fastest way to put to rest any doubts that he should keep his job is to not only hit all of his kicks Sunday, but especially the important ones – which has been his signature. Ryan wants Carpenter to “stick it to him” by performing well. It should be a shock if the coach’s psychological ploy backfires.